4:30 a.m. Saturday the alarm rings, I groan and force myself out of the cocoon of blankets and wonder why I am doing this, and if the pounding headache I woke up with two hours ago will go away soon. I move through the house adjusting the heat in each room and turning on the kettle before settling in the couch corner to watch the Weather Channel for a few moments. After a quick shower I check on Hillary and her feeding pump then, with a mug of tea in hand, resettle on the couch still wondering what I am doing this for. Not too long after, I begin the process of getting Hillary out of bed before the sun is up. Indeed, we have to be on the road shortly after the sunrise; and it’s snowing.
Hillary is uncooperative and unhappy to be forced from the nest of her bed so early for the sixth day in a row. As I coax her to eat her cereal and drink her milk she gives me looks that could kill but finally she’s finished. Bruce has warmed the van by driving to the bagel store to get our breakfast to go so we load our athlete into it and start out for the Special Olympics Area Bowling Tournament. She sleeps the whole way there, Bruce and I talk softly while he drives and I look out the window praying my headache, which has mostly subsided to a manageable level, will not return at the bowling alley.
Once inside, Bruce takes Hillary to check in while I locate and grab a nearby table as parents are not allowed in the bowling area once the competition begins. I try the tea in my travel mug and find that it is still boiling hot so I set it aside. Bruce returns briefly to let me know which lane to watch and continues on with our princess. He will stay with her until the volunteers are ready to take over. I watch them and as he talks to her she looks up at him from her wheelchair, adoring and laughing at her daddy. She is Daddy’s little girl, even at the age of 21. I see the other competitors enter the building, some with parents, most with attendants from their group homes or recreation programs. Adults with children’s faces, some I recognize from years past, some new to me, all excited to be at the event today. I notice that the man, Paul, who three years ago introduced himself to me by shaking my hand, asking my name and telling me that his father died, is there again, but now using a wheelchair instead of his walker. I wonder at his age. Then I spot the woman who asked me last year, with the trust and face of a five year old under her gray hair, to help her with the souvenir zipper pull the participants were given. She looks the same. As I make small talk with the two women sharing our table, who each work at a different group home, Hillary’s coach approaches me. She lets me know that since this is her senior year and so her last on their team, she has arranged for my daughter to be the American flag bearer for the opening ceremonies and that her teammate Alexandria will be pushing her wheelchair. I am touched by this and hope that we can get a good picture to add to the many I have taken of father and daughter laughing under the Special Olympics banner.
Finally the competition begins and I can look over the pictures we have taken with our iPhones. Some are good, and I post one of Bruce and Hillary laughing, the excitement apparent in her eyes, on Facebook. It will get many “likes” and a few comments if history is any indication. As we munch our bagels, chat, and watch the games we marvel that Hillary still is laughing as she waits her turn and her lane mates talk to her. This is a friendly competition. I cannot watch her laugh enough; she rarely smiles and rarely laughs. She wins the bronze medal which means in a month or so we will once again be up before dawn and sitting in a bowling alley much earlier than we would like. It’s ok, it will be worth it if it makes her happy. Whatever it takes to see that smile is what we will do. Suddenly getting up at 4:30, braving the weather, and sitting in a bowling alley with a pounding headache is worth it.