by Hugh Gilmore
My only comfort during a certain hard time in my life came from running at a nearby track. Pushing my body through the early evening air purged the day’s bitterness and readied me for tomorrow. What had begun as choice soon became a necessity.
Thus, one evening, I arrived at the field and was unpleasantly surprised to see it taken over by a small crowd of people. The track was closed to “outsiders.” My first reaction was to feel resentful, but then I saw that maybe sixty people were clustered busily around a few dozen young contestants in wheelchairs – some kind of Special Olympics event for kids.
I considered running down to the Wissahickon Creek paths, but curiosity compelled me to go linger near the track. I was curious.
I watched three teenage boys, their upper bodies well-developed, but their legs slack and thin, line up in lanes one, three and five for the 400-meter race. The starter held his pistol up. The boys bent forward. The gun fired and the boys pushed off, reaching full speed quickly. As they flew down the track, they’d lean forward and push the slanted wheels two or three quick times, look up briefly, look down and push again. Amazing stamina. And speed. Within what seemed an instant they came wheeling down the straight and it was no longer a contest. The biggest of the three boys won easily.
Standing near the fence I picked up words like ‘hit by,” “stop sign,” “drunk driver,” “fell down the … ,” enough to understand that these boys had once led normal lives. Okay in the morning, robbed of their legs in the afternoon. I watched a few more races, admiring these brave young athletes.
The final event was announced: a motorized wheel chair race. There were three contestants. The distance was 50 meters. These children were more severely handicapped. They were younger than the earlier competitors and their bodies more distorted. Problems from palsy, dystrophy, ataxia, aphasia, plegia – the Murphy’s Law gamut.
What the racers had to do in this event was use some part of their hands, even a finger, to pull a small switch on the arm of their chair, firmly enough to make the chair move down the lane to the finish line.
Parents and brothers and sisters and cousins and aunts and grandparents and friends and fans and other competitors lined up along the route. Everyone awaited expectantly. People called, “Okay, Emily,” “Get ready, Cody, you can do it,” “This is it, Darryl, this is it.”
No pistol for this race, just, “Ready … set … go.” And twisted fingers on twisted hands pulled the switches that told the chairs to move forward. The race was on.
Except for Emily.
While Darryl and Cody coursed down the track, people shouting “Come on, Cody,” “Let’s go, Darryl,” Emily’s chair hadn’t moved. Her neck was involuntarily turned ninety degrees, her mouth in rictus, chin lifted, eyes aimed up into the trees above, as if to ask heaven why she was here.
Darryl and Cody finished to cheers. People came up and high-fived them for finishing the race so well. Most of the crowd after that were talking, drinking sodas, wandering away from the finish line. Some of the wheelchair-accessible vans were being readied for loading. Others were pulling away already, people calling to one anther, “See you at Districts.”
Back at the track, Emily had moved a little, but still had forty meters to go. Her people neither wanted to give up on her, nor put too much pressure on her about finishing, so the encouragement was low-key, especially compared to what the two boys had been offered. Finishing, no matter how far back, is the great moral victory of American sports, “At least you finished,” the great consolation.
A young woman, perhaps Emily’s older sister, had come onto the track and realigned the wheelchair and placed Emily’s fingers over the lever and held her own hand over them and pulled with her. The chair moved forward, the young woman walked beside Emily.
With each gain in momentum, the woman took her hand away so Emily would seem to be moving on her own. Though Emily still stared to her right and up into the sky, there was enough residual pull in her fingers to make the chair go forward another few meters before slowing to a stop. Then the young woman put her hand over Emily’s again so it looked like they were pulling together again, and let go again. The strategy obviously was to continue like this until Emily completed the race, so I walked down to the end and waited with the dozen people there. We’d watch to see what kind of kick Emily had saved for the home stretch.
Bless that young woman who’s helping her, I thought, and bless Emily, and bless all those who wait for the weak and slow to catch up.
The woman guided Emily down the lane until she was two meters from the finish line, and let go. Emily kept the throttle open through the final gap and crossed that awful, arbitrary, magical, imaginary line in the road we call the end. The crowd roared – as much as fifteen people can – and hugged one another and hugged Emily and spoke excitedly about how much “progress” she’d made and “how far she’s come.”
The race had been for the family. Emily was far away from caring and lived in another dimension. It was the family that needed to see her cross that finish line. Without that, they couldn’t have packed up her wheelchair and driven home in the dark without crying, not with such images of those speedy boys, Darryl and Cody, in their memories, not while Emily sat strapped in the seat behind them, writhing through the movements assigned her by fate.
The track then officially reopened to the joggers and walkers who’d been waiting to come on. I stood near the gate, looking back at the lingering few from the Special Olympics. I’d been moved enough to hope someone would look my way and wave goodbye to me.
But that was only a wish and I thought myself silly for thinking it. I really needed to move fast. I needed to walk so hard and breathe so fast I got the feeling I was being carried by something bigger than myself, a ship scudding across the waves.
Hugh is the author of a collection of mostly true stories set in an old and rare bookshop. “Scenes from a Bookshop” is available most easily at Amazon.com in print and Kindle formats.