A guy wearing a light pink Oxford shirt with the sleeves rolled up walked over to where Joe and I were sitting at the bar, and plunked down on the stool next to me.“Hey guys! How are you?”
That afternoon, after two planes and a layover and a harrowing bus ride that made the phrase “til death do us part” more meaningful than ever, Joe and I arrived at the heaven on earth that is Jamaica.
“Well, hello!” Joe said back. “How are you?”
We exchanged a few pleasantries—enough to realize the gin and tonic he ordered wasn’t his first of the night—and asked what brought him to Jamaica.
“My sister, she’s getting married here tomorrow. I can’t believe she’s getting married,” he said, incredulous.
“She’s eight years older than I am and she’s getting married. I mean, I could be a nephew! How crazy is that?”
“I think,” I reminded him gently, “You would be an uncle.”
“Yes! That’s right! I could be an uncle. Can you believe it? My sister is getting married tomorrow.”
The conversation ended as quickly as it started, and before we knew it he was up from the bar, clapping both Joe and I heartily on the shoulder. “I’ll see you later, okay guys?”
Maybe it was because I’d finished Anna Quindlen’s Still Life With Bread Crumbs on the plane ride—a novel about a woman photographer—but I wanted to take pictures the whole time we were on vacation. Not just of the stunning sunsets or the sparkling ocean or of Joe sipping a Red Stripe, but of the startling images of color and depth we saw everywhere: a small red boat buried halfway in the sand, a large brown dog lying in the tall grass, an emaciated man selling sundries in the street on the long ride from the airport.
On Tuesday we went down the beach to the Fireman, a man who sold fresh seafood. Everyone raved about him—you picked your own crab or lobster from the big cage he dragged out of the water, and then he grilled it right in front of you.
Joe and I walked over to the wooden porch and sat at a picnic table to wait, while the Fireman whistled and hummed and cooked. Locals drifted in and out, grabbing cold bottles of beer and trading good-natured insults with the bartender and the tourists.
After a few minutes a little girl wearing a green bathing suit toddled out of the kitchen area. At first glance I guessed she was about two, but very tiny for her age. Her mother walked behind her, waving her finger and speaking quick lively bursts of Jamaican.
I gazed back at them, watching the scene of mother chasing toddler unfold. The rest of the family appeared, followed by a trail of older kids weaving in and around the chairs and talking to each other.
I looked across the table and caught Joe’s eye, and he gave a quick nod. Yes, he saw what I saw; the little girl appeared to have Down’s Syndrome.
I felt my heart pull. What are the services like in Jamaica? Would she get speech therapy? OT? Or go to an integrated preschool? On the bus ride to the resort we passed school after school; small, squat buildings with throngs of uniformed children mingling with goats on the patchy grass.
Just then, one of the older boys—eleven or twelve—strode across the wooden floorboards, breaking me out of my reverie. In one smooth movement, he bent down and picked the little girl up.
Watching him lift her high made me want to weep.
I’d never wanted to take a picture so badly in my life. But to whip out my IPhone and pose them seemed a crude interruption to the moment at hand—even though the moment doubtlessly repeats itself over and over throughout the day.
Can you see him? Can you picture this lanky boy bending to lift this small girl? He holds her face close to his while she squirms and giggles. They are framed by the wooden pillars of the porch, and the ocean is a glimmering carpet behind them.
If you see it—if you can picture them in your mind’s eye—then I know you feel the exquisite combination of love and tenderness explode inside your heart that I did. It is almost painful.
For me, the quick swing of a brother’s long, thin arms, changed the story from class and services and who will write her IEP into a universal account of compassion and family and special and needs. It turned into a story of a brother’s love.
Watching them, it occurred to me that all this time—two years of blogging and reading and writing—I’ve been trying to do exactly this. I’ve been trying to give to you a picture of our family and our kids and autism.
But I can’t take a picture of Jack’s autism and put it in an album or post it on Facebook. Sure, I can photograph his downturned eyes and his vacant expression and even catch him stimming. But I can’t capture the social awkwardness, the obsession with the Keurig, the I don’t want this autism in me anymore.
A photo may show you how autism looks, but it won’t tell you how it feels. I can only begin to guess about that.
Two days later Joe and I were sharing a late lunch at an outdoor café on the resort. As we finished up, a couple walked over and ordered a drink. I recognized them from the destination wedding a few days before—bride and groom. We chatted about their wedding; the beautiful weather, how she’d added the belt to her dress at the last minute.
“Well,” she said, nodding in the direction of the portrait studio behind them. “Time to look at wedding pictures!”
“Oh, wait!” I put my hand on her arm as she turned away, remembering. “We met your brother!”
She turned back to me. “George? You met George? Oh boy, what did he say?” she asked warily.
“He was so happy for you,” I told her. “It was the sweetest thing—he was in awe you were getting married. He hopes he’ll be an uncle soon.”
The new bride looked up at her tall groom. Her eyes widened and her face flushed pink.
“He said all that? I can’t believe he told you that. I have to tell my father, it will make him so happy.”
For the second time in as many days, I watched a powerful family moment of adaptation and change, shifting and movement—of brotherly love.
My fingers itched for my IPhone. I longed to take a picture and turn the small screen towards her and say, “Do you see how beautiful you are? Do you see what you look like when you realize how much your brother adores you?”
But I didn’t.
We left the next day, and on the plane ride back I scrolled through the pictures on my phone. I decided I will never become a photographer. The dog looked hot and tired. The red boat looked ordinary. (The sunset looked nice, but really, who can’t take a picture of a sunset?)
I leaned my head back and closed my eyes, and my mind wandered back to the little girl in her green bathing suit. I smiled remembering the way her diaper poked out of the bottom, how her pigtails were a little uneven. And I decided she would be just fine. Maybe she wouldn’t get early intervention or modified homework or organized social play, but her family loves her. Sometimes that’s all you need.
Best vacation ever.