Tuesday, May 27, 2008

An Adult with Autism The Story of Jamie Part 4

A few days later, Alice was at home preparing for the flight she and Rob would take to China. The phone rang. It was someone from Easter Seals.

Rob was dead.

Alice heard the words, but couldn't believe them. Her heart felt like it might pound out of her chest.

Doctors suspect Rob's death was related to his epilepsy, though they are still not sure of an exact cause. He was 36 years old.

Numb and grieving, Alice left the next day for Shanghai alone, convinced news of the coach's death had to be kept from her son. She feared it would be too much for him to handle. She wouldn't let it destroy everything Rob had helped Jamie achieve.

Jamie found himself in the heart of a neon-draped city of 18 million. Aging high-rise apartments spread across the landscape like tobacco-stained teeth, laundry covering every window in patchwork colors. Rivers of cars, taxis and rickety trucks droned incessantly and filled the tropically humid summer air with an almost sooty exhaust.

This was a city born to overwhelm the senses.

Jamie had spent several days living with a Chinese host family. They made dumplings together around the kitchen table. The mother and father tried to teach Jamie origami, but he grew frustrated and slumped down alone on the family's sofa, asking if he could just watch TV.

At opening ceremonies, he marched through Shanghai Stadium to the cheers of more than 70,000 spectators and watched sparks from a brilliant array of thunderous fireworks fall from the sky.

Through it all, Jamie seemed remarkably unfazed, as if defying autism. Maybe the weeks of mental preparation worked. Maybe a survival instinct, triggered by a world of rampant changes, kept his emotions in check. Or perhaps it was just another unexpected quirk of his mysterious disorder.

On Oct. 3, five days before his competition, he sat on a weight bench, working out in a narrow, steamy gym. A few spots down was a group of Syrian powerlifters, and past them a cluster of athletes from the Philippines.

He calmly followed his coach's commands. After one lift he looked up at Mitch.

"I did real good, right?" Jamie asked, nodding his head yes, not waiting for an answer. "I got it real good that time."

He flexed his muscles and pounded his chest.

"I'm monstered up!"

When he got off the team bus at the hotel, Alice stood waiting. After a hug she stepped back and eyeballed her son top to bottom.

"Baby you've lost weight," she exclaimed with motherly concern. "Have you been eating enough?"

"Yeah, Mom. I'm eating good," Jamie said.

She lifted his Team USA shirt and examined his belly.

"I don't think he's getting enough food," she said, shaking her head.

They chatted in the hotel lobby. Alice wanted to know every detail of the trip. But after about 10 minutes, Jamie grew distracted.

"I better go up to my room now, Mom," he said, heading off to the elevator without even a kiss goodbye.

Alice smiled.

"He's treating me like he does at home," she said, shrugging her shoulders. "So at least I know he's comfortable."

Amid all the distractions, Jamie never asked why Rob wasn't there.

In fact, he didn't notice Rob's absence until about five minutes before he was supposed to compete.

Jamie was with his mother near the front of Zaibei Gymnasium. Hundreds of Chinese schoolchildren, all dressed in white, sat in the stands rattling toy clappers that filled the room with the sound of plastic thunder. A stage rose up from the gym floor, backed by a curtain that carried a broad banner announcing the theme of the 2007 Special Olympics: "I know I can."

Racks of circular weights sat center stage, bathed in light. The recorded boom of an up-tempo symphony pulsed through the room.

Jamie looked at Alice, confused.

"So Rob's not going to be here, then?" Jamie asked.

"No, dear. Rob got sick and he wasn't able to make the flight."

"OK. So Rob's not going to be here then, right, Mama?"

"That's right, baby. But listen."

Alice pulled Jamie close. She put her hand on his chin and made sure his eyes were looking into hers.

"Rob's right here, Jamie," she said, pounding the flat of her hand on his chest. "He's in your heart."

Jamie nodded.

"You can do this," Alice said. "You can do this. You can do it."

"I know," Jamie said, unconvincingly. "I can do it. I believe it."

He tried to shake his mom's hand. She pushed it away and grabbed him, squeezing him tight.

The Team USA powerlifters were a boisterous group, nearly two dozen men and women of such disparate heights, body shapes, abilities and disabilities that no two seemed remotely alike. But they were unified, and loud:

"C'mon Jamie! Let's go!"

Jamie walked onto the stage, sank his hands into a bowl of talcum powder then clapped them together. He seemed to like the dramatic effect of the thick puff of white dust.

He was competing against five other men in his weight class.

His first attempt was light, 140 pounds, but it was critical.

