All Too Familiar: A Story for National Siblings Day

One Tuesday night this winter, I was babysitting my friends’ children, three-year-old Eliza* and one-year-old Mitchell.*

I watch them on a weekly basis, so I have a working knowledge of their routines and habits. But on that particular Tuesday, Eliza did something I didn’t expect.

When she noticed her brother Mitchell getting a little fussy around bedtime, she stepped closer to him and looked into his eyes. He grew still. Then she stepped away, her hands partially covering her face. And then …

Older sister. (Used with permission.)

“Ah BOO!” Eliza exclaimed, moving her hands away from her face in a ‘ta-da’ motion. Her expression was confident; she knew this would make her brother happy. It was a modified version of peek-a-boo, and Mitchell loved it. His face lit up. His laughter overflowed, bubbling together with hers.

I wish I could play that sound for you; if you heard it, you wouldn’t be able to help but smile too.

In fact, if there’s ever an election wherein we as a human race decide on an official sound for delight, I would vote for this: a baby boy and his toddler sister, laughing together.

The sound of siblings, enjoying life together as only they can.


As regular readers at A Wish Come Clear know, I have one sibling, my brother Willie. He’s two years younger than I am; he’s brilliant, thoughtful, and hilarious. He’s also on the autism spectrum.

Growing up with Willie meant ‘leaving normal.’ It meant knowing that my brother was different from other kids. It meant learning oh-so-early-on how to smooth over the rough waters Willie would leave in his wake.

I’ll be the first to say that sibling relationships aren’t always easy. Here in the grown-up world, it’s not always peek-a-boo fun and games. Far from it. Being Willie’s sister has meant laughter and love, yes, but it’s also meant pain and loss.

I was there when Willie was diagnosed. In fact, it’s my first memory: playing on the jungle gym in the waiting area of the diagnostic center. Waiting for my mother to return. Her holding me; me not knowing why she had tears in her eyes.

I was there when Willie ran away from home as a little boy. I felt the fear of losing him, and the embarrassment of having the police pull him out of the local duck pond.

And I was there when Willie had violent meltdowns as a young adult; he still struggles to control his behavior. I was there when my only brother became a stranger to me.


Baby brother. (Used with permission.)

And young as they are, Eliza and Mitchell aren’t exempt from all this. They may not have to face the challenges of autism, but they will have ugly moments. They will fight. They will resent one another, if only for a time. Even if they love each other, they will probably say, “I hate you,” at least once.

So the question isn’t whether or not they’ll have those moments; they are human, so of course they will. The real question is: what will they do afterward?

Will they forgive? Will they apologize? Will they choose love and acceptance, even when bitterness tempts them?

Will they remember the power of shared laughter, the deep-down connection they’ll always have?

I hope so. Because for all the difficulties that have come with being Willie’s sister, I wouldn’t trade it. Not a chance.


Even though we’re all grown up, I still know how to make my brother laugh. Willie loves wordplay, and he’s thrilled whenever I put the ‘wrong’ word into the ‘right’ phrase. “I’ve been dreaming of a wish come … clear!” I say, and he’ll crack up.

And I know the best way to get his authentic smile on camera: I reach over and tickle him just before I snap an arms-length photograph. I know these things, and many more.

There’s so much that we don’t know about autism; so much of my brother’s mind is a mystery. And maybe that’s why I cherish ‘ordinary’ moments with Willie. Maybe that’s part of what makes talking on the phone, going for walks, and playing ping pong together so special.

And perhaps that’s why I had to turn away from Eliza and Mitchell as they played peek-a-boo that night. Maybe that’s why I had to wipe happy tears from my eyes.

I didn’t mean to cry, but I couldn’t help it. If you’d been there, I think you would have done the same. And it wasn’t just the sweetness of peek-a-boo, or the unexpected surprise of seeing Eliza comfort her brother.

The sound of their laughter moved me, quite simply, because it was all too familiar.


Are you a sibling? Celebrate National Siblings Day (April 10, 2013) by posting a photo of you and your sib on Facebook! Visit The Sibling Leadership Network’s Facebook group to post and learn more.

