"Babies can't walk. Big brothers can."
The words marched across the page, cold and unfeeling like a barricade. No way around them, no hint of subtlety to their meaning, no chance to rearrange the letters and make them right.
I hadn't expected them -- that's when it's hardest -- so I hid my face and covered my mouth, eyes shut to keep from crying.
They were etched inside a harmless little board book. I was sitting on the floor of the bookstore, crouched over a pile of "big brother" books because I wanted to buy a treat for my son. My son who loves babies and asks to pat my growing belly and worries when he hears a little one cry during Sunday morning services.
My son who is about to become a big brother.
My son who has spina bifida.
My son who can't walk.
I turned the page...
"Babies wear diapers. Big brothers wear big-boy underpants."
Of course they do.
I've heard those words more often lately. Friends with children around my son's age say it all the time. They whisk their children towards the bathroom saying, "Big boys use the potty!" They sigh in frustration scolding, "Big boys don't go in their pants." They rejoice and clap their hands exclaiming, "You used the potty! You are a big boy!"
And I get it -- I really do. I would say the same thing if I wanted my unpredictable 2-year-old to predict his bathroom needs. I would say it if pull-ups were hovering in our near future or if underpants were a reasonable goal for us right now -- or next year or the year after that.
If I was not me and he was not my boy and things were different... I would say it, too.
I tossed the book aside and opened another, hoping that this time the "big" stuff would go unmentioned. The pictures were different, but the words were echoes of the same: big brothers doing big boy things. I tried another... and another. It was all the same, a clear message spelled out in primary colors and smudged pastel. Big brothers can walk. Big brothers don't wear diapers. Big brothers do not do things the way my son does. And I couldn't stop myself from crying.
Because, as much as I celebrate differences, as often as I sing the praises of a world that produces such gorgeous human variety, deep down, I know that this is also true: Being different is harder than being the same.
My son is starting to see it. I can tell by the way he watches other children climb and jump. Or how he touches my wiggling toes with such curiosity. Or when he cries frustrated tears and begs me to let him stand on the neighbor's scooter, all while I hug him tightly, not sure how to explain.
Each stage of this journey is hard in its own way. We are living in the stage of being a "big boy."
I grabbed my stack of books and put each one back on the shelf. None of them were quite right, anyway. For us, being "big" isn't about walking and underpants. It isn't about size or strength or how fast you can run.
Being big is about doing the things you can do and knowing when to ask for help with the things you can't. It's about learning to manage big feelings. It's about growing.
As I stood up to go, I saw one last book. I hadn't noticed it before -- a lone copy stuck near the end of the shelf. The photos were outdated and the binding was flimsy, but I picked it up and scanned the cover. The New Baby by Fred Rogers. What are the odds? Crossing my fingers, I peeked inside.
It did not mention walking or underpants. In fact, there was nothing at all about what it means to be a big boy. Just this:
[Your parents] can be proud of the way you're growing and proud of all the things you can do... Your new new baby needs you for all kinds of times: happy times, sad times, and lonely times. It can make a person feel really good to be needed. And that's what families are for... needing each other and caring about each other in all kinds of ways.
The words took my breath away. That's exactly the kind of big brother I want my son to be -- the kind that is needed, the kind we are proud of, the kind that is growing.
Very soon, he is going to be a big brother. But he is already a big boy.
I tell him so every day.
This post first appeared on the What Do You Do, Dear? blog.