Saturday, April 28, 2007

Baseball Bambina

Note: I originally wrote this about 20 years ago for a class i was taking. It's been published in several small publications over the years. I still cry with pride about my daughter when I read it.

Like many parents of kids with disabilities, I have learned as much from my daughter as I gave to her. She was like a pin-ball wizard… awesome to watch her do her stuff.

At age 3 my daughter, Campbell was non-verbal and far behind other children in motor development. For an entire semester she sat in front of a mirror with a tongue depressor in her mouth, learning how to make vowel sounds, the first sounds that babies make when they babble. At six she was able to speak so I could understand her. She was eight when her speech became intelligible enough for strangers to pick up her speech patterns and words.

In her sixth year we finally got a diagnosis: mild cerebral palsy, learning disabilities and a few minor labels thrown in just to make life interesting. It was also in her sixth year when she declared that she was going to play soft-ball; not “special” softball, but the softball her friends in the neighborhood were playing. She didn’t want to play some pick up game in the “hood”. No, she wanted on a team that was part of a league, the kind that kept stats, had fundraisers, and trips to get ice cream after games. I was against it, but how could I tell her that?

So I “accidentally” missed the two sign-up days, making sure our to-do list was long and our time in the neighborhood was limited. I didn’t want the kids in the neighborhood reminding her. Trips to grandma’s house and to an old friend’s house provided the diversions necessary to carry out my crime. Afterward, when it was too late, I could lament, “Gosh, honey, I’m sorry. I just completely forgot about those being sign-up days.” I had become what I hated the most… a liar. But, it was necessary to protect my child and protect her from the world of hurt playing softball would bring. Much later I recognized that I was protecting myself, not my daughter.

One afternoon someone came a knocking at my door. I opened it and a man named Jack told me he was from the league. He said they needed two more girls to finish out one more team and that he would coach the team. He had heard from some of the kids in the neighborhood that Campbell wanted to sign up, so he thought he’d drop by and get her on a team. It was impossible for me to say, “No” since Campbell was next to me squealing and doing a pretty darn good impersonation of a human pogo stick. I was trapped… I signed her up.

On the day of the first practice I went to the field with my heart in my throat and it only got worse from there. She was awful. My heart felt like Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941… invaded, bombed and destroyed.

Now, I have always been a “walk-to-the-beat-of-your-own-drummer”, kind of hippie-chick. I like and promote diversity and uniqueness. Who would want to be “normal?” So, I was shocked at my own reaction. Out there, on the field, she was part of 15 member team. All of them had jeans on, except for one, my daughter. She was wearing camel-colored corduroys. All I wanted for her was to be able to blend in, look the same, homogenize. Fourteen of them were stretching their cooperative muscles, to catch pop-flies, hit homeruns and line drives. I wanted her body to react the same way. I didn’t want it to be so hard for her. Why can’t she have fantasies about being the first female Willie Mays?

Watching her made my chest hurt. So I left her there, with the other kids and coaches to fend for herself, while I cruised around K-Mart until practice was over. The tears I had successfully held back at the diamond flowed freely there. I left the store making only one purchase… a softball. When I returned to the diamond at dusk, Campbell and one coach were the only ones there. I waved at them, told Campbell to get in the car and sped off back to the sanctuary of our home.

Subsequent practices weren’t much better. Same diamond. Same drippy exodus. Same K-mart. I wanted to encourage her adventuresome spirit risk taking, or, at the very least, match her grit. If she was willing to listen to other children chide her for not being as agile, I should let her do it. I could not.

One day we were in the kitchen cooking and talking.

Me: Do you like baseball, Campbell?
Campbell: It’s my favorite sport!
Me: Yeah?
C: Yeah.
Me: Well, what do you like about it?
C: We get team pictures and shirts and at the end of the year, we get a trophy.
Me: Oh (Wow, she has really given this some thought. She wanted to be part of a team. Something bigger then herself, part of a community of people.)
C: I’m not very good.
Me: Does that bother you?
C: Sometimes. I want to whack the ball and hit a home run.
Me: (In my most grown up Mommy voice) You know what I always say, honey. If you try your best that is all anyone can ask. Some times being the very best at something isn’t fun at all. Sometimes trying something new, something hard is its own reward… and softball is supposed to be fun. (Translation: I AM NOT HAVING FUN!)
C: I want a trophy.