Just days before the competition, Mitch had unwittingly put more weight on the bar than Jamie could handle. When he wasn't able to lift it, Jamie became flustered.

He talked about it for a day or so, asking Mitch, "You're not going to put too much on the bar, right? I'm going to be able to lift it next time, right?"

During his first lift at the Illinois State Games in June, Jamie had lost his composure when the judges' lights turned out to be white instead of the familiar green. It ruined the rest of his performance. If he failed this first lift, a similar meltdown could follow.

Jamie approached the rack, fixed his shoulders under the bar and assumed the starting position. On command, he bent his knees and began to squat, head up, eyes focused forward. He flexed his legs at the next command, driving himself to an upright position, then dropped the bar back onto the rack with a clang.

The three judges illuminated two white lights and one red. Two out of three meant a good lift.

Jamie's hands shot up in the air. This time he had been coached to understand that there would be no green lights, that white meant good.

He knew he had done it.

His second squat was flawless, so was the third.

Each time Jamie came to the stage, his confidence seemed higher. He steamrolled through three sets of bench press, pumping his fist harder after each good lift.

The crowd loved him. After each round he turned to them, put his hands flat together in front of his chest and bowed like a warrior.

The final competition was the dead lift. The bar rested on the ground—260 pounds awaited.

Standing upright, Jamie spread his feet wide. He squatted down, back at a 45-degree angle to the floor, butt thrust out, long fingers wrapped tight around the shiny silver bar.

His eyes moved past the crowd in front of him and on to a green Special Olympics logo on the wall at the front of the gym.

A judge said, "Lift!"

Jamie's mouth opened in a near-perfect circle as he slowly pulled the bar up. He scowled like one of the pro wrestlers he idolized.

As his hips straightened and the bar moved past his knees, he released a guttural RAHHHHHHH!

The form was perfect. No mistakes. All white lights.

Mitch let out a whoop. Jamie had just become one of the best in the world.

He medaled in each lift—bronze in the squat, bronze in the dead lift, silver in the bench press—and won silver for the overall competition.

Alice, in the stands, smiled tearfully. Mitch, on the floor, could barely believe it.

"He was more focused than I've ever seen him," the coach said, breathlessly. "All these people and all these distractions. I just told him, 'Focus. It's just you and the weight.' I'm so damn proud of him."

It was just after 4 a.m. in Chicago. The teachers and therapists who had taught Jamie to get up every day and navigate an often frightening world didn't yet know of his success. Neither did Rob's family, who had buried the coach in his hometown of Chicago Heights days earlier. The news would reach them soon enough.

On the stage in Zaibei Gymnasium, Jamie stood tall and soaked in the attention. He bent his knees and bowed his head, as another prize was gently lowered around his neck.

In all his years of competition, bronze and silver had never been good enough for Jamie. He had always shipped those medals to his grandmother in Texas.

But not this time. These he would keep for himself.

Jamie returned from China on a Friday night and wanted to go to work at Pete's Produce first thing Saturday morning. Alice said no, he needed to rest.

She also knew she had to tell him the truth about Rob.

They sat on Jamie's narrow bed, flanked by clusters of gold medals hanging on the wall—23 to the right, 22 to the left, another batch of 24 stuffed in the closet. Rob had played a role in Jamie getting most of those awards. They paved his way to victory in Shanghai.

Alice took Jamie's hand and slowly explained what happened to his coach.

Rob's dead, Mama? he asked, over and over again.

Yes, baby, she said. He's gone. But I just know he's so proud of you.

After about 10 minutes Jamie said he needed to watch TV. Alice knew that was her cue to leave.

The next morning they drove to a drugstore and Jamie brought up Rob again. This time he cried. It was the first time she had ever seen him cry for anybody other than himself.

All weekend Jamie said over and over that he couldn't believe Rob was dead, as if repeating it would force the idea into the tight structure of his life.

On Monday, Oct. 15, Jamie returned to work at Easter Seals. He strutted, shoulders thrust back, his four World Games' medals fanned across his chest. He soaked up the pats on the back, the handshakes from those who stopped to admire his bronze and silver awards.

"You the man, Jamie," said one teacher, passing by.

"Yep," Jamie said, nodding his head, "I'm the man too."

At 9:55 a.m., the young autistic adults in the vocational program began to file into the basement room and take their seats at folding tables, signaling the beginning of the work day. Jamie watched his friends for a moment then turned on his heels and walked to his black backpack hanging on the wall.

He bent his head down, lifted off the four medals and stuffed them into the backpack.

He went to his table and looked down at the array of red bins, at the screws and washers and small plastic parts. A moment passed. Then he spoke, to no one in particular.

"I better get back to work."

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