Virtue & Mischief

Timothy Swensen

March 3, 2014

As regular readers may recall, I have four incredible sisters but no brothers. On occasion I envied peers who had brothers, but those moments were rare and almost always tied to some extremely shallow, petty sense of deprivation. I recall instances when I wished my younger sister Barbie would play basketball with me, for example, or that she were a boy so I would feel slightly less guilty for hitting her during an argument. Stupid and childish stuff, for sure.

Throughout my life my sisters have been extraordinary caretakers, friends, mentors, and spiritual guides and I wouldn’t trade them for anything or anyone. Still, I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like for me if Barbie (she is the closest to me in age, born 18 months after my arrival) had been a boy, if I had experienced at least one fraternal relationship during my life. For this reason and others I’ve observed with great interest and fascination the development of Luke’s and Daniel’s relationship over the years, and wonder what it will look like in the future.

They are close in age—13 months apart—and were often confused for twins when they were a little younger. They shared a crib when they were toddlers and have elected to share a bedroom for almost their entire lives. I can’t quite put my finger on how they’ve forged the bond they enjoy, nor am I certain how deep and wide it extends, but I am grateful it exists. And I hope it will continue to evolve and grow stronger with each passing year.

Still, it would be dishonest and immature to pretend that there aren’t profound challenges endemic to their relationship. Daniel must endure the humbling, and sometimes even humiliating, daily realization that almost everything in life—from throwing a baseball to drawing a picture to solving a math problem to playing a video game to (gulp) forming and cultivating friendships—comes more easily to his baby brother. Despite being younger, Luke is the alpha of the two and Daniel frequently finds himself acquiescing (sometimes quite willingly, other times not so much) to Luke’s demands. “Daniel, get my water bottle, will ya?” (a command disguised as a request, if ever there was one) and “Daniel, that’s my spot on the couch—move!” are commonly heard in the household.

Luke bears a burden as well. It’s the mirror-image of the one Daniel deals with. Luke’s brother can’t do what he can do—athletically, cognitively, or behaviorally—and the gap is likely to widen over time. Moreover, Luke must deal with the embarrassment he feels when Daniel has a conspicuous outburst at school or when he innocently commits a cringe-worthy faux pas in public. They have been on the same baseball team for several years running, for example, and it took all the restraint Luke could muster not to sock his brother in the chest in a futile and aggressive attempt to restrain Daniel from fighting an imaginary light-saber duel against General Grievous when he was supposed to be soberly manning right field.

I am older, more mature (I think), and more battle-hardened than my 9 year old son. A decade and more of parenting will do that to you, whether you’re blessed with a “special needs” child or not. Sometimes I overlook the impact of these trials on Luke and forget how understandable his frustrations are. Worse, I too often fail to appreciate Luke’s hard-earned growth in this sphere.

A few days ago Luke and I were alone working together on his homework. We took turns reading a realistic fiction book about a boy trying to fit in on his new baseball team. Ten minutes into our session Luke suddenly stopped reading and announced, “Dad, I love Daniel. I would never trade him for another brother. Ever. He’s really awesome to me.” He paused, then added, “Sometimes I wonder, though, what it would be like to have ANOTHER brother who wasn’t autistic.”

“I think I understand, Luke. I don’t have any brothers and so I wonder sometimes what it would have been like to have had a brother. Any kind of brother. But I have four amazing sisters and you have one amazing brother, and maybe we should focus on what we DO have rather than on what we don’t. What’s your favorite thing about Daniel?”

“Hmm. Well, he’s very nice to me most of the time. He lets me use his stuff. He’s funny even when he’s not trying to be. And I can tell that he loves me. On the other hand, he snores too much.”

The conversation moved from there to places equally touching, personal, funny, and surprisingly insightful. And later that night Krista and I discovered them sleeping together face-to-face in Daniel’s bed, arms connected, and both of them snoring loudly.

Timothy Swensen is the author of the weekly column series Virtue and Mischief that is published every Tuesday in The Daily Advocate. He can be reached at tswensen1@udayton.edu. Viewpoints expressed in these opinion pieces are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.