When my brother, Dan, made his nightly call to me around 7:00 pm not long ago, I could tell he was excited about something because he deviated from his usual phone script. Dan is developmentally disabled and conducts his phone calls with the topics in specific order. The phone call that night heralded news that nearly brought my mom and me to tears and my brother to excited laughter: he qualified to participate in the Special Olympics after a 3-year absence!
The meaning of the Games
Dan is 47 and has participated in the Special Olympics for more than three decades without a single absence. The first weekend in June was my brother’s personal trifecta: he’d spend time with our dad (whom we saw less often after our parents divorced), he’d sleep in the military barracks, and he’d steal hearts at the Saturday night dance in the Olympic Village. The sporting events were beside the point.
Our dad died in 2004, dealing my brother a blow in what made the weekend of the Games so important. We weren’t certain how he was processing dad’s death because he simply parroted our questions: “Are you sad?” “Yeah, I’m sad.” “Do you know dad won’t be able to go to Special Olympics anymore?” “Yeah. He won’t go anymore.” But as the Games approached, Dan kept asking if our dad would be there, simply nodding when we said no. Still, he looked forward to having fun that weekend.
The Social Olympics
Dan is the most outgoing, social and friendliest person I know. He has a savant-like ability to remember names of people he met decades ago. All those years of going to the Special Olympics with the same people became, for him, THE social event of the year. Dan couldn’t wait to see old friends, meet new ones, eat in the mess hall, sleep in the barracks, and most importantly, dance with all his “girlfriends” at the Saturday night dance. My brother is never happier than when he’s in a crowd. Or dancing.
In 2010, budget cuts ended Dan’s participation in the Games. In previous years, athletes who placed in the top eight positions went to the Special Olympics; after budget cuts, only the top three qualifiers could attend. Because he didn’t place, Dan was to miss the one event he loved more than anything. To me, the month of June felt empty without our dad’s birthday, Father’s Day and the Games. If Dan felt the same way, he didn’t show it. But in 2011 and 2012 he said he wished he could go to the Games. To those of us who know him, we understood he’d revealed the true depth of his sadness. Fortunately, 2013 gave him back his dream.
“I’m going to Fort Lewis!”
In Dan’s recent excited phone call, I had to ask him to to confirm that he was going to compete at the local Special Olympics, which are held at Fort Lewis south of Seattle. It’s not that he would lie, but he could have been confused–he was definitely going. In our family, “Fort Lewis” is code for both the Games and for their significance in Dan’s world. This year, he competed in shot put, the 100-yard dash and the 200-yard dash. We never see the shot put event because there’s no telling where he’ll throw it. He won bronze in the 100 and silver in the 200. He could have won gold in both, but as he neared the finish line, he slowed down to wave at his admirers, high-five the volunteers, heckle the other runners and incite the crowd to applaud for him. After the award ceremony, he started back toward the barracks to shower and get ready for the best part of his weekend–dancing and celebrating his victorious return to the Special Olympics.