Baby, You Were Born This Way
While babysitting for my friends’ young son this weekend, I couldn’t help but wonder about my brother Willie as an infant. What was he like back then, before his autism diagnosis? How were he and I alike as babies, and how were we different?
From my mother, I hear that our personalities were distinct even from birth. I was nearly three weeks late, and when I did come into the world, I came with my eyes wide open. Though it’s atypical for an infant to have a sustained, focused gaze, my parents swear that I met their eyes with a purposeful look of my own.
Willie, by contrast, fell asleep almost immediately after being born. His first act in the world was an act of rest.
When I consider these stories, I think about the gifts that both of us brought, gifts from within our natural ways of being in the world. I’ve always been a determined person, and I’ve always valued close relationships. In these things I’ve had the privilege of being my brother’s teacher; I’ve tried to help him achieve his goals and connect with others.
Willie, on the other hand, teaches me about fidelity to myself. Willie teaches me about there being a time for everything. Willie teaches me that it is all right to run away laughing, to play, to rest.
As I care for my friends’ son, another insight comes: I am prone to over-caring. I can see within myself the tendency to do everything for, to prevent the child from struggling. If a toy is out of reach, I push it closer. If the baby’s arm momentarily becomes stuck in the sofa, I free it rather than let the baby learn his own way out.
When I’m caring for someone with special needs, it’s tempting to value efficiency over independence…yet so often, what’s needed is not for me to do for, but to do with. My brother doesn’t need me to make a phone call for him, but with him. He doesn’t need me to order for him at a restaurant, but with him.
This isn’t simply a question of semantics. It’s the difference between fostering unhealthy dependence and empowering a person to grow. In my own life, it has come down to this: Do I believe that I have something to learn from the person I’m caring for?
If I believe myself superior to my brother, I will try to do everything for him. If, on the other hand, I believe that I have things to learn from him, then I can pay attention. I can travel expectantly, allowing my brother to learn and grow.
Recently, I borrowed a few home videos from my parents. I borrowed them with the intention to search for evidence. I thought that watching the tapes would help me to know, in some deep, essential way, that Willie and I are who we have always been.
I know what I expected to see: Willie as a happy-go-lucky kid, content to grin in the background while his older sister took charge. That’s how it was when we were younger. But we switched places many times in the course of our life together. As a teenager, I sometimes felt as though I’d stepped into the background as my brother’s struggles took the foreground in scenes of our family life. Even before I’d pressed Play on the ancient VCR, I had a strange feeling that the tapes wouldn’t show me what I needed to see.
And that feeling proved correct. When I tried to watch the tapes, the decrepit VCR garbled them and spat them out. I was left frustrated, with nary a scene, nary an image to hold to.
And then I realized: That’s the point. I don’t need a video to tell me who we are. If I want to look at the person my brother was born to be, all I need to do is look at him. He’s not a mystery to be solved, but a person to be loved. He’s a work-in-progress, but then, so am I. So are all of us.