Friday, March 07, 2008

Flashback, New Jersey, 1977

I was sitting in the courtyard of our apartment complex, happily opening a new batch of Wacky Packages. I popped the dusty piece of gum in my mouth and blew a bubble, chortling over the silly gags on the cards.

Then a shadow blocked out the sun, and I looked up to see the neighborhood bully looming over me. “Whatcha got there?” he asked.

“Nothing,” I said, quickly pushing the cards under me. Even though I was a girl, and only six years old, I knew this kid would have no qualms about stealing my precious cards.

“Come on, let me see,” he said, and grabbing me roughly by the arm, he hauled me off the ground. “Nothing, huh? Looks like Wacky Packages.” He reached down and picked them up.

“Don’t,” I whined. “Give them back!”

“It’s a fine for lyin’,” he said, and chortling, he pushed me down and sauntered away.

Instantly, my face turned into a tragedian’s mask, and I began sobbing so hard that the gum fell out of my mouth. I stood on shaky legs and started staggering towards home, but on the way, I ran into my brother. He was carrying his cherished Tonka dump truck and whistling happily, but he stopped when he saw me.

“What happened?” he instantly asked.

“Huh-huh-Harley pushed me down and stole my Wacky Packages!” I wailed.

R’s eyes narrowed. “Hold this,” he said, handing me the dump truck, and he stalked off towards the playground. After a moment’s hesitation, I ran after him.

Harley was sitting on the swings, idly scuffing his toes in the sand as he carelessly thumbed through my Wacky Packages. He was a big, beefy kid, so when my scrawny brother came storming up to him, he didn’t even bother raising his head.

“What,” Harley said.

“Did you take my sister’s Wacky Packages?”

“Yeah, so?”

R pushed him off the swing. He landed on the ground with an oomph that would have been comical if I hadn’t been so certain that my brother was about to get his ass handed to him.

“Ooooh!” crowed the kids around us, who had gathered for the bloodbath.

“What the shit?” Harley yelled. He leaped up, dusted off his ass, and charged at R, who grabbed him by his cheap red windbreaker, ripping it in the process, and flung him down on the ground again. Without a second’s hesitation, R reached down, picked up the cards that had scattered on the ground, and handed them to me. He took his truck back, and then he looked down at Harley, whose eyes were brimming with tears of anger and embarrassment. Then he looked at the other kids, pointed at me, and---with a bravado I had never even known he possessed---shouted, “This is my sister! If any of you have a problem with her, you have to go through ME!

And then he took me by the hand and led me home.

I’m the first to admit that R’s always been a bit of an odd duck. We were both almost cripplingly shy when we were growing up, but whereas I got a little better, he seemed to get even worse. Granted, I’m still pretty uncomfortable around strangers, but R makes me look like Paris Hilton in comparison.

And after a series of unfortunate events, most of which are too private or too painful or too complicated to go into here, he got REALLY bad. As in, so bad that my father was scared shitless, not that R would hurt himself or anyone else, but that R would be left completely adrift if nobody was there to help him. So, on the advice of a friend, Dad arranged for R to see a psychologist, who administered a series of tests.

The verdict is official: my brother has Asperger’s.

Asperger’s (and don’t think I haven’t already given R shit about having something that sounds so much like “ass burgers”) is a form of autism which, at its worst, basically renders the person incapable of dealing with other people. It’s a really shitty disorder (as opposed to, you know, the fun kind of disorder) because the person who has it WANTS to be around other people; they just don’t know how. R has a fairly mild case, all things considered, but it’s still not a great thing to have.

But oh my god, he’s doing so well. He’s found a support group that has truly changed his life. He’s made friends with whom he goes out to dinner and bowling, and they understand him, and he doesn’t need to explain himself when he’s with them, which is how friends should be. His e-mails to me are so upbeat and happy that sometimes I have a hard time believing that my brother wrote them.

Asperger’s sucks. It’s not going to be easy for him, least of all because so many people in this world are ignorant and misinformed at best, cruel at worst. But all I have to say is this:

This is my brother.

If anyone has a problem with him, they have to go through me.