“Tomorrow morning. At 6:45. I’m going to be on TV,” Jack announced around a mouthful of kale.
The chatter at the dinner table came to a screeching halt, and we all stared at him.
TV? I thought to myself during the pocket of silence. Didn’t you just go to school and come home today? When did you have time to go on TV?
I racked my brain. Maybe I signed a permission slip at some point and forgot about it? It’s very possible, given the deluge of lunch menus and field trip notices and fundraiser forms I am presented with every day. (And by “presented”, I mean “thrown on the counter along with half-eaten bananas and empty water bottles and rubber band bracelets made from some weird thing called a rainbow loom for me to sift through and sort according to age, grade, and required response”.)
“You be on TV?” Henry asked incredulously. “Wif Batman?”
“Jack,” Rose asked sweetly, “Did you talk into a microphone? Did you smile for the camera? It’s always good to smile.”
“Oh, I know what he means,” Joey interrupted. “We did the same thing last year. The weather man from WMUR came in and told all the fourth graders to wave to the camera.”
“And Batman there too?” Henry asked again, referring to his favorite Superhero, his idol, the figure that adorns nearly every t-shirt, every sock, every pair of underwear in my four-year old’s drawer.
“But, wait,” Rose said with a worried look. “What if Jack, you know, bounces around. Because of his owt-ism?”
I wondered briefly when she’d picked up a southern accent just as Charlie added quietly, “Yeah mom. You know, he has a hard time sitting still. What if he had his zoomies?”
“Jack, did you need to zoom while the weather man was there?”
“NO! I was STILL! I WAVED!”
We all looked over at him, galloping across the kitchen at that very second. Henry leaped up from his seat and joined his brother. Together they bounced the span of the kitchen and family room, back and forth, back and forth.
“See! I jump wike Jack!”
As the youngest, Henry doesn’t grasp “different” or diagnosed or Autism Spectrum Disorder. To him, he’s just Jack, just another older brother to pester, to boss, to demand get me more cookies off the highest shelf in the cabinet.
He’s never watched Jack navigate the hallways of elementary school with an aide or hold up the bus with a tantrum. But he does know he’s the go-to guy for television operation and car identification; “Jack, Jack, what that car behind us? A Toyoya?”
He knows he jumps.
Henry does understand, however, that unlike “Jo-Jo” and “Chawlie”, Jack will only take so much four-year old belligerence before retaliating with a low growl or a quick cuff on the shoulder.
Like a bear who has been poked too often, Jack has less patience for nonsense.
As a mother of five, I am as attentive to the relationships between my kids as I am to the individuals themselves. And when I watch my second and my fifth son ride bikes or work a puzzle together, the biblical story of David and Goliath comes to mind. Because though Henry is very big for his age—and will likely surpass all of us in size at some point—Jack is the reigning champ for height and weight in our family right now, larger even than ten-year old Joey.
But although their sizes may suggest David and Goliath, mouse and bear, the dynamic between the brothers is a stark contrast to the battling duo from the Bible. Writing this essay, I grappled to find another story of brotherhood, and like a delicate hummingbird on a bright flower, my mind lighted on Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men; the tragic tale of two men—one large and one small, one bright and one so very limited.
Sitting alone at my desk, I shook my head once, twice. No, that isn’t it.
I know at this point it’s hard to predict what sort of role each of Jack’s siblings will play in his adult life, once Joe and I are gone. Will they take care of him? Will he live with them and their families, bouncing from brother to sister to brother throughout the years, the requisite “Uncle Jack”? Or will he create a life of his own, a life of independence and children and Toyota Sequoias like Dad drives?
The only certainty about this is the uncertainty.
But I am not ready to reduce my second-oldest and my last child to a cliché, a maxim, a time-worn tale of brawn and brains. It simply does not describe them.
It doesn’t describe how Jack first expanded his mind of autism and demonstrated empathy by helping a fallen Henry up from the driveway; come on do not cry you will be okay. Or how Henry grabbed his brother’s hand one night in the playroom when they were dancing Gangman style, his face lit and beaming as they moved to the Korean beat.
It doesn’t begin to describe the way Henry can keep Jack’s feet firmly planted in our world, booming loudly look at me I talkin’ to you and I no want to hear Wady Gaga anymore and answer me Jack answer me now. Because like his older brother, Henry also has little patience for nonsense.
How together, they jump.
I returned to my keyboard, to Google, and continued my search. After a few minutes I came across this quote from Marc Brown, children’s author and creator of the Arthur series:
“Sometimes being a brother is even better than being a superhero.”
Yes, I thought to myself. That’s it.
Let Jack be the superhero for as long as he can; mighty and strong, tender and compassionate. Let him be the teacher of cars and license plates and music, while simultaneously learning to say I am sorry you are hurt and okay what song do you want to hear next.
Let him be Batman to his younger Robin.
The next morning, Jack was standing over me at exactly 5:59, already dressed in his stiff new jeans and a blue t-shirt. “Today. At 6:45. We need to watch the news. I will be on TV.”
Joe had left for work already, and reluctantly I dragged myself from the warm bed into the chill of the early fall morning. I tied my black robe around my waist and took his hand.
“Okay, Jack. Let’s go see.” We made our way downstairs into the darkened kitchen, and I turned on the lights and started his favorite breakfast—pancakes—while he perched at the counter and chattered about the weather, about TV, about celebrities.
One by one, three brothers and a sister straggled in sleepily and burrowed into the cushions of our dark red couch. We turned the TV on at 6:40 and sat waiting, waiting to see the segment with the fourth graders.
At last—after the sports coverage and news about a fire and a local robbery—the weatherman reappeared, standing against the familiar backdrop of the elementary classroom.
“Where are you?” I asked, squinting at the screen. The camera kept panning quickly back and forth, back and forth across the group of waving kids.
“I don’t know,” Jack said worriedly. “Maybe I was in the bathroom then.”
“Jackie!” Rose squealed, calling him by her special nickname. She pointed to the screen. “There you are! Look! In the corner!”
And sure enough, there he was. Standing in the corner of the room, tentatively waving. Joey and Charlie and Rose jumped off the couch to cheer, to hug, to pat a beaming Jack on the back. But Henry sat still, uncharacteristically quiet, with his thumb in his mouth and his blue eyes opened wide.
“Jack. You on TV,” he whispered reverently. “Just wike Batman.”