What do you do on a Saturday morning with an Autistic teenager? Go bowling!
When Carlie’s school sent home a flyer in September about opportunities for extramural activities, I leafed through the different options. My younger girls had started with their activities, such as dance and soccer. My eldest, limited by her multiply disabling conditions, was harder to find things in which to participate. When I saw a weekend bowling team through her special school, I thought this was something she might be able to remotely manage. The schedule was not ideal, but workable. The commitment was reasonable. The promise of a Mommy-Daughter experience with a child who has limited likes and difficulty connecting with me with was pulling my heart strings. I signed her up. It was free, what the heck?
Our first day of bowling arrived with the rising of an autumn sun, and I thought to myself, what the hell possessed me to do this? We needed to leave our warm home at 8 am on a cold Saturday after getting a family of 6 up, dressed and fed in record time. I kissed my 3 other girls goodbye as they headed to my 4 year old’s soccer game with their dad. I headed off with my silent, apathetic teen on a 50 mile drive without having time to make a travel mug of coffee for my commute. I really regretted not having that coffee.
Nonetheless, I’m excited on the ride there, envisioning Carlie bursting out of her shell and shocking us all with her latent bowling talents. Perhaps, she’d make it to the Regional competition and then on to the real, live Special Olympics! “This is so exciting, baby!” I exclaim as I reach over to hold her hand. She shoves my hand away with autistic indifference. My affection has no use in her world right now. I’m used to it. It doesn’t faze me one bit, because today I am bowling with my daughter, gosh darn it!
We missed the first week of practice due to a scheduling conflict, so we’re jumping in during week two. In trying to make a good impression I of course arrive 20 minutes late, missing warm ups completely. It should have taken me 30 minutes to get there, but whenever a traffic circle is involved, a minimum of 15 minutes automatically gets tacked onto my commute. Traffic circles and I do not get along. They were made for people with common sense, good timing, and visual spatial skills; none of which I posses. Add a few Jersey Jug handles in there, and it might be days before you see me again.
As we finally enter Westbrook Lanes, Carlie is going nuts. Happy nuts. Yes, she’s happy; too happy. When Carlie is too happy, it’s about as bad as when she tantrums – she’s totally unmanageable. She starts jumping, running, shrieking, compulsively banging on any object around her, grabbing at people, and generally going berserk. Okay, guess she likes the idea of bowling. By the time I get my pogo stick of a child her shoes, ball, and instructions, we join our bowling quartet quite late. They were all here last week, but more importantly they are all familiar with the sport of bowling itself. (Yes, apparently it is a bona fide sport, a fact of which I was unaware). I, on the other hand, hadn’t been bowling since I was 10 at a birthday party after seeing Donny Osmond starring in the classic film “Goin’ Coconuts.”
When it’s our turn, I pick up her ball in that ball receptacle thingy and hand it to her. I go to escort her over to that runway thingy with the pins at the end of it when - THUNK. She just throws the ball right where she’s standing. Okay sweetie. Even I know you gotta walk to the runway… which I eventually learn is a “lane.” Good to know. I lead her there, holding the ball myself. Don’t need to follow up today’s fun with a visit to a podiatrist!
She can’t seem to get the ball down the runway, um, I mean lane. It’s moving so hypnotically slowly that it defies the laws of space and time and often appears to be suspended in mid-rotation, giving the optical illusion that it is indeed moving backward. The ball eventually rolls in slo-mo into the gutter ¾ of the way down and stops. When the ball is trapped out there like that, there is nothing to do but go retrieve it. The first 5 times this happens, a nice father of a teammate goes out to rescue the ball for us. When he is distracted with his own life instead of mine, her ball gets stuck in the gutter once again. “Oh, heck, I’ll just go grab her ball” I think to myself. I start waltzing down the lane and suddenly I realize that a sheet of ice has nothing on this floor. I think, as my feet nearly zip out from under me, that this is the kind of dumb stuff I laugh at on America’s Funniest Home Videos, chastising those clueless fools for blindly creating their dignity’s own demise. Fortunately, I do not fall directly on my ass in front of 200 people. That would have been much more embarrassing than what I did end up doing: flapping around, desperatly clinging to the air to stop my fall. Thank God for Ugg boots. They’re made for style, warmth, comfort, and walking on the overly waxed up floors of a bowling lane. I quickly learned that you need to walk on the balance beam strip of wood between each high-gloss lane in order to get your ball. Must not have noticed that.
