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When My Son Who Survived Cancer Decided to Try Cross-Country Running

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The other day my son, Dylan, ran a race that he was sure he could never win. In fact, he was predicting he would finish last. For Dylan, this race was no different from many other experiences in his short life of 13 years. He cannot compete with peers his own age in verbal prowess, cognitive capability, social finesse, or physical ability. He isn’t on an equal playing field, due to his disabilities.

In his second year of life, we were faced with the possibility that Dylan would never learn to speak or walk. Having a triple diagnosis of neuroblastoma (cancer), opsoclonus myoclonus syndrome (neurologic disorder), and ADHD, life seemed to have become an unclimbable mountain. Since the initial diagnosis, Dylan has had physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, vision therapy, behavioral therapy, psychological therapy, basically all the therapies in an attempt to help him.

When another child asked him why he looked and sounded so different, my son simply replied, “because I had cancer as a baby.”

Mic drop.

Dylan has figured out how to shut up the haters and has a knack of disarming and engaging people. All people. Everywhere we go. As a toddler, Dylan would walk into a restaurant waving at the people at each table we would pass. He would never let me speak for him or ask questions.  He would put up his hand and reply, “I got this, Mom.” To this day I get questions about my big brown-eyed son from places that we frequent (Subway, the bank, Trader Joe’s) when he is not with me. “Where is your helper today?” they might ask. Reports from school consistently repeat the same message: “Dylan is hardworking, kind, considerate and helpful.”

Yet, Dylan’s interactions with typical peers have always worried me. I want to wrap him in a bubble and protect him from the harshness of how others sometimes treat him due to his disabilities. The hairs on the back of my neck bristle when I hear comments behind his back or when he is left out and not included. Like a lot of families that have a child with special needs, we feel most comfortable with others that share the same path.

Quickly growing out of the general sports leagues in our community, we found programs serving and celebrating athletes with disabilities. These non-competitive sports programs provide a safe and fun environment to learn a few skills and get a bit of exercise.

However, you can only keep them in a bubble-wrapped world for so long. Before you know it, along comes middle school… and most children want to fit in, have a place, and not be singled out. They just want to be like everyone else. So when the school announced that the cross-country team would be starting practice at the beginning of the school year, Dylan said he would like to try. He, along with two other boys from his special education class, joined the team of over 100 middle school runners.

What if he could not keep up?  

What if he got hurt?

What if he got lost?

I had to put my “what ifs” aside and focus on the possibilities.

Dylan started running twice a week, two miles, sometimes a bit more. He would be drenched in sweat, complaining of sore feet or numb legs, but never asking to quit. His first cross country race was on home turf, which sounds like an advantage. However, the home track is the same one used by the high school teams and includes a notorious section aptly labeled “Agony Hill,” an ascent that challenges even the best runners.

My daughter and I stationed ourselves at a point on the track where we would be able to cheer him on about halfway through the race and then again at the finish. As the main group of runners passed by the halfway mark we waited… and waited… and waited.  Finally we saw one of Dylan’s buddies from class round the corner, and then Dylan behind him. They sped up as we cheered them on. The last runner, another lifelong friend with special needs, followed the pack at some distance. As we cheered wildly, one of the teachers who regularly helped with the practices jumped on her bike and rode behind for encouragement.

We could see Dylan and his two buddies as they approached Agony Hill in the distance, but instead of just three runners (and one biker) I noticed two more runners with them. The other runners were not in team uniforms, and I wondered where they came from. The main pack of runners came through the finish line and again we waited… and waited… and waited. One by one the slower runners finished. Finally, the first of the final three came into view. Running alongside him were a couple students in street clothes, apparently spectators who joined in the race. Dylan, following a bit behind, crossed the finish line in the company of a couple more rogue runners. The last of the final three had a crowd of about six runners (and one bike rider) from the sidelines who joined him across the finish line.

Technically the race was “won” fifteen minutes before Dylan crossed the finish line, but the final three runners were champions that day. Maybe some of us are made to shine alone in the spotlight, and maybe some of us are made to bring others into the spotlight with them. Dylan isn’t a competitive athlete, but his determination and grit is contagious.

One might look at the two miles of rugged cross country course and say, “No way!”  Yet, when we see someone who has every reason to not accomplish such a race, or one who was told that they would never be able to walk, out on the track doing the “impossible,” something changes within ourselves. We gain the confidence to try, to join, to encourage, and to hope. Dylan challenges me to be a better mom and a better person every day. It is by his example that I can step into situations that seem scary or challenges that seem impossible. Through Dylan I have learned that I don’t have to win to become a champion in life. I just have to enter the race.

Follow this journey on Beauty in the Brokenness.

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Originally published: November 21, 2016
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