The Sibling Leadership Network exists to help siblings of individuals with disabilities navigate the challenges they face as family members. We make sure that they’re prepared to advocate along with their brothers and sisters, and we promote the issues that are most important to their families.


Fed up with an ‘impossible’ sibling? Tired of a family situation that may never change?

Pick up I Was a Stranger to Beauty (ThinkPiece Publishing).

*If you don’t have a Kindle, don’t worry! You can use Amazon’s (free) Kindle Cloud Reader.

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*Names have been changed.

My Greatest Teacher in the Art of Acceptance: My Brother with Autism

This is the 99th published post here at A Wish Come Clear. With the 100th post around the corner, I’m thinking about another milestone that’s coming up soon: my younger brother Willie’s 25th birthday. (Willie has autism, as well as myriad creative gifts; he came up with the name ‘A Wish Come Clear’.)

Willie has been talking about his 25th birthday since, well, the day after his 24th. At regular intervals, he announces, “On May 10, 2012, Willie will be 25 years old!” And then, of course, we gently prompt, “I will be 25″, and he says it right back, proudly,I will be 25 years old.”

Though Willie and I have vastly different personalities (for example, at any given meal, he eats his favorite item first, and I save the best for last), and our love for (and anticipation of) birthdays is one of our shared traits. Growing up in our house, birthdays were a big deal.

My mom started a tradition of hiding my gifts the night before my birthday; she’d leave a treasure-hunt trail lined with Post-It notes. Each Post-it contained a rhyming clue to the location of the next Post-It, and the next, and then, at the end, the final note, with the cache of presents and treasures. (Royal treatment? Absolutely.) Later in the day, we’d go out to supper as a family, singing and celebrating in high spirits.

L’Arche also makes big deal out of birthdays. Each community member gets a celebration, a night of songs, gifts, and dessert. On the anniversary of each person’s time at L’Arche (i.e., their L’Arche birthday), they are anointed with water by their fellow community members. This simple ceremony is an intimate thing. It is a time for us to affirm to one another: yes, you matter. Yes, our love for you is alive.

I miss Willie more than ever as his birthday draws near. As it happens, I’ll be speaking at a local church on his special day, giving a talk entitled, “Not A Burden, But A Privilege” (You can view the event flyer here.) And it’s bittersweet to be giving this talk on Willie’s birthday; bittersweet, yet somehow, entirely fitting. If it wasn’t for Willie, I’d never have been a part of L’Arche, or discovered the amazing gifts of the people therein. My life would have been so different, and I cannot wish any of it away.


Since I won’t be able to celebrate with Willie, I took my time selecting a gift for him. I scrolled through the books available on Amazon, looking for one he’d enjoy. Willie loves dogs, so I picked a pocket dictionary of dog breeds. I chose the pocket edition because he likes to carry books with him wherever he goes (another similarity between us), and also because I knew that he might tear the book to pieces, and I didn’t want to spend too much on something that might end up shredded.

It was surreal, shopping for a present with calm acknowledgement that Willie tears up even his favorite books when he’s out of control. I was purchasing something I knew might not last, and, miraculously enough, it didn’t bother me. I was taking Willie’s meltdowns into account, and doing so was a form of acceptance.

That said, being with Willie when he has a meltdown is terrifying. I wish, hope, and pray every day that there might come a time when he’s free of their tenacious grip. But as I hit “Purchase”, I felt the truth of what I can and cannot do. I can buy a good gift for my brother, but I cannot control how long it will last in his hands. I cannot change Willie, but I can love him.

It was a moment in which the Serenity Prayer became real for me, a moment in which I was granted the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

Yes, I will struggle to accept Willie as he is. I will feel anger and terror and grief when he melts down. But those feelings are not my only truth. They are a part of how I feel, but they are not the truest part.

And so I plan to close my talk at St. Francis this week by saying what is most true:

Happy Birthday, Willie. I love you and I’m proud of you. You’re the reason I’m here tonight.

You, before anyone else, have taught me to see through eyes of love. Thank you.


What’s been your greatest ‘acceptance challenge’ this week? Tell me in the comments!

If this post spoke to you, please share it with those you love.


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