It seems only yesterday, when I delivered a scrawny little baby boy by emergency caesarian section. He was six and a half weeks early, a frail little thing who fit snugly in the small crook of my arm. He was the one who made me a mother.
Today, he turns fifteen, no longer a child, no longer my baby. Where before I would kneel down to look him in the eye, these days, I have to tilt my head up to look into his. I have to remind myself that this young man who stands tall and straight before me is the same child who slept on my bosom most nights, afraid to let go. Some days, I am the one afraid to let go.
On his fifteenth birthday, I wish for him the world on a platter, served sweet and succulent, and life in its fullest measure, sucked dry to the marrow. I wish him a million joys and a thousand successes. I wish him love, gentle and true. Yet, I wish him too the salt of tears, once in a season, so he will know grace in defeat and valor in fear, for a man unused to being broken can never be whole.
Happy Birthday, Alexander. I do love you so.
The following piece was written for Alex on his twelfth birthday.
The Other Son
People often refer to me as the “mommy of Alphonse.” In part, it is because I rarely write about my other son, Alexander. In large measure, it is simply because they know me best as a parent and advocate for my child with autism.
Alexander is my neurotypical son; in autism jargon, this simply means that he is NOT a child with autism. He has a normal neural network that processes information and stimuli the way you and I do. In short, Alexander is normal. This is both a blessing and a curse for him.
For all his normalcy, Alex has always been a precocious little boy. He spoke at six months of age. At eight months, he could mutter words like “wower” for flower, “bobo” for ball and “boo” for book. By age one, Alex was no longer using babyspeak, though his lispy enunciation was so cute we didn’t bother correcting him until many months after.
Alex also learned to read much earlier than his peers. At age two, when other little boys were simply beginning to expand their vocabulary, Alexander was already sight-reading. His instinct for associating words with their written counterparts was uncanny. At three, he could read phonetically and, a few weeks after that, he read just about everything he could lay his hands on.
He could pick up languages too. After just a few hours of hanging around with his Nippongo-speaking little Aunt Mina (she was five, he was three), he was able to converse with her in a smattering of Nippongo and English. Today, even as his Nippongo-sparring partner Mina has returned to Japan, he still carries this love affair for the Japanese language in his heart and continues to hope for the day when he could finally go for formal classes in the language.
Yes, Alex has had it easy developmentally. While little brother Alphonse crawls and struggles for every inch of learning he acquires, Alex continues to learn in leaps and bounds. Yet, being “normal” has not always been an easy road for him.
Alexander carries a special sorrow in his heart, one only a sibling of a disabled child can understand and empathize with. He has learned to live with the knowledge that while he is not alone, he actually is. No other person can know what it is to feel like being an only child in a family of two children.
When Alex was much younger, he would take his brother’s hand and push, or pull, even bribe and cajole, his brother simply to get a reaction, any reaction. Many times, he was met with stony indifference; Alphonse would not even deign to give him a glance. At other times, Alex was pushed back so hard he would cry. Sometimes, when exasperated, he would shout “Alphonse hates me,” and run away, only to come back to my lap sobbing and asking why. We had the answers we were prepared to give: that Alphonse is different, that his brain is different, and that he could not understand many things we took for granted. I would hold Alex until his tears dried up, and when he left my lap smiling, I thought he understood.
Then one day, he suddenly developed a fascination for money. It was cute at first, the sight of a five year old counting coins and paper bills. We called him little Alex Keaton, after the business-minded, money-obsessed child from the nineties television series “Family Ties.” He asked us for an allowance, and when we agreed, would remind us dutifully when he was supposed to get his one-peso coin. He coaxed his grandfather to part with absurdly large sums (Alex specified that he wanted one thousand and fifty-two pesos). He played the “cuteness” trump card repeatedly and his aunts and uncles willingly donated to his cause.
By then, we realized that it was getting out of hand. Once, he had even asked a classmate in preschool for two pesos. Furious, I took him by the hand and demanded an explanation. His words failed him then, as silent tears streamed down his cheeks. “I was saving money to buy a brother,” he whispered in quivering voice. That day, we realized that autism had robbed this little boy of his dreams for a friend and a brother.
There have been many similar events since then. Of a frightened Alex crouching into a ball and hiding from a little wisp of a brother bent on wreaking havoc and destruction in our home. Of a tearful Alex patiently removing his brother’s tightly wound fingers from my hair. Of a persistent and relentless Alex forcing his brother to hug him, and being rebuffed again and again and again. Of a heartbroken Alex woefully shedding tears when Alphonse would chew on his books and Yu-Gi-Oh! cards or bite the head off his action figures. Some were extraordinary events, and some were everyday little things that ate at his heart. These were, and are, autism’s curses.
“Was it ever my fault, mama?” he asked me once of his brother’s autism. He remembers, surprisingly well, how when he was a toddler and his brother was a newborn, he would bite his brother’s fingers. Alphonse would howl in the inconsolable way newborns have, and curious Alex, not knowing any better, would try again. He remembers these with a twinge of guilt, as if his toddler’s mind could grasp the complexities of sibling rivalry. He had carried this guilt for many months, he said, and could bear it no longer.
“Of course not!” I emphatically replied. I assuaged his guilt and remorse and explained how autism cannot be explained by one single event or circumstance. It is precisely this nature of autism that makes it difficult to understand, difficult enough for adults and even more incomprehensible to children.
One afternoon, a few summers ago, after a long and tiring day babysitting Alphonse at home, Alex cryptically uttered, “Sometimes, I wish I had autism, too.” He looked at me with sad, wan eyes and continued, “If I were autistic, I would understand Alphonse better. Then he won’t be alone in his world. He’ll have me and we can be friends. He’d love me then for sure.” Before I could reply, he dashed off, with one finger poking his eye in imitation of Alphonse. “Whee, Alphonse, here comes autistic Kuya (big brother)! I am special, too!”
What does one say to that? I could not find the words to tell him that his love for a brother who didn’t know how to love back was an incredible gift to us. That his heart was a gift. That HE was a gift. I ran after him and hugged him tight.
Alexander is 12 today, on the cusp of manhood, yet still on the fringes of a short-lived childhood, much too short, perhaps. Living with his brother, he has had to grow up and mature faster than his peers. He has had to take responsibility for a person other than himself at a time when his own definition of self has not been cast in stone.
He has had to learn patience early on for a disabled brother who did things slowly, if at all. This gracious acceptance that being different isn’t bad at all has strengthened his tolerance and sensitivity for other people’s differences. My son knows no prejudices, and I am most proud of him for that.
And my son knows love. Love for someone who loves him now, albeit in a different way. Two years ago, Alex said, “I think Alphonse has learned to love me.” Alex’s persistence finally paid off. He must have been rebuffed a million times, but he didn’t give up. He kept at it, day in and day out until one day, Alphonse snuggled close to him, willingly, without reservations. Alex almost exploded with joy.
Maturity, acceptance, tolerance, and love. These are autism’s blessings.
I write now of my son Alexander, love of my life, pride of my heart. Too soon, I will have to let my son go to let him find his wings on his own. Already, I feel him pulling away from us at times, and it scares me. Today, however, while he remains a child, I want him to know that he is loved, as loved as his brother and more, and that he is special, too.