Average Jane

I never knew

It’s Saturday morning, 10:00am, and I have tears in my eyes. Bilateral eye moisture before lunch on the weekend. You’d think something was terrible wrong. But it isn’t. It’s all changed.

So I guess it’s time I told you about my Brother. He has a learning disability and Pervasive Developmental Disorder (on the Autism Spectrum). He’s older than me by 4 years. We were never in the same school for very long because at the time (and still) the public school system just can’t handle kids like him. For a while, they thought he may have been Autistic, or had Asperger Syndome… but with those syndromes comes above average intelligence, and my brother is below. He has illegible handwriting and awkward conversational mannerisms. He walks funny and looks a little funny, but you wouldn’t know anything was “wrong” unless you really knew him well. Like I do. I’m his little sister.

Growing up, I was the typical sibling of an affected child… almost an after thought. And growing up as an afterthought comes with a lot of responsibility. And a lot of arm waving. “Hey! Dad! Mom! I’ve over here!” I played every sport and sucked at them all. Well, I was pretty darn good at rec softball, if I do say so myself. My dad, while traveling for work most of the time, was still at all my games, but I always felt like a disappointment when I just didn’t perform. One of his kids had to be good at something, right? So, I poured myself into academics and I became the funny fat girl. It worked for me. For years. But not forever.

My brother, on the other hand, was actually quite good at sports, but never survived on a rec team because of his social issues. But he could play the piano like a savant. He was a savant. He could play by ear and compose on a dime. And it killed me. Especially when my piano lessons were fruitless. To this day I have a hard time listening to the piano, knowing it was my brother’s stronghold in our house.

We fought terribly. Over nothing. Physically. He threatened to kill me once so I ran away to my friend’s house. For a whole day. Apparently you need “permission” to use your parents credit card to buy clean underwear.

The struggle between myself and my brother was exacerbated when he came home my senior year of high school, his senior year of college, and said he wasn’t going back. Wasn’t going to graduate. It was my year. My time. My last chance to have my parents to myself and he stole the limelight again.

And this was the way I looked at my brother for years. As this inanimate object there as an obstacle for me to overcome. He was the wall between me and a relationship with my parents. He was this non-verbal, non-communicative guy who was mean to me and manipulated my parents. He was an asshole. A genuine jerk. He had no empathy toward me or what I was going through having a “retard” for a brother.

But how dare I make such accusations when I was implicated in the same crime.

I demanded a meeting with his social worker some years ago and told her that I needed to know what was wrong with him. She pulled out his case file, two binders thick, spanning three decades, a veritable who’s who of the psychiatric community. My mother had fought every system to get him every opportunity. The best opportunities. She sued the county and put him in the best private school for LD kids in the country. She told him every day that he could be better, do anything he wanted… She was wrong. There was a huge gap between what he expected he could do from being told for so many years he could do it, and what his neurological disorder actually allowed him to do. And he was frustrated. Every day was another mountain for him to climb. Every day was a struggle. Every social interaction was a maze he had to wind through just to come out looking “normal”. But I ignored all that.

The empathy that I demanded of him was one that I couldn’t offer in return. My anger at what he had done to me and my childhood blinded me from seeing what he was going through. My mother would say to me, “Just be glad you have your mind, Jane.” And I would explode.


But what of my brother? What did he do with his life? He went back to college and graduated. And I left his graduation early. Never even saw him walk. You want regrets? I got regrets. And that is #1. He worked harder than I would EVER have to work, and I left his graduation to work my shift at Fridays. You want regrets? That is regret.

Then he got a job. A real job. An office job. It took a while but he did it. And then, years and years later…. then he got a girlfriend.

My brother and I haven’t talked in months. We were instructed not to talk if at all possible after an unfortunate incident a few years ago. But this morning I got an IM from him. 10am on a Saturday. He had broken up with his girlfriend. She was cold, he said. She made him question his faith. She didn’t like dogs.

“Brother,” I said, (and this is verbatim) “She sounds like a very cold person. And you are not very cold. You have so much love, especially for dogs. Even when we don’t get along, I know that you have a big heart.”

“Thank you. He said, “I’ll try to do better getting along with you. I wish I didn’t have my Learning Disability.”

The tears began to flow. The words hit hard. I never, not in 25 years, stopped to think, “This must be hard for him. I wonder what it’s like to struggle so hard. I wonder what it’s like to have a normal, overachieving sister. I wonder what it’s like to not be able to just do something without thinking about it…. but rather do it wrong, have to apologize for screwing up, and then have to ask how to do it the right way.” How humbling to rely on other people your whole life. And how arrogant of me to think that he wouldn’t want to change it if he could.

“Ya know,” I said, “Sometimes I wish you didn’t have your LD, too. But sometimes I wish I could see past it better.”

To an outside observer the rest of the conversation was mundane. To me, it was precious.

Jane: i really appreciate you coming to me. i appreciate what you said
Brother: thanks
Jane: we have a long road to heal
Brother: yep
Jane: maybe we can play tennis sometime. i’m getting good at racquetball
Brother: ok. you have to teach me that.
Jane: have fun at tennis
Brother: thank ya

So at 10am on a Saturday, the tears may continue to flow, but the healing has finally begun.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks


  1. * Laundro says:

    You both are two amazing people. Whether you like it or not.

    | Reply Posted 10 years, 9 months ago
  2. * jess says:

    This is just beautiful. Now I’ve got tears in my eyes too. Thank you for sharing this with us. It consistently amazes me how incredible people can be, and this is one of those instances.

    | Reply Posted 10 years, 9 months ago
  3. * matt says:

    My little sister has some skin condition that stunts hair growth. I know that’s not the same.

