Last night, shortly before 7 p.m. at Ballfield #5 in Lakeville MN, Heather Bernard came up to the plate, wearing an Ohio State pullover, and holding and jiggling her bat like she’d doubtless seen countless batters on television prepare for the pitch. (She looked pretty good, actually!)
The pitcher lobbed the softball towards the plate, and ultimately Heather swung and connected, a well hit ground ball. She dropped the bat and took off towards first, running harder than I’d ever seen her run, and she made it: an earned single. That hit was something to be really proud of, and I’m talking also about me, her Dad.
At that moment between home plate and first base, something else came together for me: the abundant good side of not only America, but of people generally, regardless of where they live, or how directly or indirectly they might be positively involved in others lives.
Heather is my daughter, 33 now, Down Syndrome. We think she was probably on the right team last night, but as I write I’m still not certain of that. Regardless, the coach fit her into the lineup, and she took seriously her position as short left-fielder, and like her teammates she had her turn at bat in the one-hour game.
Left alone in this game of life, Heather’s odds of even survival were never good. She was born with a serious heart defect which required several surgeries before she was five years old. She lives because a heart pacemaker keeps hers ticking!
And when I saw her running to first base last night, it was a testimony to modern technology: her first pacemaker allowed only a single level of activity; currently, the pacemaker adjusts to the level of exertion, and consequently Heather could actually run to first base, rather than slowly walk as would have been the case over 30 years ago.
Heather was playing ball last night because another community, likely primarily parents of similar special needs “kids” like Heather, who have organized and support a once a week league. Out of such leagues, come participants in the long well-established Special Olympics program. Indeed Special Olympics exists because of special needs kids. http://www.specialolympics.org/
Last night someone, likely a parent of one of the other participants, approached us with a flier from a local Pizza establishment who had agreed to make a large match, up to $5000, for contributions to this local activity. We live a long distance from the town, so I wrote out a check instead.
I gave thanks, last night, for something I’ve been aware of for years, but which only infrequently bubbles to the surface: we are bombarded every day with bad news, and all manner of political positioning on supposedly major issues of the day, but at the end of the day the big news is taking place in millions of settings across our country and across the world: settings like that Ballfield #5 in Lakeville MN last night.
It is useful to keep that in mind. We are the good – and the bad – of the huge community in which we all live. And we have a great capacity to make life better, or worse, depending on how broadly or narrowly we choose to define that word “community”.
A public community, very large, and largely invisible, has nurtured Heathers life over all these years.
There are lots of Heathers, and lots of communities. As we know, it’s not too many decades ago where her fate, realistically, would have been to end up in a School for the Feeble Minded somewhere…. I remember seeing one of these schools, frequently, when we went to visit our grandparents in a particular town in the 1940s and 1950s. The mentally deficient of the state were ware-housed there, and on pleasant days you could see them gathered on the lawn behind the fence, and we could look at them like one would look at animals in a zoo.
Our society looked at Heather’s kind differently then. That’s just as it was.
Hopefully in these troubled economic times we won’t be tempted to backslide….