Ten-year old Joey sauntered into the kitchen, where I sat working Jack and Charlie through homework, and announced he was going to audition for the school talent show. “Great!” I said distractedly, with a pencil clenched between my teeth. “What will you do?”
“Oh, you know. I thought I’d lip sync to Thrift Shop,” he said, referring to Macklemore’s latest pop hit. “Henry could even come on stage with me. He could do the part where the little kid says ‘Pop some tags!’ at the end.”
Four-year old Henry was kneeling on a stool at the counter coloring in his Batman book. Excited about the idea of five minutes of fame on the elementary school stage, he raised his fists in the air and started to shout, “I’m gonna pop some TAGS! Yeah!”
I took the pencil out of my mouth and looked up from the worksheet I was explaining to Charlie. “Thrift Shop? Get serious. No way are you singing that song. Think of something else.” Joey slunk away, annoyed, just as Henry changed his tune to a singsong, “Yeah! GET SERIOUS Jo-Jo!”
After school a few days later, he took my hand as we made our way up our long driveway. “I thought of another idea for the talent show. I want to read my chapter from the book. And also the part about Aarsh.”
When Joey discovered I was writing a book about our family, he asked if he could write a chapter about his relationship with Jack, if he could write about what it’s like to do what he calls autistic brothering.
He asked to have a voice.
Now he wanted to bring his brotherly voice to life, to read about autistic brothering to his peers and teachers and friends. At the same time, he wanted to acknowledge his classmate, Aarsh, who was extremely kind to Jack during a birthday party at our house.
I agreed it was a great idea, and that night we practiced for the audition the next day.
The following afternoon I picked him up from school, and as he swarmed out of the gymnasium with the other kids like bees out of a hive, I asked him how it went. “Great!” he said excitedly. “Everyone loved it.”
Then, on the drive out of the school parking lot, something hit me like a ton of bricks. Jack does not know he has autism. And now, his older brother was about to announce it to the entire school. How was that going to work?
Maybe Thrift Shop wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
Heading home, I watched in the rearview mirror as Jack stimmed in the back seat, squished between his brothers. I saw Joey move his long legs to the side to give Jack some space and tuck his bony elbows in closer so his younger brother could rock from side to side.
Joey was thirteen months old when Jack was born, two weeks shy of walking on his own. And for nine years he’s handled his role as the bigger brother to an unusual boy with grace; the tantrums in restaurants, the fits on the school bus, the long nights with a roommate who stims and rocks in the bunk bed beneath him.
Gamely, he wears matching fluorescent yellow shirts to airports and water parks and movies because has a brother with a tendency to wander.
And buried in that ten-year old mind, nestled amongst questions about how babies are really made and if Darth Vader is Luke’s father and who the Buffalo Bills will pick for their next quarterback, is the shared sentiment that in order for our family to succeed with this tricky spectrum disorder and help Jack reach seemingly unreachable heights, we need to consider and know autism from every angle. And then we need to open our arms and hearts and lives and let the world examine it, too.
And likewise, Joey appreciates times when the world reaches back with tentative fingers and connects with his brother. My oldest child quietly celebrates special moments of kindness, like the time a slender boy offered up his own treat from a birthday party piñata to make Jack happy, to keep him calm.
Jack knew all about the talent show. We picked Joey up after rehearsal one afternoon, and on the ride home Jack demanded to know, “What is your TALENT?” Joey answered that he was reading his chapter from the book.
“Reading is NOT A TALENT! Everyone can READ!”
“You mean you HAVE NO TALENT?’ Jack went on loudly. “That is TERRIBLE. When I am in fourth grade I will sing,” he announced smugly as we all filed into the house.
Well, that should be interesting, I thought to myself as I dropped my keys on the kitchen counter, while Jack continued to worry, “Reading cannot be your TALENT! You have NO TALENT!” Joey just smiled and shrugged his shoulders as he kicked his sneakers off and bounded up the stairs to the playroom.
And obviously, Jack knew that Joey was reading from the book. In fact, he knows all about the book and even scanned it a few times, noting there’s an entire chapter named after him. But he’s never once asked any questions about what it’s about, why he’s on the cover, why I wrote it.
The night before the show I sat with Joey and reviewed his chapter. Together, we decided to edit a few of the parts, to remove a sentence here and there so that the message of Jack’s diagnosis was a little more subtle, nuanced. “Yeah, Mom,” Joey said. “I think this is better. This way it’s more about what it’s like to be his brother, not so much about how he has autism.”
Sitting with teachers and kids and parents in the crowded school gym the next morning as we waited for the show to start, I felt anxious, nervous. What if Jack felt embarrassed hearing his name? What if he had a breakthrough and realized he has autism after all, in the middle of the school talent show?
I scanned the group of fourth graders in the audience and located Joey. Fresh from the barber’s the day before and dressed in the bright blue polo shirt I’d insisted he wear, he looked heartbreakingly young, yet so big at the same time.
At last it was his turn, and just as his older brother took the stage, Jack bounced out of the sea of squirming kids sitting on the floor and into my lap. He clasped his hands around my neck and, pressing his cheek against mine, said, “It is Joey’s turn. He will read now.”
And so I sat in the muggy gym with my one son’s legs draped over mine, nearly reaching the floor, and watched my other son bring our story to life in a folding chair on the stage. I glanced through the crowd of kids and saw Rose watching her brother with rapt attention. I found Charlie’s dark-haired head, unmoving and still as he listened to Joey describe Jack’s fondness for video games, his tendency to tantrum, the way life is hard for his younger sibling. As a family, we listened to Joey describe his own experience with autism.
Once he was finished, he stood up from his seat and took a bow as the audience applauded. Jack turned his mouth to my ear and reported in a mock-whisper, “He is done now. He did a good job,” before he bounced back to his seat on the floor.
And so, in the end, we did what we always do: we flexed to autism’s demands while keeping our own shape as a family. And Jack was right. Joey did a good job.
After all, maybe reading really isn’t that much of a talent. But autistic brothering certainly is.