One of my favorite professors in college has a son with down-syndrome. Dr. J always joked that his son’s extra chromosome is a chromosome of love. It sometimes boggles my mind just how loving and jolly mentally handicapped people are.
That being said, I had the privilege of volunteering at a Special Olympics hockey tournament with several of my co-workers last Saturday where I got to witness ‘the love chromosome’ first hand. It’s funny becasue I intended to volunteer at the event to encourage the athletes participating, but I left the event feeling incredibly touched and blessed by them.
I escorted two different groups of athletes through the stations where they would compete in various puck shooting drills. They use plastic PVC pipes in place of sticks, and huge floppy, felt disks in place of pucks. What amazed me was how the athletes snapped to life when it was there turn to compete. They always put all of their effort into it.
After the athletes competed at each of the six stations they were escorted to a stage where they received a gold, silver or bronze medal. I had four middle school aged boys in my first group. Bryan was super talkitive and was happy to chat with me in between his turn at the various stations. I asked him if he had any siblings, and he told me he had two younger sisters. Moments later Bryan’s dad walked over to offer his son a high five and tell him he was doing awesome. Bryan put on a wry grin and his dad said, “Bryan….what are you smiling about?” Bryan giggles and said, “I told her I have two sisters!” His dad replied, “you don’t have any sisters!, Bryan, tell her the truth.” And Bryan turned to me and said through hearty laughter, “I actually have two brothers.” His dad and I laughed at his silly prank, but then his dad scolded him, and told him it’s not OK to fake.
Watching Bryan and his dad interact was really beautiful. It’s true that interacting with mentally handicapped people takes a great deal of patience, and it was apparent that Bryan’s dad is incredibly loving and patient with Bryan. He kept saying, “I’m proud of you, son!” Every kid needs to hear their parents say that, and how special that Bryan and his dad can share a special bond through the sport of hockey.
Kevin is another boy that I had in my first group. He kept to himself between events, and didn’t want to engage in any small talk, but as soon as it was his turn to compete, he was obsessed with excelling. After he finished each event he would ask me, “How many did I get in? What’s my score? Did I win?” And each time he scored, his intense game-face would crack into a smile for a brief moment before he returned to his game-face.
Watching Kevin’s reaction when they announced that he won the gold medal in his group was an absolutely priceless moment. He literally ran around the stage shouting and jeering as if he just won the Stanley Cup. No matter which medal the athletes received, they never reacted with disappointment. It was evident that they were all thrilled to be there, competing and having fun.
In the afternoon I escorted a group of three older men: Ted, Frank and Marc. Marc was eager to compete and asked if he could go first at every station. Frank was escorted by his mother, and he was less enthusiastic about competing but his mom assured me how much it meant to him to have the opportunity to compete. Ted was my favorite. I have no idea how old he is, but he looked like he must be in his ’70s. I’m not even sure if I can describe his reaction after accomplishing each event. I mean he just displayed sheer joy every time he shuffled a shot into the net. He would walk back to the group after each event with the biggest, warmest smile I have ever seen.
At the award ceremony, Ted had the lowest score in his group, but you would never know it by his reaction. He won a medal, and that’s all that mattered to him.
It truly was a special Saturday that I will not soon forget. When I am overwhelmed with the stress of life, I hope I will remember the simple joy that Ted enjoyed every time he scored a goal. Life is too short not to enjoy.
Not to get too political, but I feel compelled to add that statistically 9 out of 10 babies who are diagnosed with down-syndrome before birth are aborted. My heart aches when I hear this stat, because mentally handicapped people are such a rich blessing in our lives. I wish we could all be as loving as they are.