It feels like a miracle that my parents are still together. They always struggled over how best to discipline Michael. While my mother would try to be gentle and lenient, my father saw Michael’s misbehavior as orneriness and tried to enforce strict rules. The result was chaos between the three of them and I was stuck somewhere in the middle trying to figure out where I fit in. I felt pressured to be the son that kept the family together.
At a young age, I accepted that I had to play the role of Michael’s older brother. That meant I had to look out for him at school, make sure he knew where he was going, and be the one to calm him down when he had an outburst in class. I remember receiving intercom calls in 2nd grade asking me to go to Michael’s classroom, which was inevitably filled with teachers and aides frantically trying to calm him down while he threw things and yelled at the top of his lungs. But seeing me and knowing I was on his side seemed to calm him. When he had these fits, I would walk straight to him, grab his shoulders, and ask, “Michael, what’s wrong buddy?” This would usually be followed by a hug from Michael and five minutes of weeping while he eventually calmed down.
This routine became a normal part of life for me. At school, restaurants, malls, or vacations, when he would start to get frantic, I was the one to tell Michael everything was going to be fine.
Outside of our immediate family, relatives had a hard time accepting that they could not treat Michael the same way they treated me. Countless Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners were spent with someone trying to tell Michael what to do, which often led to passive aggressive arguments about the best way to raise an autistic child.
One of the hardest moments I’ve ever had with my brother came when I was 16. I had a car and a job and was finally able to be something of a normal teenager. I drove Michael to school in the morning, usually a quiet ride with the radio playing low. One morning, he looked at me and said, “I wish I was you.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You’re not autistic,” he replied. “You can drive a car and play sports and get a job and make money. You’re normal, and I’ll never be able to be normal like you.” I had no clue how to respond to that. His self-awareness had finally caught up to him, and it left him with a pretty grim future.
At the age of 23, I married Nicole, the love of my life. I asked Michael to be a groomsman for the wedding, and he agreed. The day of the ceremony, I could tell something was up. I didn’t want to let it bother me, so I asked my good friend Ryan to watch out for him and keep him in good spirits. But at the end of the ceremony, Michael came running down the aisle screaming, “Congratulations, you beat me! Now I’m NEVER gonna get married!”
My instincts kicked in. I grabbed him and brought him in for a giant hug, allowing him to cry and calm down for a moment. I told him how much I loved him. I told him everything was going to be fine. Within an hour, Michael came up to me to apologize about the outburst and told me how happy he was for Nicole and me.