Special Olympics, Uber, and the kindness of strangers.

Posted Jun 25, 2019

Larry Garvin, used with permission
Margaret with her medals.
Source: Larry Garvin, used with permission

My sister Margaret emerged from the Washington State Special Olympics earlier this month with two medals for swimming. The competition, held at the Weyerhaeuser King County Aquacenter in Federal Way, is an almost annual event for my sister, who is 53 and has been competing in Special Olympics since 1998.

That last sentence contains a host of assumptions: that someone taught my sister to swim, that Special Olympics happens every year and that my sister always gets to go. None of those things is true. Our parents not only don’t swim, they can’t swim. Margaret taught herself to swim in the same way she taught herself to ride a bike. 1) Observe. 2) Do.

The games themselves can’t be taken for granted either: This year the Trump administration tried to cut funding for the 51-year-old program from the 2020 budget. Last year the neighboring state of Oregon canceled the games less than a month before they were scheduled to take place, citing financial problems. In 2015, more than 1,500 athletes and coaches from all over the world were stranded at LAX due to a transportation mix-up and ended up sleeping on the floor of a gym.

But these are just the stories that make the headlines. Smaller disasters happen all the time — cuts to local chapters, a lack of volunteers, double-booked practice facilities. I say disaster because for someone like Margaret the repercussions of something as simple as a canceled swimming practice can ruin her entire day as she has such a difficult time resetting her expectations. And because she really loves to swim.

As for Margaret’s attendance at the games, the Washington State Special Olympics are a high point in her year. But to earn her right to go, she has to earn a medal at regionals in Spokane. That doesn’t always happen — like the year she got disqualified for refusing to do the crawl because she wanted to try the breaststroke. That time she swam along, glaring at her coach — who had deemed it too complex a stroke for her to master — and getting disqualified. She cast a withering look at the ribbon she got instead of a medal. But she did earn her right to swim breaststroke.

This year our mother reported Margaret’s win ruefully. Like my friend Lori, who cheered loudly at her kid’s baseball games while silently praying the team wouldn’t advance, my mother had been hoping Margaret wouldn’t medal at regionals. 

“I feel bad, but I really don’t want to go,” she said, laughing as she told me.

My mother will be angry at me for saying this, but she is tired. She will be 77 this year. She has an artificial hip, a knee replacement, and iron deficiency, and has been momming Margaret for 53 years straight.

Unlike Lori, who saw her boys off to college and can put her feet up and celebrate a job well done, my mother will never see Margaret fledge. Margaret has severe autism and will always need 24-hour assistance. My parents are no longer her primary caregivers but remain active in her life. While we have talked about passing the baton on certain important events, like this one, Margaret’s insistence on sameness has presented an obstacle.

Driving to Federal Way with Mom, staying in a motel, competing at the Weyerhaeuser King County Aquacenter, and going to the post-meet party and driving home with Mom equals “The Trip.” (If you want to know how my sister feels about change, ask the checkers at our local grocery story what happened when someone moved the Ding Dongs in 1988. They all probably still have PTSD.)

My mother didn’t say she was tired. She said she was worried about driving to the post-game party at Pacific Lutheran University (PLU) because her night vision isn’t what it used to be. I suggested she take a cab from the motel. Brilliant, she said, and I felt like a genius. This is not the first time I’ve felt smugly helpful about my sister. That feeling lasted until I heard how things went.  

“Catch a cab.” Put that down on the list of things not to take for granted. PLU is located off of Washington’s I-5 — an aggravating snarl of traffic at best and a parking lot at worst. So after my mother asked the motel clerk to call her a cab, she and Margaret sat in the hotel lobby waiting for more than half an hour for it to show.

Waiting causes my sister extreme anxiety. She’s a large person and her frustration can be alarming to people who don’t know her. Mom reminded her that they had to wait quietly. But with the party only two hours long, the clock ticking and the cab not showing, things were not looking good. After 30 minutes, the cab company called the front desk and said the driver was stuck in traffic and couldn’t make it.

This moment could have been the end of the world with Margaret running out of reserves and our mother running out of options. Instead, it was the beginning of a happy ending. 

The young clerk was probably making minimum wage at this roadside motel and had likely seen it all, including things much worse than someone with autism getting agitated. She could have shrugged it off and gone back to her office. Instead, she asked my mother if she had Uber. My mother showed her the flip phone she carries. The young woman hesitated and then offered to call a car for my mother and sister on her own phone and have my mother reimburse her. My mother gratefully accepted, and with the magic of the tech world, a car arrived within minutes and the driver, an immigrant from India named RJ, whisked them down the highway. 

It took almost half an hour to get to the party. RJ asked my mother how she would get back to the motel. She said she would ask the other parents at the party to help her call a cab or an Uber. They both knew that would be difficult, given the location, so RJ gave her his phone number and said to call him when she was ready to leave. Mom never did find the other parents at the party, so she called RJ and he drove them back to the motel. He’d gone out for a sandwich instead of taking other fares so he would be in the neighborhood when she got done. 

This man couldn’t fathom how far his kindness carried. It wasn’t just that he got my family to and from their destination, or that he’d waited and hadn’t charged for that. He had no guarantee that they would call for a return ride. But his small kind act of kindness, and the clerk’s, turned the evening into a success instead of one of many small disasters that befall my sister. 

At the motel, Margaret jumped out of the car and rushed toward the room while my mother paid RJ and thanked him profusely. When she tried to explain how grateful she was, the guy just smiled and said, “God sent me to you.” 

I left the Catholic church in my 20s. My mother, on the other hand, is one of the old school social justice Catholics who’s holding the pieces together. She serves at mass six days a week in the parish she was baptized in and does no end of other kind things for others — tutoring children with learning disabilities, volunteering at a shelter for women and kids, countless donations to service organizations, from the local food bank to international aid organizations and dozens of other things she doesn’t tell us about (like driving homeless people with her to the bank to get cash for them because she didn’t have any when they asked. This is something she has promised to stop doing. Right, Mom?) And yet she always seems so surprised when strangers go out of their way to help her. I believe it’s all that kindness coming back to her.

The US Census Bureau reported there were an estimated 40 million Americans living with disabilities in 2015. It’s easy to read a number like that and, if you do not have any loved ones that fall in that category, think of those people as “others.”

It’s easy for someone who doesn’t know her to look at my sister and think of her as “other.” She seems strange. She doesn’t make eye contact and she rushes around. She appears to ignore people. At her worst, she can be frightening — yelling and shoving people. But at her best, she’ll breeze into the lobby of a motel and trill, “Well, hello there!” at the clerk, as if they are old friends, like she did this time at check-in. And she’ll holler. “Thanks very much! Ba-bye! Thank you! Have a nice day!” as she gets out of an Uber.

We all have others — male, female, nonbinary, gay, straight, bi, trans, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, atheist, documented, undocumented, brown, white, black. It’s hard to make an argument for some standard of “normal” when you stand back and take a good look at this country and this world. 

I wonder how the clerk and the driver would tell this story. Would they describe my big sister’s strange behavior — her silence and her sunshine? Or laugh about my mother’s flip phone? Maybe they would say that it felt really great to be able to help a stranger. That in this messed up world we are living in, in times that our country continues to divide and divide and divide, they saw an opportunity to reach out and do one simple thing that would so clearly help someone else.  

Maybe they saw what my friend Emily would call an opportunity to wage kindness. Perhaps they’ll do something like that again and whomever they help will be inspired to do the same. Maybe we all can look for those golden chances to turn tiny disasters into victories. 

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