Today, you walked down our driveway to catch the bus on the first day of school.
Watching you climb the steps with your backpack slung casually over one shoulder, it occurred to me that you only have four more first days of school.
Oh sure, there will hopefully be first days of college and jobs and stuff like that, but as for the first day of school—when you wake up in the top bunk of the room that you share with three other brothers and a puppy and get up in the morning and pretend to brush your teeth and shove a muffin in you mouth before you run down to the bus—well, there are only four times left.
That makes my heart squeeze together tight, like a hand trying to hold on to too many pennies at once.
How did it all go so fast? It seems like yesterday when you were born, when the doctor muttered under his breath about getting something called forceps to help you make your way into the world but I said no, no, no I can do it, and with one big push and a gasp and a cry, there you were.
The second we saw you, Daddy and I started to make up a ton of little nicknames—Beans and Buca and Jo-Jo and Boochie. Thirteen years later, we hardly ever call you by your actual name, Joseph.
You were the first—the first baby I buckled into a car seat, and rocked at 3:00 am, and fed carrots and peas from a spoon with rubber coating.
Just yesterday, you were a giggling four-year old who wore dark blue sneakers and the cutest grey wool coat with buttons.
Now, you refuse to wear a coat at all, ever. You wear shorts to school, and maybe a hat if it gets really cold. You shove your feet into your sneakers and the laces straggle all over the floor. It drives me bananas.
You used to say bananas like boo-nana’s.
You loved Thomas the Train.
Every time we went to the grocery store you sat in the cart and when we passed the aisle with the bright blue and orange boxes of macaroni and cheese all lined up in a row, you pointed your finger and shouted, “Noni! Noni!”
It was yesterday that I used a towel with a hood to dry you after your bath and I rubbed pink lotion that smelled delicious on your arms and legs before I zipped up your pajamas and laid you down in your crib and tucked the light blue quilt with the dancing elephants all around you.
You had the skinniest legs, like a little birdie. Birdie legs.
Now, your gym clothes smell horrible and you leave them all over the place. You’re almost as tall as me, and I am considered kind of tall. All at once, you are long and gangly—you fill up every room with your jokes and your laughing and your notebooks and pens.
You are turning the corner on adolescence and preparing to leave childhood behind like a worn, beloved sweater. I am just trying to keep up with you, my eldest child, my firstborn, my Jo-Jo.
You were the first brother he ever knew. And because of you–because of your words and your pointing finger and your sweet, tender giggles, we knew. We knew what was missing in our second son because you were our first son.
Just yesterday, you were two little boys toddling around in matching sweaters.
You showed him how to use your sneakers like boats in the bathtub, and you held his hands up against yours to teach him patty-cake, and twinkle twinkle little star, and the way the itsy-bitsy spider went up the water spout and into the rain.
At night, when you both went to sleep in the same bedroom, I heard you talking to your wordless brother.
Ewephants. See Jack? The ewephants are dancing together.
Lately, though something is different between the two of you. I can’t quite pinpoint what it is.
You are weary of the way he stims in public and always having to catch his elbow and steer him towards the car and explain him to the people who run the roller coasters at amusement parks.
My brother has autism. He doesn’t always understand what you tell him.
You hate the way he bites his nails, and asks the same questions about Disney movies over and over again.
Jack! You asked me that already!
There has always been a window, just the smallest, tiniest window in which Jack will talk, or share, or ask. You used to be the best at catching him in the window.
Now, it’s as though someone drew a heavy, dark curtain across the glass panes. He wants to lift it but he doesn’t know how. You, well, you seem to want to keep it closed.
It makes my heart ache, to watch your silent discord from afar–to see my two oldest ducklings separate, and cleave from one another.
The thing is, he needs you, Buca. In so many ways, he needs you even more than he needs Daddy, or me.
I know. I know that is so much pressure and it’s more than you deserve but this is our life and I don’t know how to change it.
I’m sure there are times when you feel eclipsed by his needs; lost to the tornado that can be the spectrum disorder. I never once forgot about you. I want you to know that. I love each of you so very differently, and yet exactly the same. That, my son, is how a mother’s heart works.
A mother’s heart is in motion all the time; it breaks and it mends and it loves and it wonders.
Yesterday, I told you. I called you into my room and together we sat on my bed and I told you about a lovely, sassy, funny girl in our town who closed her eyes for the last time, as God beckoned her gently from her pain. She was a year older than you.
Your mouth opened in surprise and your eyes filled with unexpected tears. We spoke quietly for a moment about cancer and treatment and heaven and earth. Then all at once, you looked at me.
“But her brother. I can’t imagine. How will he ever live without her?” you asked.
That is when I knew, that maybe the curtain isn’t so heavy after all. Someday soon, it will lift in the breeze, and the elephants will dance once more.