    Your post reminds me of something from The Sun magazine.

    | Reply Posted 10 years, 9 months ago
  4. * startingtoday says:

    I’ve read your blog a big from time to time, and we’ve met a few times as well.

    This post was extremely moving.

    For the past 5 years, (until now), I worked in a public school with special needs children, primarily some form of Autism and Aspergers.

    I don’t really know what else to say, but, really, what a great post.

    | Reply Posted 10 years, 9 months ago
  5. Cheers, kid. My brother once straight up didn’t acknowledge my presence – let alone talk to me – for a nine-month stretch, and it nearly tore my family apart. I can’t even imagine how hard this has been for the two of you. For what it’s worth, my brother and I are pretty effing tight these days, and hang out whenever we’re in the same place. Keep working at it – it’s worth it.

    | Reply Posted 10 years, 9 months ago
  6. * dailycraziness says:

    Working in the field, I feel bad that I haven’t found more supports for you as a sibling of someone on the spectrum. Just know that they DO exist, and there are PLENTY of people out there who have grown up feeling the same way you do. I think if you find some of these people you may end up feeling a bit more “normal” about your childhood and your brother. And hey, isn’t that the idea?

    | Reply Posted 10 years, 9 months ago
  7. * Sam says:

    Thank you for sharing your story, Jane. It’s hard for anyone to talk about their regrets under any circumstances, and I’m sure it took a lot to own up publicly to not always being the perfect sibling for your brother. But it tells us a lot about how you’ve grown as a person since you and your brother were in school.

    Something remarkable that caught my eye was this sentence: “I always felt like a disappointment when I just didn’t perform. One of his kids had to be good at something, right?” What occured to me by the time I got to the conclusion of your post is that actually, both of your parents’ kids actually ended up being good and decent people, and that matters way more than being funny or good at softball or piano or school. They ought to be proud of both of you.

    | Reply Posted 10 years, 9 months ago
  8. Hum… I keep reading your blog… i wanted to say it, and I often want to post admiring comments, but I’m too careful on not screwing up the way I might put it, and most of the time I end up writing nothing.

    One more time you gave me reasons to admire you, one because you’re an indecently gifted blogger/writer, and two because you seem to err… as a person…err… kudos for many things anyways.

    damn…”kudos for many things”, that sucks… see, that’s why I don’t usually comment on your blog -___-

    | Reply Posted 10 years, 9 months ago
  9. * carrie m says:

    I’m so happy for you. And your brother. That ‘small’ conversation was huge, and I’m so happy. Thank you for sharing it with everyone in such a beautiful way.

    | Reply Posted 10 years, 9 months ago
  10. * shadi says:

    wow, excellent post. can tell it’s therapeutic for you to write, and you express well. keep at it.

    | Reply Posted 10 years, 9 months ago
  11. * Rion says:

    That was wonderful and I’m glad I discovered it.
    I have some similar childhood issues with a sibling that were pretty messed up. But you have to forgive yourself, without reassigning blame to the parents, before the relationship can fully heal.

    | Reply Posted 10 years, 9 months ago
  12. * Penny says:

    This was an excellent post, Jane. Thanks for sharing it with us. I hope your road to reconciliation is smooth and wide and short.

    | Reply Posted 10 years, 9 months ago
  13. * Claire says:

    I just came across your site today, and wow, I am so moved by your post. Although my own brother does not have a learning disability, we had our issues.

    You have the rest of your life to build a relationship with your brother. Best wishes.

    | Reply Posted 10 years, 9 months ago
  14. * somegirl says:

    i just read this and something compelled me to comment. god, it’s like you’re the first person to feel like me. you wrote it so beautifully and i’m almost crying here. i don’t think i’ll ever get over being told i’m the lucky one, that i should be helping my brother. he’s got asperger’s syndrome by the way, and every day it’s like i’m made to feel less important, simply because i’m ‘normal’. none of my friends understand what it’s like to constantly walk on eggshells, but i feel guilty making a big deal about it, since i’m not exactly always the doting big sister. good luck with your brother though, it sounds like you could finally heal the rift 🙂

    Just like you, I am compelled to write you back. I wish more than anything that I had the support of other people with siblings on the “spectrum”. There is *nothing* easy about it. Not 2 days after I wrote this did my brother decide to go back on the attack, and I tried with every ounce of my being to be the bigger person, but I am human. He is my brother. I still have that base, primal (?) reaction.

    Sometimes I feel like i need permission to hate him. Not sure if you feel the same way.

    Thank you for reaching out. I’d love to keep in touch.

    | Reply Posted 10 years, 7 months ago
  15. * somegirl says:

    that would be good.

    what tears me apart is that he looks like a normal person. so when he behaves like his good old self, people just assume my parents haven’t brought us up properly. for christmas, i’m hoping for a teeshirt that says “no honey, we’re the normal ones” only i don’t like anywhere near a printing shop.

    i’m sorry it didn’t work out, and yeah, i’d love someone to tell me it’s ok not to like him. but then i feel all guilty when he has an ‘awww’ moment.

    | Reply Posted 10 years, 7 months ago

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