Five days ago, you left for a trip halfway around the world.
It’s been five days since I’ve seen your face. Five days since I’ve insisted you comb your hair before you left for the bus. I almost knocked on your door this morning to remind you to get up for school. In the grocery store, I reached for your favorite bagels before I realized you won’t be home for another a week.
I mean, we go about our business. We all wake up early and shuffle through a morning of cereal and toast and yogurt. We wave our good-byes and head out the door. At night, we sit at the table for dinner, and ignore the empty chair.
See, my son, we are one brother shy of a full family.
When you were little you called macaroni noni, do you remember?
It’s all going too fast. Your childhood, that is.
You were a toddler exactly one second ago.
You tottered around on unsteady legs, reaching for anything that would help you balance.
I dressed you in overalls.
You smiled and giggled and held onto my fingers when we walked on the sidewalk.
And then, along came your brother Jack.
Long, sleepless nights.
I was so tired back then. I had so little to give.
I have to admit, there are moments when I feel guilty for all the times I was tapped out by autism’s demands — when maybe I didn’t have enough left over for you.
Through all of it, I loved you. I hope you know that.
I always wanted to be better for you. I just didn’t know how.
I am not the mother I wanted to be. This is all so different from the way I once pictured it.
I am sorry.
We often say you have to pick your battles in life.
But what about the battles that pick you?
You never asked for a brother with autism.
You never asked to rush out of “Cars 2” because the sound was too loud, or watch with rounded eyes as your mother and father argued about which combination of medicine is better.
This is the life of an autism brother, I’m afraid. A life of sacrifice, movies cut short, and orange vials on the bathroom counter.
The truth is, as much as we embrace the color and light this tricky disorder has added to our lives, it still comes with a price.
And yet, in your empty chair sits a powerful truth.
All this time, it was you.
I thought it was me, and also Daddy. But it wasn’t.
It was you.
You taught him how to tie his sneakers and blow bubbles from a plastic wand.
You taught him how to kneel carefully in church, with both knees balanced on the wooden pew.
You taught him how to pray.
You did this without a word, or a social story, or a YouTube video.
You lead him by your example.
You hugged him when no one else could touch him.
You rocked him in your arms the times he cried.
You laid your head beside his when sleep refused to visit.
You are his brother.
No one knows him the way you do.
No one knows how to reach out a hand so slowly, it’s like time standing still. And in the pause between shriek and breath, how to rest your fingers as gently as air itself.
It’s as if you were born with the instruction manual we all long for — the How to Understand a Person With Autism booklet.
The booklet that details, step-by-step, how to patiently wait, and calmly surrender when autism’s tide is too strong to swim.
Autism brothers and sisters are many things.
You are all of this for a boy named Jack.
And now, because of you, he wants things for himself.
He wants to drive, and go to college, and maybe have a girlfriend.
This is the proverbial double-edged sword of an autism family — some of the flock will fly on time, while others of us stay behind, our eyes trained to the sky.
For some reason, this week I’ve been thinking about last summer when we all went tubing down the long, lazy river. Do you remember that?
We ate egg salad sandwiches and jumped from the rope swings.
As we rounded the bend, you all went for one last swim while Daddy and I sat near the shore. Without warning, the floor of the river dropped off suddenly.
We could not get to you. We were not fast enough you were too far away we could not get there heart in mouth you were all so far away from us help them help us help.
One by one, a silhouette against the sun, you dragged them from the deep water.
Because a brother’s instinct is as strong as a river’s pull.
Time will only speed up from here. I realize there’s no slowing the clock now.
Where is the little boy who held up his dish for more noni? The sweet child I dressed in overalls? I would give anything to spend just five minutes with him.
Your world is growing. You are cleaving from us. This is right, and good.
It is also profoundly sad.
But as you start to shed your childhood the way a caterpillar outgrows its safe cocoon, I want you to take one thing with you.
When days are long and lonely and hard — when life threatens to swallow you whole, please remember.
You have shaped the person he is today.
This, my son, is no small thing.
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