The Special Olympics got me ready for game time

Winslo Riley, left, with his coach, Amy Jones, competes with David Gustavson during a Special Olympics Minnesota bocce ball competition at Beltrami Park July 19, 2015, in Minneapolis. (Newscom/ZUMA Press/Jerry Holt)

When I was 12, I was walking home from softball practice, alone, on a Friday afternoon.

I stopped in the Vons grocery store at the bottom of the hill below our house to use their pay phone to call my Mom, and ask her if I could get a ride the rest of the way. I was wearing cleats, and they were click click clicking on the sidewalk, and not very comfortable on my feet.

When she didn't answer the phone, I walked over to the produce department to pick out an apple for the rest of the walk. What I found there changed my life.

As I poked among the apples -- feeling their firmness, smelling their red, mottled skins -- I saw a little blond boy across the aisle stuff a fistful of green grapes into his mouth. His mother came up behind him with her cart, and tapped him on the shoulder. He jumped at what I assumed was the surprise of being caught. As he turned to her, her hands started flapping furiously in the air. Her face and gestures told him clearly that she was unhappy, but it was without spoken words. Silent mother fury. I realized that the boy was deaf.

I stood staring -- probably with my mouth hanging open, because that's how I roll, just ask my kids -- and thinking how cool it was that he was getting in trouble. It struck me that Mom was not giving him any slack for his deafness. She did not feel sorry for him, or herself. Her kid had just stolen something, and he was busted. She was reading him the Riot Act, but with her hands and face.

I thought, "She is the best mom. She is treating him just like a normal kid."

Suddenly, a large voice said through me, in me, around me: "You will be, too."

I dropped the apple I was holding back into the pile.

Now if you have read any of my other pieces, you probably figured out that I have always been a spooky little Catholic girl. I learned early on that for me, prayer is less about yammering at God about what I need or want, and more about doing my best to just shut up and listen. I recognized the voice.

So, after I trudged up the hill in my cleats, I sat and thought about it. I admired that mom, and candidly felt pretty good about the idea of my being like that. I decided I better start practicing.

Serendipitously, on Monday at St. Euphrasia School, there was a fluorescent orange flyer posted on my seventh-grade classroom bulletin board. It said the local YMCA was looking for volunteers for a dance for what were then called "handicapped" kids. It was for that Friday night, and it was a fundraiser for Special Olympics.

I smiled, looked up at the speckled ceiling, and thought, "Now you are just showing off."

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A version of this story appeared in the January 15-28, 2016 print issue.

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