posted May 18, 2009 at 1:25pm
I did it. I’ve been talking it about (a lot — apologies to those who have listened to me go on) and today I finally did it. I sent in Sophie’s Special Olympics registration. For cheerleading. What follows is a piece I read last month at an event sponsored by a group called the Lit Mamas. The lights were so bright I couldn’t tell if the audience was cheering — or cringing. In any case, next month Sophie starts cheerleading practice. I’m quite certain this won’t be my last post on the topic.
It was the perfect moment.
The sun was shining, a breeze was blowing, the waves were crashing just loudly enough to drown out the noise of the other families on the beach. And for the first time all week, most of my own family was nowhere to be seen.
We’ve been coming to this stretch of La Jolla – my parents, my younger sister and me – for a week every summer for nearly 30 years, and over time, our ranks have increased – with boyfriends, then husbands, and now kids. Back in the day, I’d spend hours on this beach, frying under Bain de Soleil (for the St. Tropez tan) SPF #4 and reading book after book, or sleeping, moving only when I really had to pee.
Now I’m lucky if I can pick up a magazine – let alone turn a page – before someone cries, or escapes running down the beach, or vomits sea water in my lap. These days I wear cover-ups and hats, slathering my exposed spots with Neutrogena SPF 70 that includes something called Helioplex that leaves a really attractive white film all over me – and my children, when I can catch them long enough to pour gobs of it on them.
But this day, this moment, something odd happened. I looked around, and it was just my mom and me, wrapped in beach towels on our lounge chairs, all alone on the beach. Jackpot.
I was just starting to doze off when my mother spoke.
“Ames, there’s something I have to say.”
My eyes flew open. OH FUCK, I thought. It’s cancer. When your 70-year-old mother uses that tone of voice, how can it be anything else? FUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKFUCK. FUCK.
I threw off the towel, sat up and turned to face her.
“Um, what?” I asked, trying to sound nonchalant, my heart racing.
“I really think you should consider letting Sophie do cheerleading in the Special Olympics,” she said.
“Jesus Christ, are you fucking kidding me?” I shrieked. “I thought you had – um, well, I thought. Well, it doesn’t matter what I thought. Don’t scare me like that!”
She continued on, as though she hadn’t heard me.
“I know how you feel about cheerleading, the whole feminist argument and all, but just think about how much fun Sophie would have! She loves to dance, and she loves people. She’d have such a great time.”
Before I could say more than “I’ll take it under advisement,” a throng of children and husbands descended and the moment was gone.
But I did think about it. A lot. In fact, I can’t stop thinking about it, and that’s got me really annoyed, because, frankly, I’ve got other things on my mind.
Sophie has Down syndrome. She will be 10 next May. All children come with their own special challenges, but Sophie’s really loaded for bear: She had open heart surgery before she was 1 and more open heart surgery at 4. She’s had three operations for clogged tear ducts (none of them worked, by the way), half a dozen pairs of orthotics for her feet and several pairs of glasses for eyes that don’t work right. She has her own lawyer, who bullied the neighborhood school into keeping her there, and every day I drop her off I wonder how much time we have left at that place before they tell us it’s just too much work to keep her there.
I can tell what you’re thinking. But please, don’t feel sorry for me. I don’t. And if Sophie was here tonight, you’d know why. The kid kicks some serious ass. She’s smart, funny, and I know it’s a stereotype but she’s the nicest person I’ve ever met. She can also be a total jerk. I love her like crazy.
So that’s why I take any decisions made on her behalf very, very seriously. And I’m not talking about the decision to crack open her chest and fix the hole in her heart. We had no choice there. I’m talking about the day to day aesthetic choices, the stuff that matters a lot more to all of us than we’re willing to admit.
When Sophie was just a few days old, I made a decision. If she was doomed to a life of bagging groceries, so be it. But she would never wear a bow tie when doing so, like the clerks at the high end market in town, A.J.’s. No way.
Not a good look for people with Down syndrome.
Over the years, the list has grown: No overalls, no top hats, no sailor suits. There is no rhyme or reason to my fashion pronoucements (although the overalls thing might have something to do with Of Mice and Men) – they simply come to me. And it’s not like I’m so High Fashion myself. I’m not; nor does it bother me that my husband shows up at the office every day a wrinkled mess.
