“Are you six like me?” the little boy tottered unsteady on the river rocks in front of Jack. He was much slighter than my son, still…they seemed oddly similar in age.
“I’m ten.” Jack said. Numbers are easy, and his speech patterns didn’t twist on such a simple answer. He was looking past the little boy and said, without rancor “Moof out myway.”
“JACK!” Ellie catches every wrong thing her brother says or does, for this is her mission in life.
“‘Excuse me, please,'” I correct, and Jack repeats me cadence for cadence before I’ve even finished. The little boy is named Auden and he was blocking the Water Monsters that were floating down into Jack’s waiting ambush.
It’s like when a scene in a cartoon allows the viewer to see a child’s imagination morph a stick into a waiting stallion and a tree-fort into a Roman fortress. I can see what Jack sees, a bit. It wasn’t moss and flotsam trailing an eddy in the three inches of river I was allowing him to stand in. They were Water Monsters, in organized attack after being summoned by the “swirlypool” he’d conjured with the wand he’d found on the bank. He’d spun in circles splashing while I fed him a magic spell “Abberkadabber! Floatin’ Potion! Water…martyr.” (I’m surprised to realize how few words rhyme with water.)
Auden’s sister was probably eight, bigger than Jack, sweet and chatty with me while their dad fished on the riverstones just to the side of our chaos. Jack wouldn’t talk to her, and for maybe the first time, I didn’t explain “Jack doesn’t talk much, hon”. I just talked instead, debating over the best quality skipping stones. Ellie was folded into herself on the stones, too old and in a foul mood. Not just because she is 14 but because the drive from lunch to this park had been a long scolding for her.
And she’s right, it was a small thing. It was a dandelion.
We’d come to the riverfront from our town’s little airport. There’s a humble but dependable breakfast and burger joint there. You can sit outside and watch the Cessna’s lift and buzz. The grass around the picnic tables were full of dandelions, of which our yard has none. (The reason is named Juan. He and I have exchanged maybe 200 words in seven years and two houses. I have no specifications for my grass or shrubs, which he likes. He’s not particular about when I remember to pay him, which I like. We are apart and peaceable. But he is good at what he does, and so Jack doesn’t see many dandelions.
I’ve been told “not to look at it this way.” But I do. That the universe gave me a daughter of unusual beauty, intelligence and inner/outer strength. A girl who can grab this world by the literal nards (turns out she’s a SuperAmadeus at Shao Lin Kung-Fu) and do anything.
And a son who is a cool and bubbling brook of peace, an ideal little boy shoving his truck that he built himself through the mud and falling over giggling at Captain Underpants fart jokes. He reads at a near adult level despite talking like a toddler. He writes and illustrates long, authentically mind bending little books and comics. Easy-going, a good sport. Happy.
The world outside home…Jack is on foreign soil. He’s calm, brave, but he is a stranger here and may always be. His eyes slide over people’s faces. They speak too fast words he doesn’t understand; words that get lost on the tangled synapse from ear to brain. He says almost the right thing to cashiers and waitresses but not quite. He tends to want to chat extra. “I wan a … please it’s a COLE choklit milk not hot. COLE is better. Yes an also, we’re campin on TOOSday.” He thinks they might like to know.
As we left the restaurant, Ellie picked up a very plump and puffy dandelion and held it out, commanding “Blow. No, Jack, blow on the dandelion!” He approaches her cautiously, ready for something boring or bad to happen but, interest piqued all the same. I came closer as she said, “Like this, Jack” in exasperation, because he is literal and was puffing his cheeks out to blow on top of the flower.
So she blew…and the wind caught it, or she thought it would be funny, or it was just dandelion fluff, and it went straight into his face. He flinched, covered his face, ducked down. He didn’t cry, he didn’t say anything. But he didn’t like it. The butt of the joke again. Something that might have been cool turned out to hurt a little. He tuned back out of the world and went on his way to the car.
And she smiled.
My most beloved sunshine, my daughter, my pride, the finest composite person I may know. She had on dark mirrored glasses that made her face too adult, hiding the child’s soul I would have seen in her eyes, and she smiled that she’d caused him discomfort. It was fun that he was hurt, just a little.
