My son who is autistic wrestles in high school because he doesn’t mind pain. My other kids would cry when they stubbed their toes playing in the yard, but this son of mine, more than once came to me with gaping wounds needing stitches and hardly a tear in his eye.
Now he has a long, inflexible body, paired with a will to survive, if not to win, and watching him endure can be nearly intolerable to me. On the wrestling mat, so many of the larger dramas of his life play out in microcosm, the struggle to know where his arms and legs are at all times and to maneuver them deftly, the challenge to look two or three steps ahead of where he is, planning accordingly to get there, and so much self-defense.
I’ve often worried about the effects of compounding his difficulties by living them both in life, and again in the metaphor of sport. But he is eager to do it.
I took the smaller kids last night to watch a meet, and there’s always some hot dog wrestler who gets up to wrestle weighing 160 or something, relatively brawny but lean, and his opponent, usually from our team, clearly weighs the same but in unequal distributions. For instance their hot dog wrestler is shaped like an inverted triangle, and our wrestler is shaped like a hot dog, in a bun.
The match ends in a swift pin, the referee slaps the mat, and then the inverted triangle hot dog hops up, while simultaneously pulling on his singlet to clear a wedgie, pumping a fist upward in victory.
I don’t know if it’s just because I have not experienced what it is like to mother what many would term “a champion,” but the display makes me want to get up from the bleachers, dripping children though I may be, make my way to the mat, and punch the kid in the face.
The hot dog wrestler is capable of reaching an arm between his opponent’s legs and forcing his head down to his crotch (a move called the ball and chain), then rolling his opponent up to his shoulders for a pin. Surely, he has lifted weights and eaten well, and trained in the early morning and late afternoon for this moment.
But has anyone told him about the interlocking nucleotides coiled around a double helix on the invisible insides of every cell of his body? Does he realize what a fluke he is?
Of course the boys all stop grimacing eventually and the redness drains from their faces. After the victor has been declared, the wrestlers pat each other on the back, or the stronger smacks the weaker on the rump, and then they each go and shake hands with the coaches.
The hot dog continues strutting the area around the mat, doing ballistic stretches and chomping obnoxiously on his mouth guard, and the weaker wrestler slumps back to the line of folding chairs to struggle back into his sweatpants and hoodie.
I like watching the heavyweights, because they are usually more equally matched in girth and grit—in that giants are often gentle. They push and circle around each other like a couple of grizzlies, but you can rest in some confidence that no one’s going to make a quick dip and jolt for the legs.
There will be no lifting or slamming of bodies to the mat. It’s often hard to tell who wins these matches until the very end when you learn that the ref has quietly been counting certain barely visible strategies, and somehow one side or the other has accumulated a winning number of points.
The only time my son got a pin last year, he was wrestling a girl, and we all breathed a sigh of relief that the outcome was not the opposite.
“You can’t do the ball and chain when you wrestle a girl,” my son said.
“Is that law or custom?” I asked.
“It would just be weird.”
Indeed it would. I’ve gotten used to seeing girls on the team now, though the thought of girls wrestling used to really bother me. In practice, she covers her hair with a skull cap, she’s often broad shouldered and flat chested—so it can be difficult to even tell from the bleachers that she’s a girl, except for the telltale softness around the hips.
What troubles me less than it used to, or maybe more so, I don’t know really, is that in spite of its attempts to be inclusive, wrestling is a sport that’s defined by its inequalities. A true match of equals is so very rare, but inequalities show up everywhere.
It’s just like life, I suppose, and I spent so much time trying to manage inequalities, seeking the golden alteration in diet or habit that might provide a cure for my son in lieu of strategies for navigating life with a disability. When a cure was not forthcoming, I tried to enact the strategies on my son’s behalf.
The coach makes the boys take showers after practice to prevent the spread of communicable skin diseases. My son evaded the directive by wetting his hair and changing clothes in the bathroom stalls, and I approved this method of deception for as long as I could because it’s an open shower locker room, where multiple showerheads jut out from a single post without curtains.
We are long past the point where my son’s genitals are under my guardianship, but I still felt protective or territorial or something. Could not just this one particular portion of his humanity remain behind the thin scrim of Lycra that composes the wrestling singlet—even if he lies there on the mat, knees bent to his ears, ass over head, neutered in defeat, though still very much in one piece? Ecce Homo.
But hygiene is a communal issue in a contact sport. That too, I released.
My son has to keep doing it—keep standing next to and struggling in combat—with the boys on his team who are not defined by their limitations. I feel it always as a nudity.
He is just like everyone else. He is like no one else. He has found a way to enjoy his struggle. He enters it with agency and good spirit. I know in theory that makes him a champion.
Still, I watch him through parted fingers on the bleachers, as his literal defeat comes, again and again and again. When the match is over he dresses and comes to sit with me, maybe asks for money to buy something from the concession stand, and I put my hand on him.
I claim him—my own—my love.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Elizabeth Duffy
Elizabeth Duffy writes at Patheos: Elizabeth Duffy: Perspectives on Catholic Life, Family, and Culture and at bettyduffy.blogspot.com. She is a contributor to Living Faith/ Daily Catholic Devotions, and has work published or forthcoming from OSV, On Faith, The Catholic Educator, and Image.
Above image by Christopher Paquette on flickr, used with permission under a Creative Commons license.