Of all the love stories in the world, this may be one of the most unlikely.
It began eight years ago, when social worker Karen Cooper met an African boy. It flowered as love triumphed over distance, poverty, unspeakable cruelty, superstition and disease.
"When I look back on my life, it had a purpose, but I didn't know what it was," said Cooper, as she spoon-fed her 10-year-old son late last month in their Woodbury home.
"That is, until I met Moses."
As she fed him his dinner, he interrupted. He pressed his cheek against her hand and kissed it.
He said a few slurred words that most people wouldn't understand. But Cooper did.
"I love you, Mommy," he said.
Of all the things Cooper has given Moses, perhaps the
She randomly picked a date - July 26, 2001 - because there is no record of when Moses was born.
He was believed to be about 2 years old when he was found in a public toilet in Kafanchan, Nigeria. Someone carried him to the nearby Motherless Babies Home.
It didn't take much effort. He was grotesquely small. There is no record of his weight, but when he turned 8, he weighed 27 pounds, the size of an average American 3-year-old.
The boy had cerebral palsy. He couldn't walk or even sit up in bed. He couldn't talk much, mainly one word: "Yes."
Villagers feared him. They said a curse was lurking in his crooked little body, or maybe he was possessed by demons. They called him a snake.
For years, the orphanage kept him in isolation, away from other children. His caretakers didn't like changing his diapers, so they withheld food. His arms and legs were deformed from years of near-starvation.
In 2004, Cooper was touring Nigeria as a social worker. When she visited the orphanage, she was told only one child was there but that he was dying and she wouldn't want to see him.
When Cooper insisted, a door was unlocked, and she entered a dark, dirty room. In a metal crib, she saw a bony tangle of a boy, sweating in the heat, stinking in his unchanged diapers.
"He smiled at me," recalled Cooper.
That night at dinner, she was too upset to eat. As a veteran social worker, she had seen thousands of African children. But she thought of Moses, and wept.
She returned to Woodbury. Cooper sent letters, diapers, food and toys, but discovered Moses wasn't getting them.
She traveled back to Nigeria, where she would proudly carry the boy through the streets as old women shrank away in revulsion.
In 2007, Cooper arranged to have the boy move in with Na'omi Musa, a married mother of five children who lived in the village. But Musa's husband died only a few months later, and Moses became a strain on the family.
Cooper arranged to have
HOPE FOR MOSES
When Moses was wheeled off the airplane, he rolled into a life of love, money and goodwill that he couldn't have imagined.
The life waiting for him was the creation of Cooper, who had worked feverishly for two years.
She realized that despite working as a social worker for Ramsey County and at a second, part-time job, the drive to adopt Moses could bankrupt her. So she founded a nonprofit organization, Hope for Moses, to raise money.
Donations of beds, blankets, toys and books came showering in. Dozens of people helped for free - lawyers, dentists, acupuncturists, website designers, musicians, restaurant owners, event coordinators.
Neighbors agreed to get Moses off to school in the morning and to shovel Cooper's driveway.
And when Moses arrived, "American Idol" star Paris Bennett performed at a party in his honor.
Cooper knew Moses' medical expenses would be staggering.
From the day he arrived, he would require various kinds of therapy three or four times a week - more than 400 sessions to date. That doesn't include daily hourlong therapy sessions in school.
And looming soon would be the biggest expenses of all - a series of surgeries for his ankles, legs and hips.
To pay for it all, Cooper arranged for donations from doctors and free sessions from therapists. The rest was covered by Moses' health insurance.
Late in February, Moses worked his way through four therapy sessions to improve his speech, strength and coordination.
The last of the day was at Shriners Hospitals for Children in Minneapolis. Cooper wheeled him into a bright room with pads on the floor and colored birds on the ceiling.
"How's pushing the wheelchair coming along?" asked therapist Sarah Kelly.
Moses was able to use his left hand to tug at the wheel. He inched forward, got stuck then inched forward again.