I really tried hard to get her off the team. I confessed to the coach that she had cerebral palsy. “Hey coach, the kid is disabled!” The dreaded “d” word should scare him away. She would promptly be declared not good enough to play the “ABs” (able-bodied). I was sure he’d drop her faster than Brittany Spears dropped that first husband, Jason Alexander. Maybe we could send her to the minor league.

I called Jack. He let me ramble on longer than was necessary. Then in a soft, easy tone he said, “Oh, I don’t know… Her swing appears to be leveling off. She even connected with a few after you left practice.

Guilt wells up inside me.

“Even good kids have days when they can’t hit, can’t catch. She’s too old for the minors…, “he goes on, “Maybe the league president could make an exception, but she’s one of the tallest girls on the team now… you don’t want to send her down.” He continues, “Look, this is a learning experience for all the girls. I plan to play them all at least half the game. I believe she will get better. I’ll work with her… give her extra help. It will be fine.”

That bastard! How could I pull her now? She had the perfect coach. He was soft-spoken, warm, had the right philosophy about children’s sports. He didn’t even flinch when I said “disabled.” Now, with no choice ahead of me, I resigned myself to the fact that she was going to play ball.

On the day of the first game, I was holding Campbell’s had so tight she cried out, “Mom, you’re hurting me!” I was so scared. If one person even mumbled a dis’ at my daughter, they were getting their tires slashed.

Coach Jack put her in halfway through the game… at shortstop. I was hoping for outfield. No one managed to catch a ball that half of the inning: but Campbell was first at-bat. She was hit by the first ball. The Nazi umpire would not let her take a base because she made no attempt to get out of the way of the ball… she couldn’t! Her reaction time isn’t that good. Another pitch hit her in the foot. She just stood there, in the correct stance, and didn’t move… until she was called out.

She dropped her bat, and ran directly into my arms. I enveloped her into my arms and in my biggest grown up voice asked, “What hurts worse… getting hit or called out?” I could explain to her that major leaguers strike out all the time, Hell, the best of them only hit three out of ten.

She sobbed, “The fact I got hit.”

A voice in my head screamed, “Goddamn cerebral palsy, how dare you chain my baby down… I will find you and kill you.” But, I said nothing and held her tight.

After a while (like I was aware of time), Coach Jack came over to Campbell. He knelt down on one knee and very softly said, “I need you at shortstop. You are part of a team, the team is on the field, and I need you at shortstop.” I continued to hold tight… but she broke the hold. She took her cap and glove from Jack and went out on the field. I desperately wanted to say something. Maybe thank him… but I could not look up, could not talk.

As is the case with little league, she was up to bat the next inning and I was not ready. My heart was pounding in my chest and my ears were ringing. I prayed that the parents in the bleachers and her team mates would see how hard she was trying. Please let them be kind, just this once.

She entered the batter’s box and swung at the first pitch, but missed. Then another swing… “Whack!” She hit a beautiful little grounder that traveled 12-15 feet along and just inside the third base line. My baby was on first!

The next batter at the plate took a swing and Campbell stole second. SHE STOLE SECOND BASE. And then third. My emotions, my hormones and my adrenaline raced through my body as if Lance Armstrong was their coach.

The next batter hit a long line drive into the Kalahari Desert and Campbell ran home, jumping two-footed onto home plate. I know you’ll think I’m exaggerating, but confetti fell from the sky. Her team clapped for her… so did their parents. The coaches patted her on the back and said things like, “way to go, kid!”

She went on to finish the season. She never was good, but let me tell you, she was great! She finished the season getting a team picture and trophy. She never asked to play softball again. She moved on to other challenges like swimming, bicycling and stilt walking.

We both learned valuable lessons that summer. For me, there were many:

  • Much as we want to, we cannot protect our children.
  • Our children should have the right to try and to fail.
  • Often our greatest fears go unrealized (thank goodness). And
  • We often entertain angels unaware (what a wonderful coach).
For Campbell, she was learning to be a citizen… and learning what it means to have a disability in this culture, and learning what it means to be part of a team (something she still enjoys today).

1 comment:

Jonette Boehler said...

that was great. suz and i were talking about my son pitching and me crying over it. i told her that all the other parents from the team thought that I was crazy and I told them if you have been what i have been through with a child like brayden and to see his pitch you would cry too. it is just enough to see the excitement that he gets out of it... so that is when suz showed me this article.. i loved and cried reading it. that was great. thank you