Nolan’s first full season as a high school athlete as a member of his school’s Adaptive Sports League indoor baseball team has come to an end. I’m so happy I got to be a part of it during a time when any distraction from what was happening in the world – even if it was, at most, for just a couple hours two to three days a week – was very welcome.
My role as Nolan’s personal assistant coach/waiter/restroom attendant was necessary because it really was the only way he could participate. But we had our first true game of catch the first day of practice because of it. We stretched together, or as much as he could tolerate, and as much as my 50-year-old body would let me. We participated in drills together. I got to stand next to him in right field during games. When it was time to bat, No. 31, Nolan Bey (and dad) stepped to the plate.
Yes, I would say the two of us spent some quality father-son time together this spring. But what would Nolan, who has Autism and is nonverbal, say if he could? Would he say he enjoyed hanging out with ol’ pops and playing a modified version of the national pastime? Or was he wishing there was a “shut the *%^@ up, dad!” icon on his communication device as I told him for the 3,653rd time that game to watch the batter at the plate because he or she could hit the ball to us?
Thanks to a dear friend, I think I know.
Nolan’s team had just finished playing a rival school last Monday afternoon in the first round of the ASL playoffs. It had been a rough game for Nolan’s team, which lost by several runs. It had been a tough day overall for Nolan, who was coming off a weekend of very little sleep, and who had decided to relieve himself on the gymnasium floor in the first inning. I was happy that Cindy, who was able to leave work early, was willing to take Nolan for a ride before going home once the game ended. I also was happy at that moment that the season would be over the next day after the third-place game ended.
That was when one of Nolan’s former special education teachers, who now teaches at the high school Nolan’s team had just played, came over to say hello. She worked with him in second and third grade before being driven away by a principal whose knowledge of special education wouldn’t fill a shot glass. She was one of the very, very few positive things about the elementary school Nolan attended. She was the last person to do respite for us two years ago, and she’s someone with whom I would trust Nolan’s life. The number of names on that list would fill a quarter sheet of scratch paper.
We chatted for a moment, and she began telling me how happy she was that Nolan was playing in the ASL, and how well he had done. Nolan was nine years old the last time she had worked with him, and I know there were many days he’d made her job challenging. Last Monday, she saw him throw, catch, and bat – everything a baseball player at any level is supposed to do. More important, she saw a young man who appeared to be enjoying himself, and that genuinely moved her.
It was exactly what I needed to hear.
Far too often, I would have so many thoughts running through my head during a practice or a game (“Did I bring Nolan a large enough snack?” … “Will he go into the restroom at a different school?” … “Please don’t choke me, Nolan (yes, he put me in a stranglehold during one game). … “Watch for the ball, buddy!” … “One, two, three – swing the bat! … “WE’RE RUNNING TO SECOND BASE NOW – LET’S GO!!!”) that I forgot to step back and realize that, yeah, Nolan did seem to be enjoying himself most of the time and, yeah, he really was doing very well.
I think back to the days when Cindy and I registered Nolan for an adaptive baseball program through the local YMCA and he did not enjoy himself at all. Either one of his therapists or I would try to get him to engage with the other participants, but we had very little success. Either one of his therapists the inclusion specialist would spend more time giving him sensory breaks in the outfield that involved pulling him on a scooter while he held a hula hoop than they did teaching him how to play baseball.
To be honest, I wasn’t optimistic Nolan would make it past the first week of indoor baseball practice based on his past history. But he just built on that first practice and impressed me more and more.
I could point to the floor to let him know I was throwing him a grounder and he would crouch and pick it up. I would point to the ceiling to let him know I was throwing him a fly ball and he would look up and catch it with both hands. He would wait his turn in line for drills and throw the ball back to one of the coaches. He was able to stand in the outfield for the duration of a half inning, and he would sit in his assigned chair until it was his turn to be on deck before going to the plate. Sure, they might seem like little accomplishments, but they’re things he didn’t just a few years ago.
I was devastated last Tuesday when Nolan was sent home from school in the morning because he wasn’t feeling well and thus had to miss playing in the third-place game, which his team won. But Nolan’s coach, who also is his adaptive physical education teacher, sent me a nice email last Wednesday letting me know he too had seen what his former special education teacher had seen. He let me know that Nolan had taken significant steps forward this year, and that he appeared to be genuinely enjoying himself. I think he’s looking forward to this fall and having Nolan participate in a normal ASL soccer season. I know I am.
Maybe the indoor baseball season didn’t end the way every father dreams it will for his child. Maybe Nolan didn’t hit a walk-off grand slam to propel his team to the championship. Maybe he didn’t make a clutch catch deep in the outfield that killed the opposing team’s rally. And it’s disappointing that we couldn’t be a part of his team’s final game of the season.
But boy, I sure did enjoy being part of everything. Now I can really see that Nolan did, too.