My last semester of college is defined by service learning. Three of my communication classes have 10 hours each of volunteer work, where I’m expected to serve and engage with my community through experiential learning. This past weekend I walked away from my first set of hours, pushed to my limit; I kept score at a Special Olympics basketball tournament for all ages.
My experiences with disability and special needs have been personal. My cousin Pam was born mentally disabled with a severe case of Muscular Sclerosis. At the age of 33, her mind was developed with the capacity of a 10 year old. Growing up, I did not know exactly why Pam had trouble speaking or growing or moving, I just knew that she was family; I knew that her hugs were my favorite part of any gathering.
After my family moved to Colorado, our visits to Iowa dwindled. We went from spending every holiday surrounded by all of our Midwest loved ones to making the Iowa trek maybe once a year, if we were lucky. In high school, when my life was packed full of softball every weekend, I went three years without visiting. Luckily for me, every time I returned to Sioux City, no matter how long I’d been gone, there was always someone waiting to embrace me at the door. Pam made it feel like no time had passed, like we didn’t miss a thing. She was there with a big smile, an explosive laugh, and armed with plenty of questions, with a diet pop always in hand.
Two years ago, Pamela passed away very suddenly. I saw the news on Facebook. My thoughts rushed with all of the moments that would never be: she’d never again tell me a joke, go to another Garth Brooks concert, or meet my partner. The most unexpected news I’ve ever received flashed across my feed, and I honestly don’t think I’ve been the same since.
I’d like to believe that I’m strong. I think I usually process things, like emotion and tragedy, normally. I’ve realized, however, that I have not grieved properly over Pam. I’ve cried countless times, I spoke at her funeral, and I honored her memory by celebrating her life. And yet, going to a Special Olympics event—knowing that she competed and excelled in bowling and track—exposing myself to a community I desperately miss, left me shaken and teary-eyed in a packed gymnasium.
The goal of my weekly column is to connect personal experiences with newspaper operations, and give an inside look to what being Editor in Chief means. This week, though, I’m here to show you what being human is like. I don’t know what my next round of volunteering will be or where I’ll go. I don’t know if I’ll sob when I share this with my parents. Through the uncertainty, though, I’ll be thinking of Pam and the sweetness she’s left in the world, and feel her warmth.