I closed my eyes and counted to 10. Deep breaths. In front of me was a scraggly white dog that I’d never seen before. Behind it stood my brother, giving me a guilty look. Our own dog, Huey, was nowhere to be found.
“Jackson, where’s Huey?” I asked him.
He gave me a sheepish shrug.
“Jackson. Where is Huey?”
Huey was trapped in our neighbor’s backyard. My brother had decided that the hideous, scraggly menace in front of me had been lonely, so he’d taken it from its yard and replaced it with our pug. He thought the neighbors wouldn’t notice.
I spent the next hour and 30 minutes of my day assessing how to switch the two dogs back. It took a lot of willpower not to just shove him over the fence with my dog and leave it up to my parents. But that’s the thing. This stuff happens all the time, and sometimes you just have to suck it up and do the dirty work yourself. That’s just the way it is when you have a brother with autism.
Autism is a mental disability that hinders fine motor skills, and makes simple tasks like reading and writing extremely difficult. Jackson was diagnosed with it when I was five. While other girls played with their Barbie dolls, I attended countless Special Olympics basketball games. While they painted pictures, I sat in the dinosaur chair at Lee Ann Britain, a school for infants with special needs while my mom checked out my brother.
I can’t say my childhood was normal. It was laced with instances of Jackson telling the first guy I liked that I was his girlfriend, and hundreds of temper tantrums, which usually ended with him repeatedly banging his head on the floor. I’ve had to grow up at an insanely young age to keep up with all of this. It’s almost like I’m his third parent, driving him to and from school and helping him tie his shoes after frisbee practice on Thursdays.
Jackson still believes in the tooth fairy. On Christmas Eve, he’ll get incredibly angry at me if I stay up too late in fear that Santa won’t come. I feel this massive urge to protect him, and the innocence that he still has inside him. Whenever kids at school try to take advantage of him, whether trying to get him to say inappropriate things or convincing him that there’s an alligator that lives inside the Shawnee Mission East pool, it makes me utterly furious.
He’s just a person. Why can’t you treat him like one?
These little things may seem like a burden to other people, but not to me. I don’t regret having Jackson as my brother in the slightest. He has made me a better person in so many different ways. With him around, I’ve learned things in 15 years that take others a lifetime to perfect. I’m much more open to others now, and he always drives me to do my best.
He’s the jock, and I’m the nerd: that’s sort of the unspoken consensus. I put a lot of pressure on myself to be perfect where he falls back, which is in the realm of grades. I’ve always tried to be on the honor roll, and I seem to get more satisfaction in finishing my outside reading book for English than going out to a movie with my friends. It seems that I’m making up for the both of us sometimes.
It’s 6:30 on a Wednesday night. I’m sitting in the middle of a baseball field, picking at my blue nail polish.
Ninety feet away, my brother steps up to bat. He squats down and narrows his eyes. My dad pitches. Jackson misses the first pitch, and the second. The third pitch my dad sends his direction, we hear the solid clink of baseball against metal. It’s a single. Jackson sprints to first base. He pauses, looks around, and continues to second. One minute later, all of the outfielders are laughing. My brother turned a base hit into a home run.
That’s the final thing Jackson has taught me: not to take life so seriously.
Yeah, he steals dogs, and tattles to my fourth grade crushes, and blatantly cheats in baseball. But in doing all of that, he’s living his life to the fullest. And I think we could all learn a little something from that.