My brother has autism, loves to drink pop and loves to bowl.
Thursday night is bowling night. The lanes used to be run out of a full, warehouse-sized bowling hall. For most of its life it retained a musty, 1980s air to it, with faux wood paneling, yellowy carpet and blitzy arcade. There were even table-top arcade cabinets of Pac-Man and Dig Dug.
It recently, however, moved into a leased space of a former bingo hall. From 16 lanes down to 6. There’s barely enough room to move.
The Special Olympics meets here weekly. I walk inside and bring Tony up to the registration table—which he promptly leaves to run into the bathroom. I have to stop him and tell him that the men’s washroom is on his left. Afterwards I guestimate his shoe size by pressing my foot up against his—about a 10. The place is loud and rowdy.
I lead Tony over to Lane 4. “Pop, please,” he says. I go to the concession, get him a Pepsi, and it’s gone quickly. I stand against the counter, and cheer my brother on. He eagerly awaits each turn, and when he goes his team cheers him on. He looks back to me every now and then, and I give him a thumbs up.
He returns it with a smile.
There’s an incredible sense of closeness in here, not just in physical space (or lack thereof) but also in the players themselves.
Yet the closeness doesn’t bother the players. It’s a gathering of people you’d probably not pay much attention to. Or, if you saw them walking down the street, you might look away from. For some, their disabilities are prominent in their physical features. Others it’s in their actions and mannerisms.
One of the players is on the team beside us. He wears a bright pink hoodie that shouts “here I am”. He shakes my hand and hugs me, tells me his name is Stephen. Stephen takes off his glasses and presses them up to mine. Through his lenses, the world seems warped and distorted, but they’re fine for him.
“You need glasses too!” he exclaims, then starts scratching someone’s back.
As I walk to the concession stand, an older gentleman with a Chris Hadfield moustache holds a hand out to me as a high five. I press my hand up to his, and his fingers gently wrap around mine, wordless, expressionless. It’s only a second before he lets go.
The game starts and the bowlers get going. Some heft the ball with flair. Others, like my brother, gingerly roll the ball down the lanes. The ball sometimes gets stuck, but there’s no heckling, only cheering.
“Did Tony just get a new haircut?” Stephen asks. “Yes, he looks pretty sharp,” I respond.
“You should get a haircut.” He’s right.
One of the bowlers uses a guide, and hobbles over to the bowling balls and picks one up with the wrist of his bent hand. A remarkable act of coordination. He helps one of the men in a wheelchair to roll the ball down the lane.
Hardly a sad or bored face among them. All of them happy to live in the clear and present now, where all that matters is bowling and friends and pop. Gutter balls don’t matter, and there’s enough gusto to
Worrying about later, the future, what we’ll do tomorrow or what we’ll have for dinner; worrying until we die stressed and with ulcers in our stomach; that is for us “normal” people.
Only “normal” cares about protruding teeth, hands curled at the writs, fidgeting fingers, or the shapes of heads and faces. Only “normal” cares about the strange sounds and jumbled happiness coming out of their mouths.
Perhaps “normal” needs to reconsider what’s normal. As my brother’s caretaker once said, it’s just a setting on a washing machine.
Have a pop. Throw a ball.
The names and descriptions have been changed to protect people’s identities.