victory's tears

Calvin’s class goes swimming every Thursday at the college pool two blocks from our home. Last Thursday I walked there with Rudy the dog to watch Calvin frolic in the water a bit. Rudy waited for me outside, tied up to a post. The pool was empty, a sheet of aqua glass, but scores of onlookers, some half-naked participants, others t-shirt and flip-flop clad volunteers, lined its deck. A young girl was singing the National Anthem in a clear cool voice. Then she passed the microphone to another girl who carefully spoke the words, "Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt." The girls had something in common. They were both disabled. They had just commenced the community's Special Olympics.

Having just stepped into this surreal scene—and though mostly white—thick with the diversity of humanity, a rush of emotion flooded over me. In an effort to conceal my weeping I hugged the sweating tile wall. Two of Calvin’s barefoot classmates, Olivia and George, both eight and silent, pigeon-toed past in their suits, clinging to aids who helped them don belted Styrofoam floats. Calvin, too young to participate, had stayed behind at school.

A few lanes over, two swimmers windmilled neck and neck on their backs for a hundred yards. Cheers and applause filled the stadium as they splashed home, their beet red faces sporting huge grins.

Up next, a solitary boy got on his mark and slapped into the water at the sharp blow of a whistle. With arching arms he dug his way across the pool in a slow motion butterfly sprint, hit the end, sprung out and proudly traipsed by me, dripping wet. I gave him a big thumbs up at which his toothy smile spread ear to ear.

With each victory my heart swelled. From my screwed up face more tears splashed onto the wet floor. I was overwhelmed, though lost without a name for what I was feeling. I wondered, too, how many of these athletes, besides George, suffered epilepsy. No doubt more than just a few amongst so many with Down Syndrome, Autism and cerebral palsy.

Again the starter blew her whistle. Olivia and George, bobbing nearly vertical with the help of their aids, paddled and kicked and wriggled their way at a snail’s pace to the finish line, oblivious to the events but happy and engaged. The crowd cheered as they reached their goal.

I thirsted for more but Rudy was outside waiting. As he and I slowly skirted the facility, alone with the sun on our faces, I broke down, the cascade of emotion nearly bringing me to my knees. Joy blended and morphed into sorrow and grief and back again. Fatigued, my vision spun me in circles, blurred by a curtain of tears. What a world Calvin has brought me into. Strange. Special. Heart-wrenching. On the ground snow and ice finally melting as tender blades of grass sparkled like emeralds in the sun.

photo by Michael Kolster

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