I spent a lot of money to argue with a therapist that when your older siblings make fun of you or call you names or screw with your head when you’re a kid … that it’s teasing and that’s how a lot of people show love. And I still partially believe it. For me.
Not for my son. Not for a heart was made without jealousy or cruelty. Not by one of the three people destined to love.
“You do not treat your brother that way,” I hissed. “Get in the car.”
Ellie was shocked. It was a dandelion. It was funny. He wasn’t hurt. It was a joke.
“Fun? Did he LIKE it?”
“Then it’s you bullying your brother. Not teasing. I watched you. You didn’t smile until you saw you’d hurt him and then …that sick wicked little grin. NO MORE.” I was sputtering and too spare on intellect or reason. I knew my own stuff was burbling through, acid biting holes through my careful parenting. But I was so appalled. So betrayed.
And I hurt my girl. I pinned her like a butterfly, just because she existed, not because she completely deserved to be pierced and put on display. What older sibling doesn’t torture their younger ones? She doesn’t see him as “special needs.” She doesn’t see autism. She doesn’t see how non-obnoxious he actually is as siblings go…seldom interfering with her, rarely asking for anything, not even protesting the many times he’s shafted.
And she doesn’t see what lays ahead for him. How every bit of strength we give him now is a stockpile against what’s coming. She just sees Jack.
Today I needed her to understand. I can’t force her to take up the mantle of her brother’s protector and help him grow. But she must know what it all means.
“He’s ten, Ellie, and he’s never had a friend. Do you get that? All he has is you and me and Dad. And me and Dad aren’t always gonna be here.”
“He’s not a good friend to me he says NO all the time when I ask him to do stuff with me…”
“When you turn a nice walk to the playground into him being an automatic loser by shouting ‘let’s race!’ and taking off? When you make him get on the trampoline and forbid him to bounce – he has to stand their and appreciate you?”
“He doesn’t ACT like he loves me.”
I slammed the wheel with my fist, “He doesn’t act like he loves even ME, Ellie!” I was crying but I caught it, I caught the swirlypool before it gathered tsunami force. I’ve been working on this since he was three years old and began shrugging away from hugs. I remembered what I’d been taught and parroted it for her.
“But it doesn’t mean he doesn’t love us. He just doesn’t show it in the way we want him too. We need to work with what he can show us.”
Jack, sitting in the back without even thinking to claim his turn in the front seat, watched the world pass from deep inside his comfortable mind. I had to make the point finer. I called over my shoulder, and remembered him the two children who’d spent the last 40 minutes within three feet of him, calling him by name, playing with the same rocks and swirls and sticks, the ones that ran to say hi to him on the basis of his “only true fans will appreciate” Spongebob Goofy Goober t-shirt. “Did you like the kids you met?”
“Din. There’er no kids, Mom. Well…dere were some kids…but I had a stick and d’magic in the swirlpools.”
I stared at my daughter. Do you see? Do you hear? Can your heart make that leap now from competitive sibling to Big Sister? Please, PLEASE!
“I love you So. Much,” I told my daughter, tears down both our cheeks. “Baby, Jack is YOURS. Do you understand that? Not just yours to screw with for fun. He’s YOURS. Your own brother. Your precious thing, your challenge. I can’t make you love him but I will make sure you understand what you lose when you don’t.”
“I do love him!”
“Thoughts aren’t love, Baby! Grown-up love is when you do extra for someone else, give up something comfortable, inconvenience yourself. Wanting them to have it as good as they can and helping make it that way. Love is something you do in our home, not just feel.”
At home Jack watched the Green Fairy scene from Moulin Rouge on repeat. Which I used to do before he was born, but he found it all on his own. I waited a half hour before I went to my daughter’s room and rocked her on her bed while she cried about everything, about friends and loneliness and being shamed and how unfair unfair unfair. And she was right, she was right. Everything she said was true. But so was everything I had said. So I just whispered to her, “I love you my only sunshine. I love you. No matter what I love you.”
A half hour ago I heard down the hall, “Ellie?? You wan play toys ouside wit me? I play zoob n you can have Barbies?”
“Uh…yeah. Yeah okay.”
“Dank you Ellie!!” and four loud feet downstairs and the backdoor slamming.
Thank you Ellie. Thank you so much.