Last Saturday thousands gathered around the track at Harlem High School for the Special Olympics in Machesney Park. Men, women, boys and girls with Down Syndrome, Fragile X and Autism arrive by the busload representing their schools and group homes. Parents and siblings meet and greet coaches while church volunteers, co-workers and high school students make their way over to the registration tables where they claim their t-shirts and transform into ‘huggers’.
Crowds climb the bleachers anticipating pregame festivities that offer just as much thrill as any major league warm-up or first pitch.
What started as a competitive day camp for the developmentally disabled in Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s backyard has now turned into this – a celebration of what can be done.
Once shunned and institutionalized, stigmatized by hurtful labels, the mentally disabled now participate in all aspects of life. We call them by their names instead of their diagnosis.
Kenny bags your groceries at the supermarket. David and Ann Marie stock shelves at the local Wal-Mart. And Bradley and Alejandro are taught alongside your son or daughter at the public school.
As each local school and group home parade past the crowds, many wave, a few pump their fists, others dance as they make their way to the center of the field where they ready to light the torch.
We seek out our favorite players as they cross the track. There’s Zach, a local celebrity; the kid to beat in the softball throw. There’s Steve, the soccer forward who dominates the field with his agility and ball control. But there’s someone I didn’t see this year. For the life of me, I can see him. I can picture him. The name escapes me.
I ran into him in the elevator at the hospital a year or two ago. He was with his Mom. He was so excited because his sister had had a baby. Mom guided her son out the elevator by the arm; she reflected his joy.
We exchanged how we knew each other. Mom seemed like she got that a lot – people approaching her son with the ease and familiarity of old friends.
My nameless friend didn’t have much time for chit chat. He wanted see that baby. We said our goodbyes and they exited down the Mom and Baby floor. My friend was trotting down the hall at such a clip that his mother had to anchor his left to stabilize his gait.
I would make a note of it; to ask him about his sister and the new baby when I saw him the following year.
Maybe he was there and I missed him, but I doubt it. He tends to stand out – taller than most, with a thick head of mousy brown hair and a hint of a drawl to his labored speech.
Maybe he went to another team. Maybe he couldn’t compete this year.
The day passed with lots of hugs, lots of cheers and awards. In the afternoon I watched for him as the athletes boarded their buses with their shiny new medals. I wanted to ask him about his sister and the baby. No use, he wasn’t here.
As the buses drove off, I was mad at myself for not remembering – just as mad when I keep forgetting the name of that player who jumped the wall at the track to snatch the run; saving the perfect game. I can never think of the name of that guy. Just like my nameless friend, I swore that I would never forget.
I guess I could have used a hug and a glimpse of his unconstrained forthrightness.
I think his name was Michael.