A Brother's Gift

I always knew I would have two children: a boy and a girl, preferably in that order. I often envisioned them together--he would be affectionate and protective toward her, and she would adore him. I realize now that this vision was as realistic as the one in which my husband stops to ask for help rather than wandering aimlessly through the Home Depot. Even so, as I watch my two children play together on the lawn, my vision haunts me.

My two-year-old daughter is singing and running circles around her older brother, who is sitting on a blanket in the grass. He giggles and claps his hands, thereby motivating her to increase both speed and volume. He has no choice but to live vicariously through her actions: he is severely handicapped and profoundly retarded.

This wasn't what I planned, and I wonder, again, what my daughter is missing by not having a normal brother. He beams in her presence, never fussing when she steals a toy or changes the channel, and she has spent her entire life convinced she is the all-powerful sister-god. A dose of typical sibling rivalry would certainly engender some humility. But I am more concerned that she will miss out on the gentle perspective that can be achieved when unique personalities are compelled to mature in an identical environment.

I reflect on my relationship with my own sister, and I marvel at our differences. She absorbs chaos with ease, living with the constant conviction that all things turn out the way they should. I'm more inclined to believe that the world will cease to function without my efforts to organize, arrange, and direct its operations. But our polarities are not cut and dried--the way I look at the world has been permanently altered because I grew up continually exposed to her perspective. I will always see the world, just a little, through her eyes.

As I ponder these things I look up to see my youngest, exhausted, plopping down next to her brother. She gently pats his head, then begins to "read" him a story. He quickly grabs the book and begins using it to squash bugs. She reclaims the book and quietly explains that books are for stories, and not to kill bugs. For a moment, they appear as any brother and sister sharing time together on a beautiful day.

As I watch them I realize that their relationship brings them both a great deal of joy. He is clearly an important part of her life. In fact, she has never known a world without him. Despite his handicaps, he is her big brother, and she is probably the only one in the world who can love him without reservation. Certainly, this love will change her.

How could I have doubted that he could affect her perspective? I begin to appreciate that she will always be blind to what many of us see when we look at profoundly handicapped children. She will not feel pity or fear; she will see a reflection of her childhood companion. But, perhaps more importantly, he will also affect her approach to life. He is a chronically happy soul, with an innocent belief that all people are for hugging, and all things he meets are potential sources of joy. It is impossible not to absorb his optimism.

I realize now the vision that haunted me also blinded me to what was right before my eyes. My children have forged a bond that is as special as any forged between two normal siblings. It is far from and more than typical. As my familiar vision dissolves it is replaced by one grounded in my reality, a vision as warm and brilliant as sunshine. I learn, again, that most things turn out the way they should. I can see now how fortunate my daughter is. She will always see the world, just a little, through her brother's eyes.

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