There is a little girl who has taken upon her small shoulders the task of keeping her younger brother happy. She will run to comfort him when he cries and patiently explain to him how to feed himself with a spoon. When his mother is exasperated for lack of success, the little girl will succeed.
When her brother took some of his first steps, they were meant for her. The first person he looks for in the morning, after Mommy comes in to get him, is the little girl. She has always loved him with all her heart, and throughout the day will spontaneously run up to him and tell him he’s a “cutie cutie boy” or “the cutest baby in the world.” She says she wants to marry him when she grows up even though you’re not supposed to marry your brother.
This little girl, as you’ve probably guessed, is the big sister to our two-year-old twins. Her brother has Down syndrome and requires a coterie of four therapists (his girlfriends), who come to our house every week to help him learn to talk, use sign language, walk, develop social skills and improve the dexterity in his hands. His big sister is therapist number five. And what’s amazing about her is not that she wants to help teach him new signs or new words. Or that she brings him things that he needs, or feeds him his dinner, or gladly shares her Harris Teeter balloon after he pops his with his teeth.
It’s the pride she shows in his accomplishments. When he does something new, she is SO excited she cannot contain herself. The days when he first stood up by himself and tried to take a step, she said, in that funny high-pitched voice that adults use when talking to children, “I am SO proud of you! You stood up! Good job!” And then she immediately shared this news with me. And I find myself sharing news of his accomplishments with her first also. We often turn to each other to express our joy at an emerging new skill of his. She is 5, I might remind you. I am 39. The difference in wisdom between us is usually weighted in her favor. Her acceptance of him is total, cloaked in silent understanding.
I mention this by way of explaining why this school year has been an unexpected gift for us. The gift of her daily presence is one I almost missed, by my own doing no less. You see, we thought she might be in Kindergarten this year instead of home with me half the day and in preschool the other half.
She misses the public school cutoff for turning 5 by about a month and a half, but we went through this whole process to get her into Kindergarten early. Not because we thought she was a genius, but just because she seemed ready to make that step. Long boring story short, it didn’t work out because they thought she was too immature to start.
After a few days of feeling sort of turned upside down — we thought she’d be a shoo-in — we agreed that was totally, by far, the best thing ever. For one, it will delay what I am currently predicting will be the saddest day of my life, the day she goes off to college. Still, even though I eventually came around to the idea that the school was right, supremely right, I wanted to shout at them about that word — “immature.” This kid, immature? Perhaps a bit innocent and sensitive to be hanging out with children a year older than her, but not immature.
Just to be clear, I’m not proposing that she’s superhuman. She’s very much the typical 5-year-old. The other day, she looked flabbergasted when I told her to include her brother in the hide-and-seek game she was playing with her little sister. “But Mommy,” she said, “he doesn’t know how to play.” Ouch, that hurt a little. So I told her to do her best to include him.
In any case, the inevitable is often wearing different clothes than you thought it would. So it doesn’t really matter what that school thought, because the end result is that we are happier. The best has come to pass. We are together most days, the four of us, me and the three little headaches who are teaching me how to be a better…something.
One of our days entailed going to get a routine x-ray for her brother and then out to lunch. At the radiology center we pretty much took over half the waiting room, with kids climbing on and off all the chairs and throwing brochures on the floor. Big sis decided to take some brochures with her. She loves anything of the printed-word variety, much to my delight.
So at lunch I notice that she is copying words from one of the radiology brochures onto her paper menu. I’m so glad to see her practicing her letters! She goes about it diligently while the twins do their usual routine of screaming and babbling nonsense while licking everything they can get their mouths on. For good measure, my son throws everything gleefully to the ground until I turn his highchair into an island, at least two feet of empty air on every side of him. He still manages to bend over and lick the high chair bar. Anything I give him to chew or drink from he promptly pushes away or flings. Ahhhh!! I’m going to lose it. But finally, the food is here. Hallelujah!
As I busy myself with doling everything out, my oldest pushes her paper toward me.
“Mommy,” she says proudly, “look what I wrote!”
I look down at the carefully drawn crayon letters.
“Breast lumps,” it says, the “e” facing backward.
I can’t help it. I burst out laughing as I read the words aloud. Daughter giggles heartily upon hearing them. “This is what happens,” I say, the laughter rising even harder from my belly, “when we can’t read.”
The kid knows what breasts are — I nursed the twins for a short time — and I’m guessing she knows what lumps are but thankfully she didn’t ask for an explanation of breast + lumps. We just sat there laughing like both of us were 5, giggling with joy that the word “breasts” had been said in a public place. I had a smile on my face the rest of the day, happy that my beautiful daughter found a way to get a message to her harried mom. And the message was: relax, mama, life is funny, especially when you don’t expect it to be.