Jun 25, 2013 1 Share

Brother's Keepers

Illustration in silhouette of little girl holding her brother climbing tree.

There has been a lot of wonderful, poignant writing on AA16 about how autism affects siblings, much of it by Caroline McGraw, sister to Willie. Recent events have me focusing on Reilly's future and his siblings' part in it. Re-reading some of Caroline's columns, I catch glimpses of Reilly's sister, Brigid, and am moved to write about her. 

Brigid is my middle child, sandwiched between two fairly high-maintenance brothers. Her older brother, Ben, is brilliant, funny, talented and at least moderately ADHD. He was medicated as a child, but by high school rejected the medication. He finished college at 24 with a degree in political science, but is pursuing a music career, not the most stable of professions. 

Brigid's younger brother, of course, is Reilly, who has been in Special Education since preschool. Naturally, his needs seemed to dominate much of our family life. I don't know if I would say that Brigid got lost in the mix—she's always been vocal and dramatic, hard to ignore. But it's possible she felt guilty about needing anything. And she seems to have that middle-child peace-maker trait, at least to some extent. She's a little more sensitive to family unrest than her older brother, and has a higher tolerance for some of Reilly's quirks than Ben does, sometimes trying to mediate their squabbles. 

Brigid seemed to breeze through elementary school, in a Gifted and Talented program. But her first year in middle-school was a near disaster. Like most kids that age, she was struggling to form an identity and she seemed buffeted by the crazy winds of puberty. We made a difficult decision to send her to a small boarding school about an hour away from home starting in 8th grade, and held our breath, buying tuition insurance, just in case. It worked better than we could ever have hoped, and she thrived. I think it gave her a chance to focus entirely on herself and her needs. She graduated from that lovely little school with honors and is entering her senior year at NYU this fall, majoring in educational theater. 

Over lunch recently, I asked a now-21-year-old Brigid if she thought that part of her success was because we took her out of the family dynamic when we sent her away to school. Tears sprang to her eyes and she answered a resounding “yes.” She didn't elaborate—I'm not sure she has the words. But it's easy for me now to see how our family situation formed who she is and who she will be. 

I tried not to make the older two kids feel responsible for Reilly. Yet I can see the effects of an autistic sibling on Brigid's career choices. I'm not sure how to feel about that. I was surprised when, while still in high school, Brigid volunteered as a counselor at a residential summer camp for developmentally disabled teens and young adults. She came home with a new empathy for her brother, and she wrote an entertaining college admissions essay about the experience. This past semester, she volunteered with a theater program for special needs teenagers in New York, called Daytime Moon Creations. Now she says she wants to pursue a Master's degree in Special Education, and hopes to use her theater training in the classroom. I'm proud of her ambitions, but I didn't intend for her life choices to be so related to her status as a sibling of a special needs child. I wonder if it is a “girl thing” or a middle-child thing, or if it's my fault that she feels called in this way. Her older brother doesn't seem to be as defined by the experience as Brigid does, but maybe he just expresses it in a different way. 

And I worry that whatever help Reilly needs in the future, when his Dad and I are out of the picture, will fall to Brigid. We made her the trustee of the special needs trust we set up for Reilly, reasoning that she's much better with money, and details, than is her brother Ben. We think she's more likely to have a stable career (despite her ties to the theater) than her vagabond musician older brother. She readily agreed to the arrangement. But now I worry that it won't just be about the money and Brigid may have to shoulder more responsibility for Reilly than we intended. That seems to be the lot of the sibling, whether we like or not. And it's part of what families do. It's reassuring to know she'll be there, and my fervent hope is that Ben will step up, as well, if it's necessary. Meanwhile, we'll do what we can to insure that Reilly is prepared to live as independent a life as possible. 

I got a little peek of what the future might hold one recent evening when all three kids were home. My husband was working late, and after the kids and I had dinner, I went immediately to my home office to make phone calls for my volunteer job on a political campaign. I put my three adult children in charge of  cleaning up the kitchen. Normally, I would have given them each a separate job to do, but I was in a hurry, so I left it to them to divide the work. I sat in my office and listened to the ensuing squabble. I could picture what was going on downstairs. Ben, the funnyman, was busy snapping a dish towel at his brother and sister. Reilly was trying to avoid doing any work, and Brigid was indignant that they weren't helping. I resisted the urge to step in. “They'll need to learn to work together,” I told myself.  I closed my door and immersed myself in the phone calls, eventually noticing that the commotion in the kitchen had stopped. When I came downstairs later, I complimented them on the great clean-up job. Brigid wasn't thrilled with the boys' performance, but seemed to get enough work out of them that she was prepared to let it go. 

There is a special place in heaven for sisters like Caroline McGraw, and Brigid Donovan.

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Thank you!

Rose,Just a little note to say a very big thank you ... reading this column was a lovely surprise. I appreciate hearing your reflections, and getting a glimpse into how my parents probably think! ;)Thank you again, Rose!