May 2, 2010

A taste of humble pie

When Alex was born we were given a lot of information by the professionals we met. One message I heard, that has recently hit home; Alex is our child first, a child with down syndrome second. She has inherited 46 of our chromosomes, and that makes her more alike us than not.

This was a valuable piece of information for me. I had never met anyone with down syndrome and only noticed people with down syndrome from afar. What I had thought I noticed and a very common stereotype; people with down syndrome have similar features, are small in stature, with slanting eyes and often overweight. I have since learned, this is absolutely false.

In terms of our family’s genes; Alex got her math prowess from her father, as did Courtney and Tom. She and Tom also have John’s beautiful green eyes. Courtney and I share my brown eyes. Alex, Courtney, John and I are relatively short; Tom seems to have gone back a couple of generations and may exceed his father’s height. I hope so. Like their father, all my kids love music.

Alex and Courtney have my brown hair, nose and small mouth. Many people remark Alex looks a lot like me; my other kids look more like their father. Alex has inherited my coloring, and unfortunately will never sport a nice tan. We burn, and then darken slightly, my other kids tan beautifully.

Courtney and Alex have also inherited one of my stronger qualities, my competitiveness. Courtney has learned how to manage this obsession towards winning, and used this ability to succeed in her academics and tennis. Alex has not learned this skill, and just like me, we battle this fear of failure on a daily basis. We hate to lose.

Alex has been rewarded for her competitive spirit at the Special Olympics. She excels at bowling, skiing, and track and field. She is the recipient of numerous gold and silver medals, as well as much praise from her parents and school peers. Perhaps, I have fed her ambition instead of controlling it.

Yesterday was the regional swim meet and yet another parenting lesson. Alex is a good swimmer, and has loved the water since she was a little girl. She can hold her breath longer than any of us, and loves to do handstands in the pool. She enjoys team practice with the NiƱo’s and is usually one of the more independent swimmers. However, she is NOT fast or gold medal/blue ribbon material. Still she wanted to compete and we supported her.

Alex swam in three events; the 50 yard backstroke, the 50 yard freestyle and a four person relay. She got a fourth, fifth and second place ribbon – in that order. I was proud she swam and despite swallowing half the pool, able to finish the 50 yard freestyle. As it turns out, Alex was not quite so happy with her positioning, particularly not winning.

At Special Olympic events the award ceremonies are usually done at lunch. There were 28 events yesterday and this was a long process, but worth the effort to see these athletes so proud of their performance. That would be every athlete except Alex.

Alex’s first ceremony was the 50 yard backstroke, a new event for her. She was fine on the podium when she got her fourth place ribbon (out of five competitors), but fell apart when she returned to our table. Alex was so upset about her placement she would not talk to me. She ran over to the corner and began to cry. I tried the usual “I am proud of you” routine, but she would not listen. I decided to let her stew.

When I returned to our table, Alex’s team mates were quite concerned. I used the opportunity to explain Alex was being a poor sport, and it was not good behavior. Her team mates understood and hopefully learned a lesson. I did when they recited the Special Olympics oath “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt." I am so impressed with her fellow athletes.

The next award ceremony for Alex was the 50 yard freestyle, she received fifth (or last) place. Alex stood on the podium and barely kept herself together. She ran off the podium as soon as the Olympic song stopped and began to sob uncontrollably in her corner. Once again, I decided to let her stew, at least until one of her fellow athletes tried to console her.

Alex is bit of a hit with the male athletes from the other teams. I go back to my comments about Alex shining with people similar to her. She is often one of the more popular girls at the dances held the evening before each event and everyone seems to know her. She eats this all up and it gives her much confidence that is lacking at her high school.

There is one particular thirty-something, mentally disabled, man who has been attracted to Alex for the last three years. We see him at the regional and state events every year and he loves to sit down next to Alex and try to woo her. Although she is very nice to him she tells me she is “only 16” and he is too old. I am happy with her response.

This nice young man tried to help Alex and make her feel better. He was unsuccessful; Alex was rude to him, and ignored him. This made him cry and me angry. I will not tolerate Alex being mean to any other athlete, particularly one who is trying so hard to help her. I grabbed her, made her apologize and insisted she come back to the table. She sulked over, but stopped crying. This affected the entire table of proud athletes. As they say, she was quite the buzz kill.

The final ribbon was for the relay with her teammates, they came in 2nd of six teams. Alex was okay with this and proudly wore her red ribbon; she had already removed the 4th and 5th place ribbons, and tried to throw them away (I have them!). At least she was able to share her teammate’s excitement about their finish. Buzz kill was slightly recovered.

Alex’s behavior was inappropriate and embarrassing for me. But unfortunately I know exactly how she feels. There is only difference between her reaction and mine; I can wear a smile until I get home. Alex cannot, she reacts immediately to her disappointment. Why did she have to get this particular gene from me, couldn’t she have gotten something nice, like my desire to be pretty and thin?

The Coaches talked to Alex before we left, and were able to comfort her, but she still came home in a funk. As I constantly remind myself; good sportsmanship and trying your hardest are more important than winning. It took me a long time to realize this, and Alex is still working in it. She went to her room and listened to music which seems to be happening a lot in our house recently.

I will need to talk to Alex about this everyday for a long time. I certainly talk to myself about good sportsmanship often enough, so I have the lecture memorized. This type of behavior cannot be tolerated and certainly not in Lincoln, so I must prepare her. Once again, easier said than done…

Alex has asked me not to tell anyone about her ribbons. I am not supposed to tell her father, her brother, her sister, her soccer coaches, teachers at school or her soccer team. I have crossed my fingers and agreed. Aren’t writing and telling entirely different things?

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