I had always planned to have three children. I was one of three and thought it pretty cool to have an older sister and a baby brother so it seemed natural to me to plan the same for my family. We stuck to that strategy, and my first wife and I had three adorable children.
Still, even with a detailed outline in place, things don’t always go as planned and we learned early on that something was different about my only son, Jacob. To shorten the story of trips to doctors, psychiatrists, geneticists, speech pathologists and so on, suffice it to say that Jacob was diagnosed with autism.
As a young parent, uncertain if I even had the skills to raise a typically developing child, I was rattled. Terrified, really.
With two girls and one boy, I even went through a brief period of self-indulgent mourning that I would not have a chance to see my son score a touchdown in the big game or snag an unassisted double play at first base. I allowed myself to grieve over this for a time and then committed to turn that emotion off for good.
I have kept that commitment and seldom reflect back on it other than to remind myself what a complete fool I was.
Any parent of a child with special needs can attest that the achieved milestones, while significantly different than that of a “normally developing child,” are just as impactful, emotional, and monumental.
A perfect example for me is Jacob’s participation in the Smoky Mountain Area Special Olympics this past week.
Jacob was slated to participate in the softball throw, the 100-meter dash and the 100-meter speed walk.
He set out to begin training months in advance and literally walked tens of thousands of steps per day in preparation for his preferred event, the 100 meter speed-walk. My Fitbit tells me I am awesome if I hit ten-thousand steps in a day. Jacob routinely hit 25,000 to 30,000, often asking to leave class early if he had completed the in-class work so that he could train in the hallways before the bell rang.
Anyone familiar with the Special Olympics knows that it is not in any way focused on winning but participation, recognition, and celebration of effort. We had done our part by preparing Jacob that he might not win and actually rehearsed appropriate responses if he did not.
But darn that boy sure wanted to win. A little part of me wanted him to as well.
Jacob certainly had put in enough training and had the additional benefit of home-field advantage since, for the first time, the event was held at Sevier County High School where Jacob attends.
As the day progressed, it became clear that Jacob was not there to mess around, and several times we heard him whispering to himself, “F-O-C-U-S! Focus!” He had spent years imagining, and recently writing, about days like these, often fancying himself racing in competitions with the likes of Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog in their Olympic (video) games.
He would come home from school and declare that in his training, he had achieved a personal best 18 laps around the track during gym class. That’s four and a half miles. Every day he pushed a little harder and a little farther working toward his goal.
He had competed in previous years and lost and won at varying times, often with grace but occasionally with great disappointment as well. There was no containing the competitor within him.
As the 100-meter speed-walk grew closer, teaching staff from the high school began sharing information with other staff and students who were still in class, as classes continued throughout the day. As Jacob’s race approached, the stands became more crowded as students and teachers from his classes came to cheer on the kid who walked all the time. “We are CERTAINLY cheering for Jacob Collins,” one of their signs read, picking up on one of his favorite words.
As the race began, I fought off emotion, recalling my foolish grieving as a young parent over what I might not get to experience with Jacob and even feeling no small amount of pity for those families who only get to see their kid score a touchdown. I stood on the sidelines and cheered as he passed, seeing him fight to maintain his serious demeanor and not break into the joyous smile that eventually did prevail. He crossed the finish line with an exuberant hop and I was overjoyed by the cheers and support he received by others who recognized how hard he had worked and prepared for that exact moment.
Watching the videos of his endeavor over and over again this past week has literally been like Prozac for me. I find myself lost in the moment again and when the video ends, I awaken to the fact that I am sitting there with a grin you couldn’t wipe off with sandpaper.
The joy I experience in that young man can never be explained in words and I am grateful to be his father. I learn from him and grow as a result of him every day.
As we walked away from the medal ceremony, he held his gold medal and inquired of me, “Do you think I broke a record today, Dad?”
I put my arm around him and replied, “You sure did, buddy. Lots of them.”
© Michael L. Collins