Every so often, if you’re lucky, you meet a person who puts life in perspective. Their resolve in the face of tragedy reminds you what you take for granted. Their poise amid struggle helps you appreciate the things that really matter. For me, that person was Grace Fisher, a young Santa Barbara woman I met on a cool January afternoon at her San Roque home.
At 17, Fisher was on her way to the prestigious Berklee School of Music when she was struck by a rare polio-like disease that paralyzed her from the neck down. Times were dark as Fisher’s very survival hung in the balance. When she was released from the hospital, hard questions and intense anxiety dominated her thoughts of the future. “I just felt like a floating head,” she said.
Five years later, Fisher, now 22 and enrolled at UCSB, is back to writing music. She’s aided by a computer program and a mouth stick she uses to play the piano one key at a time. One of her compositions, “The Waltz of the Waves,” was recently performed by the Santa Barbara Youth Symphony, and Justin Hurwitz, the Academy Award–winning composer of La La Land, is a fan. He compared Fisher’s work to Nino Rota’s score from The Godfather.
Fisher’s story is told in a stirring, hour-long documentary, Amazing Grace, directed by Lynn Montgomery that premieres this Thursday, January 16, at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Following the screening, the rest of Santa Barbara will get to meet Fisher during a question-and-answer session.
“Gracie wakes up every morning with a smile and goes to work,” explained Montgomery, a longtime family friend. “She has nothing but love and compassion to give. She’s an inspiration. Whatever your obstacle in life that’s keeping you from pursuing your dreams or connecting with other people, she’s an example of how you can get over that. How you can get over yourself.”
Modest and generous, Fisher credited her family, her faith, and the Santa Barbara community for seeing her through these last few years. “The film is called Amazing Grace, but it’s really them who put the ‘Amazing’ in the name,” she said. When contacted by the Make-A-Wish Foundation, instead of going on a trip or asking for something for herself, Fisher decided to create a foundation to help other disabled young people make music and art. “It’s just amazing,” said Montgomery. “What child in that situation has a big enough heart that they’re already thinking about, ‘How do I help other people?’ ”
As the snow-white family dog, Kodi, circled our feet, Fisher also thanked her mother, Debbie, for pushing her to live life again. “When I got home, it was easy to get into the habit of just sitting in bed and watching TV,” she said. “It was kind of all that I felt comfortable doing. But my mom told me, ‘You still have things to contribute. You still have stuff you can do.’ ”
Montgomery beamed at both of them. “It’s so beautiful to watch them interact with each other,” she said. “Gracie is still her complete own person making all of the choices in her life, and her mom — all of her family — supports that so wonderfully.”
Fisher’s days are still tough. “I get up at 7 a.m., and it usually takes me two hours to get up and in my chair and to class,” she said. “I don’t really have an ‘off’ day. I’m very routine-driven. I need that to be successful. By 8 p.m., I basically turn into a pumpkin and need to be in bed.” The upcoming screening will be a late night for her, she explained, but she’s determined, like everything else she does, to see it through.
“I just want to stay humble and grounded through whatever may come in the future, because everything is temporary,” Fisher said. “Even the good things are temporary. Every night, I thank God for what I have.”
4·1·1 | Amazing Grace premieres Thursday, January 16, 7 p.m. at the Lobero Theatre. See sbiff.org.