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Am I Cain? MAG
I locked the door. I don’t know why. Unbalanced and unnerved, I lay on my bed. There was nothing to fear or hide, reason told me.
I closed my stinging eyes and reached for my diary. It contained all of my superficial seventh-grade secrets, but now I was prepared to reveal a more personal truth. I wrote, for the first time in my life, “I have a younger brother. His name is Joe and he has Asperger’s syndrome.”
Then I violently tore the page from my diary, ripped it up, and buried the pieces in the trash can.
What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I admit my feelings about my brother – even in my own journal? I felt the back of my neck and cheeks flush. I knew why. It was shame.
I didn’t believe that anyone could understand how it felt to be Joe’s sister. What it was like for my family. So I didn’t write it. I knew there were other siblings like me; I had met some of them. But every situation was different. I thought ours was the worst.
About seven years ago, Joe was diagnosed with a co-morbid case of Asperger’s syndrome, bipolar disorder, and ADHD. Asperger’s is an autism spectrum disorder that causes difficulty with social interaction and communication, and physical clumsiness. When my parents explained this to me, I was confused. That didn’t sound like Joe.
Joe was social, athletic, and talkative. During summer nights, we had races to see who could catch the most fireflies. He always won. And during the school year, he would come home talking endlessly about the discovery of the giant moa. He played nicely with others, always letting me win at checkers. He was smart and creative. He was a regular boy. Or that’s how it seemed to me.
I didn’t realize what living with a brother with Asperger’s really meant until we moved the summer of my fifth grade year. I was excited. It would be a new atmosphere for me. A clean slate. I welcomed it. But Joe didn’t.
Even small changes can be very disruptive to someone with Asperger’s. When we moved, Joe left the nice, normal boy at our old house and a possessed child took his place. His emotional state was always teetering. One minute he would be playing with his toys and the next he would be pitching a rain boot at your head. And that wasn’t the worst of it.
He had “meltdowns,” as we called them. His face would turn red and the veins in his neck would bludge. He would flail, thrash, curse, spit, bite, scream, hit, kick, cry, throw chairs, turn over tables, break the china, and threaten to hurt himself. We could only wait for the tantrums to pass, just as sailors watch for the skies to clear after a brutal storm.
I hated my brother’s new self. I felt like I had been dealt a horrible injustice, and I blamed God. What had I done wrong? This new Joe was not the brother I knew. Where was the blond-haired, blue-eyed angel of my childhood? Why couldn’t I have him and not this horrid monster?
Sometimes I pitied Joe. During the nights when he would scream that there was a devil in his closet trying to possess him, I would yell from my bedroom that everything was okay, there were no monsters. Thinking that I was our mother, he would go to sleep reassured. And the nights when he would complain that he was cold, I would take my comforter and cover him. But these were not acts of love, only pity for the tormented child Joe had become.
I was ashamed of my hatred and embarrassment of my brother. I felt sinful. I remembered the story of Cain and Abel. When God said to Cain, “Where is Abel, your brother?” it was I, not Cain, who answered, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And God cursed me (Cain) to be a fugitive and wander the earth. And I (Cain) said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear.”
Am I as evil as Cain? I asked myself. I believed that not loving Joe was as wicked as murdering him. I understood Cain and could relate to the despair of an unjust punishment. I knew that I shouldn’t blame God for Joe’s disorder. It must be my fault somehow. Joe was my test and I had failed. My eternal punishment was the shame it brought me.
During our first winter in the new home, Joe’s mental state deteriorated. He had to be hospitalized in a psychiatric ward for nine days over Christmas. It was painful for my sister and me not having our brother there for the holidays, but it was even harder on my parents.
The hospital had a strict policy and I was allowed to visit only once, but to this day that memory still brings tears to my eyes. At the hospital we entered an apartment-style living area. There was a kitchenette, a common room, and doors leading to the bedrooms. Joe was at a table playing with Legos. He didn’t see us at first. My father called to him and he ran desperately into his arms. He buried his head in the crook of my mother’s neck and took my hand. He cried uncontrollably. When Joe lifted his bloodshot eyes, I noticed that he was terribly pale and thin.
We stayed as long as we could, touring the room that he shared with three other boys, watching him play in the common area, and even eating supper with him and his roommates. But eventually the nurses instructed us to leave.
With the dreadful fear that we would never return, Joe burst into hysterics. He shrieked hopeless promises that he would be a good boy, that he wouldn’t do anything bad. He accused us of not loving him. His face swelled and contorted in pain. That look of distress and anguish will stay with me forever. My mother and father, also helpless, could only turn and leave.
On the way out, I glanced at my father. He was silently crying. I realized the deep meaning behind his tears. To be the parent of a child in pain and unable to do anything was a desolate, raw feeling. I saw his tears and they became my tears. I cried from my shame and regret for hating Joe.
Years have passed since that day, and life does not stop for despair. Today is a chilly Saturday morning in January and I am driving with Joe to pick up our sister.
Joe, now 15, has slowly improved with the help of medication and special needs techniques. Even though he is far from normal, he is no longer that distressed little boy in the psychiatric ward. He still has meltdowns, but they are not nearly as bad. We just tell him to “roll up his windows” (ignore something and move on). He no longer hits, kicks, and throws objects, and his cursing has improved. He goes to a special school for teenagers with Asperger’s, and he does extremely well considering the past.
As we drive, Joe talks continuously about “Planet of the Apes.” At appropriate times, I nod and say, “Oh, okay” to show I am listening. But I have other things on my mind. I’ve just been assigned an essay on a personal insight for English class. It’s not that I have nothing to write about; I have moments of insight all the time – about true love versus superficial lust, religious epiphanies, and struggles to discover God. But these don’t reveal anything really personal about me or my life.
“Emma, hey, Emma! Are you listening?” Joe asks, waving his hand in my face.
I nod to reassure him, and he continues talking. I look at him as he speaks. His voice is low, no longer a boy’s. His lips are cracked, his skin pimply and irritated. His nose is longer and his chin more defined. He scratches it and looks out the window. I see the beginnings of facial hair. All the while talking, he turns toward me.
Looking into my brother’s eyes, all the agony and shame of the last seven years, my sins of deceit and hatred, melt from my heart like a coat of wax. I am not evil. Cain did not love Abel, but I undoubtedly love Joe.
Love disguises itself in many forms – through warm blankets, fireflies, and immeasurable patience. Even through the hardest parts of life when I thought I hated Joe, I had loved him. He is family. Joe is a gift, not a test or challenge. His Asperger’s is what makes him special, what makes him my brother. And I wouldn’t change that for the world.