Though I'd never seen her before, I recognized her immediately. Everything in her face and manner gave her identity away. At the time, I was scanning a crowd of rowdy children for my young friend David.* Once a month, I volunteer at a local respite-care night, free to special needs children and their siblings. On this, our second respite night, I was expecting David, but the young girl next to him … she was a surprise. When I spotted him at last, I saw why I'd had trouble finding him: her form effectively shielded his. She and David were seated together, one plate of hamburger and veggie chips before them. They had separate chairs, though they gave the impression of sharing one seat. Their heads leaned together in the pose of people long accustomed to sharing space. There was only one conclusion to come to: This must be his older sister.
I took a deep breath and walked over to their table. Kneeling beside them, I said, “Hi, David. It's good to see you again!” Turning to his sister, I said, “Hi, I'm Caroline, David's buddy. What's your name?”
“I'm Darcy,*” she replied. Her voice was guarded, but there was a barely-perceptible eagerness there, too. She's smart to be cautious … but I think she could use a friend, I thought. How to set her mind at ease? I'll just show her that I respect and care for David, I decided. She clearly adores him.
“It's nice to meet you,” I said. “David's sister, right?”
“Right,” she said, a small smile lighting her face.
“I can tell. And how old are you?” I asked.
“I'm eight … we're twins!” she exclaimed. I couldn't believe I hadn't seen it before; the resemblance was readily apparent.
“Wow! I always thought it would be so cool to have a twin,” I said. “I have a younger brother, Willie … he has some special needs, too. Autism.”
“How old is he?” she asked, with interest.
“He's 26, and I'm 28,” I said. “He lives with our parents. I miss him … but anyway, I had a great time hanging out with David last month,” I told her. “We made a Play-Doh cake, and he had us all jump out and yell, SURPRISE!”
Here, David chimed in, right on cue: “Everybody, everybody!”
“He does that all the time,” she said. In her tone was that sweet exasperation that is so specific to siblings.
“I bet!” I replied.
With that, the conversational floodgates opened. Darcy had questions: “What do we do here? What happens next? Is it all right if I have some food, too?”
She was winning me over and making my heart ache, all at the same time. “Of course!” I replied to her last question. “Have whatever you like.” Saying this to some children is a recipe for disaster. But Darcy, I sensed, could be trusted not to go overboard. Sure enough, she selected a few chicken nuggets, and shared them with her brother.
For the next few hours, we three stayed together. Darcy was incredibly attuned to David, helping him as we moved through various activities. Yet as the night went on, Darcy would dash off on her own more often, running away to shoot baskets with other kids. I was happy to play a part, however small, in allowing her to drop the supervisory role and just be a kid.
At the end of the evening, we played Parachute, everyone's favorite. We took turns running beneath the fluttering fabric, and the look on David's face as he scrambled across the floor was pure joy. Swift-footed Darcy made it out first; I lingered to make sure David escaped. He ran the last few steps before crashing, happily, into me. I grinned, holding him up for a moment as he caught his balance. Then Darcy was by my side, giving me a spontaneous hug.
In that moment, the differences between us—age, autism, everything—fell to the ground along with the primary colors of the parachute. They swirled among the reds, yellows, and blues before disappearing from view. And all I could see were two siblings, two smiles to cherish.