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An Olympic Spirit

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September 2008
An Olympic Spirit

By Sitara Nayak

Over the past couple of weeks I have been glued to the television as the Olympics unveiled itself, watching men and women reach almost superhuman levels of physical and mental endurance. Along with my anticipation and enthusiasm for the games, to me the Olympics is an epitome of human perfection: well chiseled bodies and determined minds.

This is in sharp contrast to my everyday reality. I am a mother of a child with special needs. My 6-and-a-half-year-old son Ishan needs full assistance with walking, talking, eating, and almost all everyday needs. Ishan is diagnosed with a rare genetic condition called cri du chat syndrome, besides a couple of other secondary diagnoses. As a result, he has weak muscle tone (he uses a wheelchair), is nonverbal, and has moderate to severe cognitive impairment.

During my pregnancy I did not for a moment think about the possibility of being a mother of a child with disabilities. Now, almost 7 years down the road of motherhood, I am eternally thankful that I have been blessed with huge doses of maternal instincts. I say this not to toot my own horn, but because it is mainly through these instincts that I am able to communicate, both with my son and for my son. I am his eyes, his ears, his legs, and his official translator/communicator. I can recognize almost every sound he makes, almost every facial expression he has, and almost every gesture. It is as if we can think the same thoughts together. I believe we are in such synchrony (at least for now) mainly because we face huge roadblocks together along the “normal” path, just as a deaf person may have better eyesight or a blind individual has acute hearing.

Despite all his physical and cognitive limitations Ishan has a splendid sense of humor, an uncanny ability to gauge people, a strong mind of his own, and a very good ear for music.

Our life moves at a much slower pace, physically slower. We can never just pop into a store or just jump out of the car for a quick errand, or scurry up the stairs if the elevator is taking way too long. We cannot just take Ishan to a fast food place if he is hungry, because he can eat only pureed food, and also because he has several food allergies.

But all this slowing down has its rewards. I get to experience the smaller joys and everyday beauty that would otherwise pass by me daily: like the sudden burst of cool breeze that blows on a hot day—I really appreciate this especially when I am hauling his heavy wheelchair in and out of the car—or the unadulterated laughter that bursts forth from Ishan every time we hit a speed bump on the road. While almost everyone around us races toward a triumphant finish, I get to literally stop and smell the roses.

The Olympic motto is "Citius, Altius, Fortius" (faster, higher, stronger). Although life with my son is far removed from being fastest, highest or strongest, we share the spirit of the games, for the Olympic Creed says, "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well." Everyday life with Ishan and for Ishan is a challenge. But it has been this struggle that has taught me so much about life, and it is this fight that defines me.

I think it is ironic that it is from my son, who is severely challenged, that I am being taught the lessons of the Olympic spirit.

[Sitara Nayak, who moved from Kansas three years ago, lives in the Atlanta area with her husband and son. She enjoys reading and gardening.]


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