But for Sophie, it’s different. She’s got to look her best.
Again, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, who cares – your kid is mentally retarded. She’ll be LUCKY to get a chance to bag groceries. Who cares what she wears while she does it?
Always have. I made sure Sophie had hot pink Converse to wear over her ugly foot braces when she was learning to walk, and scoured the thrift stores for Oilily and Baby Lulu outfits when she entered pre-school. She always has the cutest backpack in her class.
At the same time, I try not to stifle her creativity, which is why some days, she hits the playground in her fanciest party dress and tennis shoes. The other day she insisted on gigantic pink-lensed sunglasses. Sort of Diana Vreeland with a twist, I decided, and let it go.
But I have my limits. Sophie’s the tiniest kid anyone knows, so she gets all the hand me downs, and I hide the bags our friends give us til I can search them by myself late at night, getting rid of the overalls and the Elmo tee shirts she loves but is way too old for. And nothing too hoochy mama.
When Sophie turned 8, I signed up for the city of Tempe’s Special Olympics newsletter. That first season, the choices were as follows: bowling, speed skating and cheerleading.
OK, no bowling. Not as a team sport, anyway. No way. First, it’s not real exercise. And second – well, do I really have to explain myself? It’s just not a dignified sport. And speed skating? Yeah, right. So that left cheerleading.
And thus, my existential crisis.
Look, here’s the thing: Sophie is going to spend most of her life on the sidelines, no matter how hard I try to make it otherwise. She won’t likely drive a car or go to college or live on her own – if she does any of those things, it will be a truncated version. Special Olympics is one chance she gets to step on a level playing field. Why should she be off to the side, jumping around?
“But she’ll look so cute in the uniform!” a friend said.
“Oh, don’t be such a spoil sport,” another friend said. “Anyhow, cheerleading isn’t what it used to be. It’s very athletic!”
Not for Sophie, who can’t turn a cartwheel – let alone do a backflip off the top of a human pyramid. No. Cheerleading for Sophie will only ever be a photo op.
“Oh come on,” my mom’s voice echoes in my head. “She’ll have fun!”
Ballet class is fun. Swimming lessons are fun. Running track in Special Olympics – that was a blast. Sophie loved it, ran her heart out, cherishes her fourth place ribbon. That was a lot of goddamn fun!
Cheerleading??? Do we really have to go there?
Right now you’re thinking: Wow. That woman really overthinks everything. You are right. I do. It’s exhausting. And wait – I’m not done.
I haven’t admitted this to my mother, but the truth is that I’ve been thinking about cheerleading since before I was Sophie’s age, and it’s not because I’m some crazed feminist. It’s because I always wanted to be a cheerleader.
I mean, really, how many kids choose to be on the speech and debate team? That was just a way to keep busy during the dances and other typical events I wasn’t included in when I was in high school. I watched the other kids like an anthropologist, and realized at an early age that the one sure-fire path to popularity – at my school, anyway – was cheerleading.
It wasn’t going to happen. I turned my last somersault when I was four. Like Albert Brooks’ annoying, nerdy-smart character in Broadcast News, as a kid I consoled myself with the thought that someday, I’d be more successful than any of them. That didn’t happen (some of them are damn fine real estate agents!) but I have lived happily ever after – and happier than a lot of them, if what I see on Facebook is any indication.
And now I’m charged with the happiness of two young girls. The truth is that I just don’t see any upside to Sophie being a cheerleader. It won’t bring her great popularity – and here I’m not talking about how, often, kids with Down syndrome become the mascots of their high school – elected Prom Queen, named “team manager” – and it won’t result in great athletic prowess.
It’ll just be – well, it’ll just be fun.
After months of thinking about it, I did the thing I should have done the first day it came up. I asked Sophie.
“Hey, Sophes,” I said one night before bed. “There’s something I need to talk to you about.”
“Do you want to do Special Olympics cheerleading?”
So Sophie will be a cheerleader — for one season, at least.
And I’ll be in the stands – cheering.