The other day I came across a picture of 13-month old Joey taking his first steps. I was sitting in a big leather chair nursing four-week old Jack, when Joey put down the block he’d been holding, stood up, and walked.
Huh, I thought, watching—amazed—as my first-born toddled between the coffee table and the chair. Maybe having a little brother will push him a little.
Obviously, that wasn’t exactly how it happened.
We all know the time-worn tale of Jack by now; he didn’t talk, he didn’t point, he didn’t look, he didn’t didn’t didn’t. All the while his brother one year older did.
Language was certainly Jack’s most obvious delay, and a lot of people suggested that Joey was talking for him, that he didn’t need language because his older brother had so much to say. It drove me crazy.
I remember one day in the beginning of November, sitting outside in a plastic lawn chair while two-year old Joey and 18-month old Jack ran through our small backyard in Buffalo. I was pregnant with our third son, and was having the rhythmic contractions of early labor. I was certain the baby would come in the next day or so.
As usual, the two boys were playing side-by-side but not exactly together. It was as if they were two planets in a brotherly solar system; orbiting and rotating on their own axis, but still in the same universe.
All at once Joey rushed to me. In his hand he held a leaf. “Mama, a leaf. Red leaf.”
Jack toddled over wordlessly, his own chubby hand outstretched. Without a sound, Joey placed the reddish-brown leaf in Jack’s palm. I felt a rush of joy coincide with a contraction; a rare moment of pleasure and pain. Watching the dry little leaf pass between their two hands, I sensed their connection, their togetherness, an unspoken language in their silence.
Over the past ten years they have blossomed into tall boys with exactly the same color hair. People ask me all the time if they’re twins, and sometimes even I mix them up from behind, but they actually have very little in common.
Are the opposites? I don’t know. Not exactly. They’re just very, very different. Joey is a builder, a thinker, a reader. Jack’s interests lie in music, in Disney, in pancakes and grocery shopping and license plates. They rarely interact, and any conversation between them is usually in short, staccato bursts.
“Jack. Pass me the milk. Jack. The milk.
“Joey, I need. That jacket.”
And yet, more and more Jack longs to be like his older brother. Once again I notice the gravitational pull between the two boys.
I want to cook eggs. Like Joey.
I want to wear Under Armour. Like Joey.
I want to take French. Like Joey.
This year both Joey and Jack will be in the same school again; Joey in sixth grade and Jack in fifth. And oh, how Jack has waited for this. All last year, Jack quizzed Joey on the logistics of middle school, the lockers and the changing classrooms and the sandwiches you can buy for lunch.
“OK. Joey. You open your locker. And then you walk to Mrs. Opitz class.”
Except Jack won’t take language this year, and probably not next year either. This was decided way back in the spring, the same time the team decided on a 1:1 paraprofessional, modified homework, and a we’ll see when it comes to the sex education video.
(That last one was my suggestion. Not sure I need him to latch onto the word fallopian tube just yet.)
I know, I know, I should have told him outright. I should have told him at the same time I told him that yes, he would have an aide again this year that his schedule would be altered to include something called “Skills” instead of French or Spanish.
But I didn’t. His outrage over having an aide just about did me in, and I didn’t have the energy—the courage—to break his heart any more. So we went through the motions of preparing for school; the school shopping and schedule making and sneaker buying.
Folks, if you’ve never had the pleasure of shopping with a 10-year old boy on the autism spectrum, well let me crack the venetian blinds to my life and give you a little peek.
Jack insisted we had to go to Staples for his school supplies because, “They have the best carts. To put my things in.” Maybe this makes you wonder how often we go to Staples, that he would have such an affinity for the carts. Once a month? Weekly? Every other day?
Once a year. We go once a year.
“The last time we went to Staples was August 22, 2013. It was August 22nd,” he repeated when we pulled into the Staples parking lot. “It was a Thursday.”
Jack takes back-to-school shopping very, very seriously. If the list says one glue stick, we are getting ONE GLUE STICK. Not a pack of three. Not a box of twelve. One.
Looking over his list, I started to sweat.
See, autism’s rules explicitly state NO ONLINE ORDERING, and NO shopping anywhere but Staples on South River Road—not Target or Walmart or Amazon—so you can see how my hands might be tied here.
“Jack. Look. Here’s a three-pack of glue sticks. We can buy it and divi—“
“NO! We need ONE ONLY GLUE.”
So on and on we searched Staples for the single glue stick, the perfect binder, the blue pencil box to match the blue file folder and the blue spiral notebook. When we were just about done, he pulled another piece of paper out of his pocket. It had been folded into a complicated triangle.
“Now this. This is my list for my language class. French or Spanish. Joey took French.”
I cursed myself for not paying more attention to the list, for not putting it away in the folder with the other kids’ on the last day of school. Instead, he squirreled it away in his room and apparently made it his summer reading.
“So, uh, Jack. I don’t think you’re taking a language this year.”
That’s right, people. I waited until four days before school started to break this news to him. I won’t go into details about the tantrum, the tears, the disbelief, but let’s just say it wasn’t pretty.
That night we grilled burgers for dinner and ate on the patio. The kids were reaching for plates, buns, and pickles, and just as Joe handed me the ketchup I heard Jack.
“Joey. Mom said. No language for me this year.”
I caught Joey’s eye across the table and held his gaze for a long minute. He looked back at me, and turned to his younger brother.
“You know, Jack. Not everyone needs to take language.”
“Okay. I know.”
Tomorrow is the first day of school. Jack seems to be ready. If nothing else, he is organized. Every morning he has come into the my office and wordlessly arranged and re-arranged and arranged yet again the royal blue binder and the royal blue pencil box and the highlighters and erasers and markers.
I get a pit in my stomach when I watch him perform this ritual. To tell you the truth, my heart breaks a little every time.
Because although he is wordless, he is still speaking volumes. In his compulsive organization I hear I am nervous why no French I am ready I want to be like them like him like Joey.
I hear his fear and disappointment over an aide but no language, his excitement and his anxiety, hope and unease; the rare combination of pleasure and pain.
Here in New Hampshire, the days are still long and warm but the evenings carry the slight chill of early fall. There is change in the air. From where I sit at my desk, I can see just a hint of red and orange and yellow in a sea of green on the trees.
Tomorrow morning my two oldest boys will step on the bus, one after the other. They will probably sit apart. They won’t look at each other or call out or wave. But I’m not worried, because I know they are connected by words I cannot hear, a union I cannot see. They are independent still, but always together.
I think it all started with a single red leaf.