The Hired Hand – Not just another blah-blah-blog

September 15, 2019

The Games We Play

Filed under: Uncategorized — Darcy Grabenstein @ 11:03 am

Bob-bob-bob. Hands outstretched like a zombie, tippy-toes barely touching the bottom, eyes squeezed tightly shut, I navigated the wide-open waters. Or at least the shallow end of the pool.

With a fierce determination, I became hyper-focused on my sense of hearing. I was like a dog, with an acute awareness of sounds echoing off the water’s surface. That is, unless my ears were filled with water, which happened more often than not. I even swam like a dog, if you consider the doggie paddle swimming. It was a poor imitation at best.

“MARCO!” I shouted for all my friends – and anyone unfortunate to be within earshot – to hear. I experienced a nanosecond of fear before I heard the familiar reply: “POLO!” It was a resounding chorus: Claire’s Southern drawl, Kathy’s mouse-like yelp, David’s I’m-too-cool-for-this monotone, Nancy’s cheerleader-like chant. Splash! Splaaash! Splaaasshhh! My playmates took their aim, giving me a false sense of their locations.

While others in my position may have squinted slightly, catching a brief, watery glimpse of their prey, I resolutely kept my eyes closed like a vise. After all, the Marco Polo police might catch me cheating.

Well, I must admit I wasn’t totally innocent. When the tables were turned and I was part of the chorus, I often became eerily silent. Not moving a muscle, I would truly become invisible to the one who was “it,” until my raucous laughter gave me away.

I wasn’t always so fond of the water. When I was younger and enrolled in swim lessons, I would scurry to the back of the line, delaying the inevitable. Did I really think I would avoid having to face my fears and take the plunge?

ZaydeFast forward about half a century. This time, I’m not a competitor but a spectator. And there’s a lot more riding on this game. I’m at the Senior Games in Albuquerque, cheering on my 85-year-young father-in-law, who’s swimming in five events. To say that I have a lively family is an understatement.

Interestingly, on our drive to the aquatic center we passed by a motel with the sign: “Pool. No Marco Polo.”

One might assume that if you make it to the Senior Games, you like participating in competitive sports. For some, that may be the case. For others, it’s more about challenging themselves. It’s not about limitation, but possibility.

Watching the Games was both inspiring and humbling. As someone decades younger than the swimmers, someone who got winded just walking up the bleachers (I blamed the high altitude in Albuquerque), I was awed by these older athletes. They came in all shapes and sizes, each approaching their race with a unique flair. Macho, muscular septuagarians in Speedos. Lithe, limber ladies in bathing caps. Bald-headed men with bravado. Former Olympians. Current heroes.

Each athlete entered the water in his or her own way and own time. Some crouched in a definitively competitive stance. Some precariously perched on the slippery starting blocks. Some with no-holds-barred, beer-bellied belly flops. Some standing gingerly on the pool’s ledge. Some who slid into the water, hanging onto the edge until the starting horn sounded. And all appeared to be in “the zone.”

We waited until it was time for my father-in-law Dan’s heat. Patience was definitely a virtue; many of the races were not exactly what you’d call fast-paced. That’s because minimum times were not necessarily required in the qualifying trials preceding the Games. In Dan’s case, he sent us a photo of himself after his qualifying rounds at the state level, with so many medals around his neck that he looked like an aging rapper. In his email, he referred to it as “my Michael Phelps moment.” You see, he came in first in all his events … because there were no other competitors in his age bracket.

As we waited, we witnessed people in wheelchairs, with canes, with walkers. We saw a blind woman. Did I mention that these were competitors, not spectators?

One race included a 100-year-old woman. Yes, 100. When she touched the wall at the end of her race, everyone in the bleachers rose to their feet, hooting and clapping. Yes, I cried.

As I waited, my mind drifted back to those games of Marco Polo. I couldn’t help but think how being “it” forced me to approach the situation from a different perspective. I could no longer rely on sight. I had to quickly adapt, using my senses of touch and hearing. On the flip side, when I was one of those being sought after, I soon discovered that my soft voice was an asset, making me less easily detected than the others. Years later, however, I realized that not only did I need to be a good listener in life, I needed to work hard to make myself heard.

Finally, Dan’s first race was about to start. Yes, we were one of those families. We all proudly wore our custom T-shirts with “GRABenstein THE GOLD” on the front (Grabenstein is our family name; yes, I’ll take credit for the slogan) and TEAM DAN on the back.

With cell phones, cameras and video cameras poised, we were like a pack of paparazzi. “GO ZAYDE!” yelled the grandkids, using the affectionate Yiddish word for “grandfather.”

At the awards ceremony, Zayde stood there in all his Zayde-ishness. Sporting a wide-brimmed cowboy hat and leather belt with oversized buckle, he beamed as he stepped up on the podium. Yes, he won several medals. Even if he had placed last, he’ll always be first in our hearts.

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