It is spring 2016, and James will be competing for his second year in the Hudson Valley Region Special Olympics, a gathering of more than 825 athletes from seven counties who compete at West Point Military Academy just north of New York City.
James, Charlotte, and I gather in the gym of a local elementary school for the first practice and see familiar faces from last year. I see Ron, whose large body is soft and untoned but powerful in its size. He throws his mass around, ignoring his mother as she tries to control him. His eyes are tender and sweet, but quick and unfocused; he can only say a handful of words. I spy little Marco, who can be no more than seven and has a perfectly functioning body but constantly runs away from the group. Then there’s Marie, who is not totally blind, but has what is called “low vision”—with very blurry or restricted vision—just like James. She is sharp of mind with glasses that double the size of her eyes, one of which wanders in toward her long nose. I see Howard, a grown man at 25, whose droopy eyes stare as he opens and closes his jaw repeatedly, almost as if he were trying to yawn. There was a time when I would have resisted being a part of this group, which ranges so widely not just in age, but in condition. I would have argued that these are not my son’s “peers” because some of them have brains that are slower, their behaviors erratic—even violent—and many of them can’t hold a conversation with him.
But I have left phone messages and sent e-mails to those “typical” boys James wants to be friends with. The families who have not totally blown us off usually wait about six weeks to respond, and it’s perhaps another month before we can schedule anything. They are busy—baseball, football, soccer. You know. I should honestly be teaching him that if you have to call a friend four times before his mom calls back to schedule something, it’s a sign. But he does not get it. He cannot imagine that these boys don’t like him, don’t want to hang out with him. I tell him the mothers are not good at getting back to me. “Jesse’s mom is just not good with texting back,” I say. But when they do come over, they are so sweet with him. They do whatever James wants to do. They spend an hour playing T-ball with him, waiting as he takes 5, 6, 20 swings with the plastic bat before the wiffle ball topples onto the ground and he runs the “bases” of orange cones, his arms writhing uncontrollably with excitement. I teach them to do as we in our family do, to “run in oatmeal”—a phrase coined by his sister Charlotte—that is, we run slowly and never catch James.
In addition to being legally blind, James has low tone in all the muscles in his body, which means they don’t work very well for him. He also has uncontrollable shaking and trouble with balance. His limbs writhe involuntarily, especially when he runs, as if he were about to fall off the high-wire even though he’s on solid ground.
In Special Olympics, participants have to choose to do either the 50-meter walk or the 50-meter run. In the spring of 2015, the first year he participated, he wore what they call “non-articulating” orthotics, solid right angles of hard plastic that extend from under his toes, around his heel, and all the way up to below his knee, with no joints at the ankle. I held his hand and ran the time trial with him; I didn’t want him to get knocked down by the other big bodies in the race, some hurtling with little control down the school sidewalk. When I asked him which he wanted to do, he said, “Duh waht.” I was disappointed as I watched him “waht” away.
It was then that I got the idea that I could have another pair of orthotics made just for sports. The doctors had convinced us that he needed the solid orthotics for most of his everyday life because they prevent “crouching.” For years, he had been walking without fully extending his legs (with a slight bend at the knee)—this is called crouching. He lacks the muscle strength to fully straighten, but this type of gait can lead to long-term spinal and hip problems. So he has been wearing the solid braces for over a year with less crouching. But after that first experience doing Special Olympics, I got him a second pair of orthotics that bend at the ankle. He chose a new, more mature design—rather than the construction vehicles on his other pair, he chose a serene green with raindrops. He does love the rain.
This year, during the time trial, he was able to get just the slightest bit of lift in his disjointed lumber as he struggled the 50 meters, his tongue thrusting in and out of his mouth the whole way.
“Are you doing the run or the walk, James?” my husband Daniel asked him.
“Duh wun,” he replied.
I have been reading Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe. It’s such a luxurious break from my regular life, to dive into how Einstein came up with the theory of relativity, how he shattered our concept of how bodies move in space. Before Einstein, it was widely understood that our world was made of three dimensions—1) forward/back, 2) left/right, 3) up/down. But Einstein discovered a fourth dimension, time. And for any body, moving or at rest, the total of the velocity of this motion in all four of these dimensions always adds up to the speed of light. If a person is standing still, that means he has zero motion in the first three dimensions and that, to make up the difference, his velocity through time equals the speed of light. Conversely, if his body is moving, his velocity through time slows as his body accelerates.
That way, all our timelines match up when the train stops. We are all running in oatmeal, even more so as we accelerate through our lives.
I watch as the team does a practice 50-meter dash. It is drizzling. Raindrops fall on the image of raindrops on James’s braces. There are orange cones at the start and finish of the 50-meter run. I nervously position James on the side, away from Ron and Jeremy, both with huge bodies and little sense of where they are in space. Genevieve warms up absently, swinging her elbows left to right, her lip hanging slack on one side, her wispy curls catching in her mouth. Suddenly she is smiling broadly and dodging a playful swipe from Jeremy. James’s body tremors never stop, his arms and legs always twitching and jerking as he stands at the starting line. Coach Johnson yells the signal.
“Ready. Set. Go!”
The stampede is on. All 12 of them are careening along at very different speeds and ranges of motion. Jeremy rockets forward with almost no sideways motion. Genevieve hauls her womanly hips left and right much more slowly, but at a good clip. Marie holds her hands in tight, mincing her steps, cautious of what she cannot see through the thick new prescription of raindrops collecting on her lenses. James’s body releases at Coach’s voice, arms and legs splaying widely, his body spending nearly as much time in the left/right dimension as in the forward dimension. His head bobs back and forth. His hair is wet and sticking to his glasses. But his ankles are bending just enough at the bolt secured in his braces, just enough to get some lift into that third dimension, up! He is trailing the whole chaotic group, with wild, erratic motions toward the final cone at Coach’s foot. Jeremy is over the finish line before I can blink, but as his speed increased, physics tells us that he ran in slow motion. From my perspective, all I see is the maximum velocity they can all reach, that each of us can reach every second of our lives in this magical, elegant universe. James is slower in the three dimensions and yet, including his more-rapid and (for once) graceful swim through time, he is racing along in another dimension like a sleek dolphin, neck and neck with the others, with the rest of humanity at the speed of light. No one is losing. The rest of us “normal” folks are just running in oatmeal.
Since Einstein, it has been theorized that there are as many as seven additional unknown dimensions, in addition to the four. I’m amazed that we have been aware of time passing for, well, all of time. But until Einstein, we did not catch on that it was another dimension integrated with the rest of our universe. What if there were some part of our everyday experience that is as ordinary, as ever-present as time, but that is actually another dimension, and we just don’t know it yet? What about our feelings? Could love and inspiration and pride contribute to our overall velocity in our universe? Physics tells us that Usain Bolt, the world’s fastest man, and my son run the 50-meter at the same speed when the dimension of time is taken into account. Neck and neck at the speed of light. But watching these kids, I imagine that the joy on their faces, the fearlessness in their hearts can bend space-time. If so, it’s certainly possible that they are actually ahead of the rest of us, their smiles radiating an energy still a mystery to science, their hearts doing the impossible—pushing them faster than photons. And in that reality, no matter hard we try, we will never catch them.