Last week was Cross Country time for many children in many schools. I didn’t give it much thought, really. Josh had been “training” with the rest of his classmates every morning this term. They’d do a couple of laps of the oval before they went into class. It was a nice way to warm up on a chilly morning. He just loved it, gradually increasing the number of laps he could do – even running six full laps on one particular day. Again I didn’t think too much about it, except to note the smile and the enjoyment on his little face when he recounted his day. Being an active kid is not unusual for him, since his wonderful, young teacher takes the class out daily to exercise anyway – sometimes sit-ups or push-ups, and always stretches.
Then it was the BIG DAY. Off he went on the bus with all the other kids to the school Cross Country Carnival. Me, not giving it much thought again, stopped for a coffee on the way and turned up to watch the race. Before long, Josh and the rest of the Grade 2 and 3 boys were lined up awaiting the start of their race. Josh was standing with his friends warming up with the abovementioned stretches, even sit-ups and push-ups with me chuckling to myself, thinking “…and how is that going to help you with your running…?”
It would be true to say that I didn’t give it much thought until the starting pistol was in the air. Then it hit me, and it hit me like a tonne of bricks. Oh my goodness, Josh has a DISABILITY! He can’t do this! I felt suddenly sick to my stomach and I began to get very, very nervous. He won’t do it next year, I thought. I can’t put him through this again. What’s going to happen when he comes last? Will he even finish the race? Why didn’t I THINK about this? It’s too late now! Of course he was going to come last. It’s a no-brainer. Josh has Joubert Syndrome which is a physical disability that affects his balance and co-ordination. He struggles with even the smallest tasks. What made me think that he would be able to run 1km in a race? A RACE? Was I mad? I felt helpless, terrified, horrified, like I was the worst mother in the world. Why didn’t I protect him?
Then before I knew it the pistol rang out and they were off! 26 little boys running their hearts out. And there was my darling Josh running too. He started quite well but it of course it only took a few seconds for him to fall well behind. By the 50m mark he would’ve been trailing the last of the pack by a good 20m. At that point my eyes started leaking – silent, quiet, hidden tears behind dark sunglasses because no-one needs to see me at my worst. I turned the video camera off as he disappeared from the oval to the “country” part of the course. Another mother from the school walked past behind me at that moment and said “He’s all heart your boy. What a spirit.” Well, that did it! The floodgates opened and I sobbed so hard even my legs were shaking. What had I done to my precious baby? I was helpless and so was he. What could I do? I couldn’t make more of a scene by running off after him so I decided the best thing to do was to wait and see how this panned out. I knew that there were marshals all around the course. I knew that everyone in our lovely small school knew Josh and that he wouldn’t come to any physical harm, so I waited. It might just be OK.
All of the other boys started coming back onto the oval for the final stretch to the finish line. I watched every other boy come back in one-by-one. Where was he now? A little while passed and I just kept willing him to come back through that gate. You can do it, Josh… C’mon… Please finish… You can be proud… The day’s program seemed to pause as everyone waited for Josh so they could start the next race.
That’s when I saw him. My brave, determined, precious Josh came jogging slowly through the gate. He was obviously tired, but he had a Grade 7 boy jogging alongside him, encouraging him. As they made their way around the track for the last hundred metres or so they were joined by another Grade 7er, and then another. C’mon Josh! You can do it! You can DO IT!
You know what? He DID IT! He ran all the way to that finish line and, with the whole of the school watching and cheering, ended with a dramatic shoulder roll. Not bad for a little boy who wasn’t even meant to walk. When he got back to his feet, Josh joined the rest of the group, skylarking and high-fiving his friends. He was smiling and animated. He was HAPPY! Where was the scared, sad, embarrassed little boy that I had expected? Here was a kid who was as proud as punch, mucking around with his mates. He walked off the oval smiling the biggest smile I have ever seen! He eventually saw me, ran up to me and said in his own unique little voice, “Mum, I came 26th!” I hugged him and hugged him. He knew there were only 26 boys in that race. He knew he came last. But he knew he did an amazing thing. He knew he had achieved greatness. Well, it looks like I got my wish that day. He finished that race and there was never a boy more proud of himself.
Upon reflection, I find it strangely curious that had I been a “better” mother Josh may not have raced at all that day. He may not have risked failure, sure. But he may not have had his incredible victory either. My idea of a “bad” mother and a “good” mother took on a whole new meaning that day. It’s certainly challenged my picture of ‘mother as protector’. I had let him go out into the world and he lived his life – his OWN life. He wanted to go. He went. He risked everything and he came home to open arms no matter what the outcome. Maybe that’s what mothering is meant to be – helping our precious little babies go out into the world to experience the ups and the downs just like we did, with unconditional love waiting for them upon their return.
It’s funny, you know. Not many people remember the name of the boy who won that race, but EVERYONE keeps talking about Josh and his bravery, his spirit, his achievement and his big, beaming smile.