Run Away Laughing
When my brother Willie was younger, I knew just how to make him laugh. All I had to do was initiate our favorite game. As children, we developed a fairly elaborate game that we called, “Run away.”
The game went like this: To begin, I would stand on a small wooden stepstool in the kitchen. Willie would look on with glee, his face alight with anticipation. He knew what was coming next. From my perch, I would feign disinterest in him, gazing at the spice jars on the bottom row of my mother’s antique spice rack, which was mounted on the wall just above the stepstool.
Once I’d turned to face the spice rack, I’d read out the names of the four jars on the bottom row. (I read the bottom row simply because it was the only row I was tall enough to see when we first began our ritual.) Slowly, I’d read, “Basil … Allspice … Thyme …”
At this point I’d pause for dramatic effect, allowing the tension to build. Suddenly, I’d yell, “PEPPER!” and the race would be on.
I’d leap from the stepstool and take off running. Willie would usually be ahead of me given his head start, but I’d race to catch up with him. We’d run around and around the ground floor of our home, running as though the hounds of hell were chasing us. All the while, we’d be wailing, “Run away! Run away!” over and over again.
This was my mom’s cue to chase after us, which she did day in and day out. (God bless mothers.) The game always ended in the same way, with Willie and I huddled together in the carpeted stairwell. We’d cling to one another, trying to avoid being tickled by our mom. A mixture of laughter, excitement and adrenaline would be coursing through us, and we’d be gasping for breath.
Looking back, I can think of several logical reasons why the game was so appealing to us as children. First, it served as a carefully-constructed ritual, something we ourselves had created. In addition, there was the physiological high of running and being chased, of pretend danger; it was addictive.
Yet the thing we loved most of all was the feeling of togetherness, of solidarity. It didn’t matter that the danger we were trying to escape from was imaginary. It didn’t matter that we had full control over whether or not to play the game at all. It didn’t matter, because we were in it together.
A final unspoken-yet-immutable rule of the game was that whenever one person admitted defeat, the other did, too. When I would throw myself into the little stairwell in exhausted surrender, Willie would jump in after me. My mom would catch us both there.
As we grew older, we played the game less and less, until finally, it became a memory. As a teenager, I remember thinking that it was bizarre; who made up games like that?
Now I realize that, though perhaps it was a bit strange, it was also ingenious. It filled our mutual need for adventure. It made our comfortable, familiar home a place of drama and danger. And most of all, it was a form of play that both of us loved.
As an adult, I can see how valuable it must have been for Willie to race around with his sister, instead of rewinding videos and memorizing film credits. What a gift it must have been for my parents, to see their son and daughter banding together.
Years later, our silly game is still a treasure for me. It gives me the assurance that, although my brother is “different”, he’s still my partner in crime.
And though I didn’t realize it at the time, that game began teaching me the lessons I needed to learn as Willie’s sister.
To take connection with Willie in whatever form I find it.
To celebrate what works, rather than focusing on what doesn’t.
To see our similarities and honor our differences.
And most of all: To do whatever it takes to end up in a pile, laughing.