Much like the first swim meet, Sarah Kate’s first softball game wasn’t exactly something I looked forward to with gleeful anticipation. I had two goals for softball: for Sarah Kate to enjoy it, and for me to survive it.
On Sunday afternoon, following three weeks of evening practices, I found myself sitting alone in the stands, avoiding eye contact with the other parents. Mercifully, it was a sunny day, so it was easy to hide behind my large-rimmed Costas. I didn’t want to see their faces when the moment arrived that her tiny difference shone like a sore thumb in an old slapstick cartoon.
Sarah Kate’s team – the Sky Rockets – was first to bat. I was both pleasantly surprised and filled with trepidation when I realized she had been placed in the middle of the batting order. Yes, she’d made contact with the ball more consistently than some of her peers, but running just isn’t possible. Batting practice isn’t the same as a real game.
Two swings and two strikes.
Despite knowing that I really should keep the urge to coach her to myself, I called out, “Keep your eye on the ball, baby!” A third swing made contact with the ball, and it plopped weakly into play. Fair ball. She dropped her bat and headed toward first base. Slow, steady, and consistent, but not what anyone would describe as “running.”
In a more competitive league, she’d have been thrown out at first base, no doubt. Seven- and eight-year-old girls in Mayberry, however, are ridiculously poor at fielding, so I thought there was a chance she might make it if the fielding was particularly inept. My heart raced as she made her way down the first base line; I tried to propel her through sheer force of my own will.
Just as I began to believe – yes, she might make it to first! – she tripped and fell. A knot formed instantly in my already queasy stomach.
Get up, baby, and keep going, I screamed silently in the far reaches of my brain. I was thankful at that moment that I had moved up next to the fence to take her photo in the batter’s box. I didn’t want to see the other parents behind me. I wanted them to be cheering her on, like I was, but I feared that if I looked back I’d see pity in their eyes instead.
She got up. Mercifully, the first baseman bobbled the ball, giving her a few more precious seconds to plod along down the first base line.
The onlookers around me clapped as I climbed back into the stands. She advanced to second base shortly thereafter – a challenge in itself because I feared that the runner behind her might actually lap her if the coach signaled her forward – but she failed to make it any further before the end of the inning. One at bat, one hit, no outs.
At the bottom of the inning, Sarah Kate took her place in right field, chatting it up with the coach nearby, who gently signaled her to pay attention. She played with the dirt, scooping it up into her brand-new glove. No balls came her way, so the opposing team’s time at bat was uneventful for this nervous momma. Before I knew it, a new inning, and in what seemed like no time, the Sky Rockets had made it all the way through the batting order and Sarah Kate was up again.
On the second pitch, she made contact with the ball. Once again, she headed toward first base with her awkward gait – right arm reflexively extended into the air, an outward sign of the dysfunction in her nervous system. Slow and steady, she made her way down the first base line once more, but this time, she stayed on her feet.
Even better, a teammate further up in the batting order crossed home plate.
Her first RBI.
Once again, Sarah Kate was left on second base at the end of the inning. She trudged toward the dugout to retrieve her glove and then returned to her place in right field.
Two at bats. Two base hits. No outs. One run batted in.
I was beside myself with pride.
Ever since Sarah Kate was a toddler who couldn’t toddle, we’ve pressed for her to be included in typical activities, and only occasionally participated in those designated for children with disabilities. It was our firm belief that because she’d be living in The Real World as an adult that she should experience it as a child so that she could learn to navigate it effectively in spite of her challenges.
What softball made me realize is that our constant insistence on having her be “just another kid” has been successful. Her disability is just a tiny piece of who she is, and everyone treats it that way. Her coaches treat her like every other kid on the field. Her teachers do the same. Her peers at school and on the field may cheer a little harder for her, but they don’t do it out of pity. They do it because everyone loves to see the underdog succeed, and because they love her.
On the other hand, softball forced me to accept that despite my efforts to achieve the most typical life possible for Sarah Kate, I’m also the biggest hindrance to her achieving it. The evidence came at the end of the game, when she was notably unimpressed by her performance. I don’t think it ever occurred to her that she wouldn’t do well. Her heart was blissfully unaware of the possibility of failure – not because she’s ignorant of her reality – but because she’s confident in her ability.
That’s my girl.
Epilogue: My friend, Jeni, is on the board of the girls softball league and was instrumental in convincing me to let Sarah Kate play. Coincidentally (or not?), she appeared in the stands immediately after each of Sarah Kate’s base hits to check us on. I’ve told her this privately, but I also want to say publicly how much I appreciate her encouraging me to do what was right for my daughter, in spite of the fear in my heart. Thank you, Jeni.