Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Air Up There

Super excited that Charley gets to go do this again...

Special Olympics - Team Gibbs

I hate to say this, but Charley has been crying lately. To put it mildly, he’s been having withdrawal symptoms.

Not drugs. Not alcohol.

No, it’s something more toxic. It's in the air. It’s withdrawal from connections. Those connections that tell him he matters.

Everyone needs connections. It validates us to know we are accepted just as we are.

Charley is no different. But ahhh, where he gets that validation from, that’s the thing.

Each year right after Christmas, Charley comes to me in tears. He says, “I miss um my fwents.”

And I do that Mom-thing, of grabbing him around the neck, hugging and kissing him, and telling him I know he misses his friends, and that I’ll do my level best to see what I can do…

But to tell you the truth, what I’m really doing is holding my breath. Wondering, will there be a spot for him? Will he get to go do the one thing that makes him feel like he is his own person? That place where he can just be himself? The one thing that assures him he does indeed, have friends? Friends who haven’t forgotten about him?

If you have a special needs child you know what I mean. If not, then, here’s the deal…
Charley just wants to be a regular guy.
He wants a girlfriend. He wants to date. He wants to be viewed as a person who has hopes and dreams. Bottom line, he just wants to be himself. He wants to have friends.
That’s not always possible for Charley. Unless someone calls him or comes to pick him up and take him out, he waits. He doesn’t have the same options you and I have. He can’t just pick up the phone and call someone.
Sometimes I wonder what it must be like for him, always trying to fit into a world that would have him be different. Or, at the very least, would have him change just enough to fit in.
What if changing just enough to fit in means compromising who you really are?
I see it in my son every day.
He heads to a sheltered workshop where there are others like him. People who would have nowhere else to go if it weren't for the workshop. Several are older than he is. There is little opportunity for meeting girls. For making friends. The kind of friends that will go out running around with you without your mom having to drive you or lurk in the wings.
He enters a classroom that has activities he is expected to participate in, and little vision for what he wants to do or wants to be.
Do this, Charley.

Don’t do that, Charley.

Stop it, Charley.

Charley put on your jacket. Mrs. Palmer, Charley came in without his jacket today.

Charley ate his lunch on the way in the door today.

Come here, go there, Charley.
Do they know he is tech-savy? That he can fix things? Do they have any idea how brilliant his mind is?
Do they even have time to know? They are so busy with agenda.
That’s where Special Olympics comes in.
While most of us are tucked away in our warm houses in the winter, Charley is taking to the slopes in Gatlinburg. Strutting his stuff. Showing off for whatever girl he has his eye on. Making friends.
At Special Olympics, he’s not warehoused. There's a different air up there. He’s free to be who he is, the way he wants to be. Free to breathe.
Most of all, for a couple of days he has friends. People who see who he is, and who he can be. People who may tell him where to go and what to do, but it’s a different kind of telling. People who tell him to go for that next jump. “Go for it Charley!”
Go Charley Go!
It’s camaraderie. An acceptance of who he is, and when they say, “Just be yourself,” they mean it. And he knows it. They don’t mean, “Be yourself as long as it is within the parameters of what we think you should be.”
That’s why each year we hold our breath. He comes home from Special Olympics a different person. Not as a person who has had to be what everyone else wants him to be, but what he wants to be.
A regular guy.
And why not? He’s been to a place where it’s okay to dance. To flirt. To laugh out loud. To compete, and to slap a high-five with your teammates. To know you are part of a team that wants you just the way you are. A team that tells you the team is more fun when you are there.

To say we hold our breath doesn’t even begin to describe it. Each year Brad and I look at each other and pray, “Please God, let there be a next time.”
It’s as important to Charley as breathing.
It fills him up.
It puts that twinkle in his eye. That pep in his step.

For a few years now, Charley has been included on the Gibbs Special Olympics team. Even though he graduated in 2013, they have managed to find a spot for him. They probably don’t know this, but it’s as important to him as breathing. That’s why we hold our breath.

Last week the call came. The one that said there was a spot for him. The one that made me cry into my napkin at lunch because when he cries about missing his “fwents” I’ll be able to say, “How's the air up there?” He knows what that means he's headed to Ober Gatlinburg. Yeah baby!

In two weeks, we will take him to the parking lot where he will board the bus and head to Gatlinburg. The bus that will pull out of that parking lot and leave us in the rearview mirror as he settles into his seat for the time
 of his life.
When people find out he’s going to Special Olympics and will be gone for a couple of days, they often say, “That will give you a breather.”
And they are right. For a couple of days we breathe. Not because he’s gone, but because we know when he returns he will have breathed a different kind of air.

Up there.

                                                  * * *

Sherry McCaulley Palmer is the author of Life With Charley: A Memoir of Down Syndrome Adoption, available at:

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