Cooper encouraged Moses to lift himself up a single stair-step.
At 57 pounds, he's still light enough for her to carry. But she is afraid that soon she won't be able to lift him.
Therapist Kelly put Moses on the stairs. She tried to get him to use his arms to push up a step. There were plenty of smiles but no lifting.
She tried to get him to push with his sickly legs. Still no luck.
Cooper knelt at the top, encouraging him. "If you had to get here, what would you do?" asked Cooper. "You can't get here by just smiling."
Kelly lifted him up a step, to give him the idea.
"Ta-da!" she said.
"Ta-da!" echoed Moses.
But just for an instant he stopped smiling. He was panting from the effort.
"Who's sweating more, you or me?" asked Kelly.
"You," said Moses.
She looked at Cooper. "He can't do this one," she sighed.
"That's reality," Cooper said.
THAT DAZZLING SMILE
The day after the therapy sessions, 9-year-old Jaden Quast pushed Moses around the gym at Oakdale Elementary School.
A line of five kids formed behind him, waiting for their turn, making a kind of parade as they circled the room.
"Moses is funny, cool and awesome," said Jaden, as he shooed away his competitors. "I help him get out of the wheelchair. I lift his legs."
Students and teachers love Moses. Everyone, including special-needs teacher Sara Brown, talked about his dazzling smile.
"I can be having the crappiest day," she said, "and I see him and it just doesn't matter."
As the children played, Cooper arrived. She showed a photo on her cellphone of the next project for the Hope for Moses Fund.
The boy's name is Joshua, she explained, a 5-year-old who lives in a Haitian orphanage and has seizures. "I hear he is getting a lot worse," Cooper said.
She said her success with Moses has taught her that love can work miracles. The group might bring the boy to America, if a family can be found to take care of him.
"Why should we just do Africa," Cooper asked, "if another child comes to us?"
Cooper drove Moses home and lugged him up a flight of stairs.
She sat him down to play a counting game - more therapy, she explained - involving putting toy hamburgers into the mouth of a plastic pig.
"One, two," said Moses, inserting the burgers. "Four ..."
"Three," said Cooper gently.
After dinner, he watched his favorite show, "American Idol."
Cooper wrote in the journal that she shares with Moses' fourth-grade teachers. They reported that Moses was making progress, learning his numbers through 20 and the alphabet through the letter "M."
"It's cuddle time," she said, pulling him up to her lap to watch TV. "I know, he's 10. But there wasn't a lot of cuddle time in Nigeria."
At bedtime, he said goodbye to the TV: "Good night, American Idol." Cooper hefted him into his bedroom and plopped him onto the bed.
The room - with a double bed, plush quilt, books and a big pile of toys - could not have been more different from the hellish place where Moses spent his early years.
Like frosting on the cake came a hug and kiss from the woman who had given so much to call herself his mother.
Moses, of course, smiled. "I love you, Mommy."
"I love you more!"
"No, I love you more!"
She tickled him. His smile brightened the whole room. The lights went out.
In the living room, Cooper talked about the next chapter in their love story.
In the fall of 2010, she had been feeling weak in one arm and one leg and went to the doctor. "Sometimes I felt like I had been hit by a truck," she said.
The diagnosis was a debilitating and incurable disease. Cooper asked that the disease not be named for this story.
She told Moses - delicately. "I said to him, 'Your body isn't working quite right and now my body isn't working quite right, and we will work through it together," Cooper said.
"I didn't get into the details." The key detail was that the illness may soon leave her too weak to care for him.
Which makes Moses' therapy that much more urgent.
But no matter what, she has no regrets.
"He keeps me active, strong and motivated," said Cooper. "Moses and I are going through this together. He keeps me alive."
She gazed at a photo of Moses.
"Just look," she said in the silent room. "Just look at that smile."
Bob Shaw can be reached at 651-228-5433. Follow him at twitter.com/BshawPP.
To contribute to the Hope for Moses Foundation, go to hopeformosesfund.org.