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.

The Summer I Ran Away (and What Brought Me Home)

Hilton Head, 2012. Photo Credit: Donna Fischer

Once upon a time, I ran away from home. I ran in a very structured, organized, responsible sort of way, which is to say, I disguised the escape.


When my husband and I visited family last month, we spent time with my parents, brother, grandparents, and an aunt and uncle too. I’m blessed with a wonderful extended family, and I feel particularly close to this aunt and uncle. Why? Because I lived with them for a summer seven years ago.

When people asked me why I was staying with my extended family that summer, I had a list of answers ready. I wanted an adventure, a change of pace. I wanted to spend time with my aunt, uncle, and cousins. I was working to save money, and I’d found a job nearby.

Rarely did I mention the fact that, at the time, living with Willie had become nearly impossible. I don’t recall if I spent that summer away before or after he hurt me during an outburst, but I know that I didn’t feel safe with him at the time. Try as I might, I didn’t feel love for my brother. Fear consumed my heart.


Part of me felt intensely guilty about the choice. I felt like a bad daughter and a bad sister, for not coming home after my sophomore year at Vassar ended. But another part of me was so relieved to be someplace else, which made sense; I’d been physically and emotionally hurt by Willie’s behavior.

Cousins, Summer 2005

It was a good summer. I struggled with the guilt, and it was lonely sometimes, but it was also a restorative season. I wrote and went for runs everyday. I discovered that I enjoyed living simply, as I’d brought only a small number of personal belongings with me. And I felt connected to my aunt, uncle, and cousins in a way I never had before. We’d laugh and talk and take pictures and savor Wegmans pastries.

But in hindsight, the best thing about that summer was that living with my extended family actually helped me to accept and embrace my immediate family. Somewhere down the line, living with my aunt, uncle, and cousins calmed my frightened heart.

My family members taught me what I needed to know, just by being themselves. At the time, I hadn’t heard of L’Arche*, and I found it difficult not to judge Willie for his struggles. At the time, I tended to take his difficult behavior personally. I was angry with him when he acted out.

But that summer, I learned that every family struggles. My cousins and their parents weren’t dealing with autism, aggression, or self-injurious behavior, but they had challenges of their own. (And joys. And then more challenges.) They, too, were living this crazy thing called life.


When I ‘ran away’ in 2005, I also discovered that my parents’ home (tumultuous as it was) and my aunt and uncle’s home (which felt calm by comparison) had a key element in common. Quite simply, both homes were full of love. Real love.

My parents were doing their best to love both Willie and me. And in that season, loving their son meant keeping the faith. It meant letting him stay in their home even when it wasn’t easy to do so.

And in that season, loving me meant letting me go. With tears in their eyes, my parents let me make the choice I needed to make. They gave me no guilt trips; they didn’t imply that I was letting them down. Instead, they loved me enough to open their hands.

In turn, my extended family showed me mercy by offering a safe haven. They told me that I could live with them for as long as I needed to stay. And even as I judged myself for not being ‘strong enough’ to stay with my brother, they welcomed me and affirmed my gifts. (In fact, they still speak with awe about how I used to organize drawers and tidy rooms for fun.)

In all seriousness:  they were the hands that framed the risk of returning to my immediate family, and I can never thank them enough for that. That summer helped me gain perspective and begin to let go of being so afraid.

And against all odds, I returned home with love in my heart.


Who has offered you a safe haven? Join the conversation in the comments section!


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*L’Arche is a faith-based, worldwide non-profit organization that creates homes where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together. I spent 5 years serving the DC community in various caregiving roles.