That nice father approaches me again. He’s one of those people that exudes warmth, with kind eyes and a soothing voice that reminds me of a priest. Perhaps he was a priest, it’s hard to tell when someone’s clad in jeans and an old flannel shirt. He explains to me without a hint of condescendence or disapproval why I shouldn’t walk on the lane. He’s obviously taken me under his wing. I wonder if he’s confused me for a student, but as I look around, the students clearly have much more grace, common sense, and grasp of the game than I. Perhaps he’s taken pity on me because I’m looking about as out of place as one could be. A suburban Soccer Mom, freshly manicured and clad in Uggs, jeans made for style not comfort, a Prada bag, and diamond studs at a bowling alley. Now, that’s not to say that frequenters of bowling alleys don’t have diamonds, designer bags and nice nails, but from what I observed that day, people were pretty casual and down to earth. Oh, and I just want to mention that the nails were only done for a formal event days before and the Prada was a knock off. The Uggs and diamonds, however, were real and the only 2 accessories over $25.00 I happen to own.
Carlie and I finally start getting in the swing of things. After bowling 3 of 7 frames or sets or whatever they’re called, the head coach recommends she use a ramp, which is a metal contraption placed at the foot of the lane. All she has to do is set the ball on top of it and push it down. The momentum from the ramp gets the ball down lane. This is much better. Pins are being knocked over! We’re bowling now! We’re really bowling!
Then Carlie, in her excitement, tries to catapult herself down the super slick lane of humiliation. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as you can see. Five people rush out to save her. A few hours into the day, she begins trying to pilfer everyone’s drinks… water bottles and coffee cups start disappearing. Hmmmm… I think she’s thirsty, and likely hungry too since now she is doing her moaning/crying routine. She’s non-verbal, so I just rely on emotional cues and extrapolate based on my 13 years of experience with her. I’m pretty hungry myself and jonesin’ for a diet pepsi. You would think a seasoned mother of 4 would have brought some sustenance. You would THINK. Of course, I have no cash. I never have cash. That would be far too practical. I have a debit card, however the only food and beverages on the premises are locked away in a wall of vending machines. That nice dad, seeing my daughter’s tears and fixation on all things fluid-based, offers to buy her a water bottle after learning I have no money, rations, or general sense. Before I can protest too much, he’s gone and back with reinforcements. Sometimes, I have no idea how I get along in this world. Thank God for the kindness of strangers and/or the power of pity.
I look around the bowling alley and think; this is fun. Really! It had been a long time since I’ve bowled, but it’s been too long since I’ve done something like this. Since I’ve done something alone with my daughter and spent time in the company of parents of special needs children. For the past four years, I have been completely immersed in the world of typically-developing toddlers, associating with “typical moms” and doing and talking about the more “normal” things that parents do. I had forgotten that I need this too. Carlie doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb in this crowd. She’s just one of the gang. Atypical is the norm. I feel the relief like a sweet exhalation of breath I never even knew I was holding. Like a weight on my heart being lifted that I had forgotten was there.
After 3 ½ hours of bowling, we head home. My daughter is pooped. Low muscle tone, scoliosis, and a sedentary lifestyle are not conducive to the rigors of high stakes bowling. I'm not too far behind her in the stamina department. I am just glad no one broke a toe. I’m so glad we came.
Driving home, she is staring out the window with heavy lids. “What?” I tease her. “You’re going to sleep on me?” At the sound of my voice, her eyes fly open and she looks at me with those big, distant, pale blue eyes. “That’s better” I say. “Can’t have you falling asleep on me before lunch!” A few minutes later, she’s sitting there again with her eyes closed, but a giant sly grin on her face. “What are you doing?” I say playfully. Her smile broadens, but her eyes stay closed. She starts giggling. Oh my gosh, I think. She’s making a joke! An actual joke! “Did you have fun today buddy?” I ask her tenderly. I don’t expect an answer. She’s never spoken to me. I’m answered with the familiar silence of a lifetime of one-sided conversations. I take the liberty of filling in the blanks.
She opens her eyes and stares into space. She’s in her own world. Population of one. Despite my attempts, there is seldom room for one more. I reach out and hold her hand. This time, she lets me.
This is an original post to http://www.welcometomyplanet4.blogspot.com/ by Alicia DiFabio.