Recently, I was asked, “What was it like, growing up with your brother?” And I said the first thing that came to my mind: “Well, it was interesting. He ran away a lot.”
When I think of growing up with Willie, autism isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Neither is the way he’d play "differently." How many kids watch film credits once, then dash to the computer and type out the series of names? And print out the pages and place them in sequential order?
I don’t think about these things first. Instead, I think of how much he loved to run.
Imagine: We’d be on a walk, with Willie leading the pack. We’d turn a corner and he’d be gone. We’d be sitting in the backyard, and then suddenly, he’d disappear. He was always so fast; he was so good at vanishing.
I remember sitting in the backseat of our car while my mom drove, on the lookout for Willie. Despite all my parents did to keep an eye on him, he’d slip away on a semi-regular basis.
Fortunately, we knew where he would go: to the park to chase the geese and play on the playground. Rarely did we have to call in reinforcements to help find him.
These were not particularly rebellious disappearances. On the contrary, Willie would usually have a look of glad, mischievous glee on his face when we found him. Perhaps he thought of it as a game of hide-and-seek.
Me? I was a typical firstborn. When Willie ran away, I would feel jealous of the attention he received, embarrassed that we had to go hunting for him, and upset at his lack of remorse. How did he break the rules with such a carefree spirit? His runs seemed to me to be the footsteps of a stranger and I didn’t understand them.
Years later I realize: I was jealous of more than the attention. I was envious of the verve. I didn’t run away. I obeyed the rules. In short, I was the Jeanie to his Ferris.
I also realize: Willie wasn’t just running away, but running toward…whatever was out there. Running toward adventure and exploration. Running for no other reason than because running felt good.
As he grew older, he ran away less and less, but he would still walk out in front of us every chance he had.
As a child, I felt at times that I was competing with him. As a teenager, I was afraid of him. Now, I feel grateful, glad that I can have any relationship with him at all.
When you’ve been through that much doubt and discouragement with someone, you are attuned to their small victories. The piano lesson wherein they play beautifully. The peaceful night’s sleep.
I’ve come to appreciate that Willie’s desire to run ahead, to be first, is an integral part of him. As such, one of the ways in which he shows love comes when he allows others to be first.
For example, when Willie leads dinnertime prayer, I am astonished at what he says every time: “Thank you God for heaven and for prayers and for my sister Caroline and Jonathan in Washington DC…”
No one prompted Willie to do this. It’s simply how he expresses himself, a reflection of his heart. He may not always engage with me when I visit; he may not want to talk for long on the phone. But when he prays, I am clued in: he cares.
It’s comforting to me that, amidst the many changes in our lives, one thing has not changed. Whenever my family walks together, he loves to take the lead. Though he needs our support, he remains a daring spirit, an adventurer, intrepid.
Last weekend, I met my family for supper as they were passing through town. As we walked, Willie shot out ahead of me, then returned to walk beside me (at my parent’s prompting, since I was giving directions).
“Go on, honey,” I said. “I’ll tell you where to go.”
As he dashed ahead, I thought how amazing it is that I’ve finally learned to love this about him.
My brother, always blazing our trail.