I read a story a few months ago about brothers Conner and Cayden Long who were named Sports Illustrated Kid(s) of the Year for their effort in racing in Ironman Youth Triathlons. The pair have competed in over a dozen races and they have never won. Not once. In fact, they are almost always one of the last few to cross the finish line. So, what makes these brothers Sportskids of the Year?
Cayden Long was 4 months old when he was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy, a condition that has left him unable to walk or speak and wheelchair bound. His older brother Connor does all the things a "typical" 9=year-old boy loves to do: ride his bycicle, swim, run around with his friends. But he also longed to share these experiences with his little brother, something that was impossible due to the debilitating nature of Cayden's disease.
Enter the Ironman. The boys mother suggested one day, on a whim, that Connor should attempt to compete in the races, which involve running, swimming and biking all in one day long event. The family then decided that Connor would push his little brother in a stroller, pull him in a raft and attach a trailer to his bicycle in these races, all to share the intangible feeling of competition, camaraderie and accomplishment with his younger brother.
There is a bond between brothers that I see each day within my house. And there is a bond between a boy with a disability and his brother that is different than any other I have known. And it hurts their mother in a good hurt kind of way: the pleasure of watching them grow together borders on pain and euphoria sometimes, it makes me so gratefully sad. More grateful than sad.
My son Frankie is Dominic's younger brother, they are separated by 20 months and a million different barriers. Frankie is patient and thoughtful, rarely impulsive, always considerate. Dominic is beautiful in the way mysterious, unspeaking kids seem to be, with the uncertainty of what has happened and what will happen lost on his pale skin and his dark, sweet eyes. Frankie's big brother has autism, severe autism, the kind that makes other kids ask "What's wrong with your brother?" not unkindly. And there are the other kids, the ones whose parents stand by and do nothing, that don't bother asking. They are the ones who laugh.
What does any of this matter to Dominic? He doesn't really notice. When he jumps up and down and flaps his hands in glee, he is happy, he is joyful, he is contented. He doesn't see the people laughing, not because he can't see, but because it doesn't matter so much to him.
But Frankie sees. Frankie answers their questions: "He has autism," he says in a voice that is both challenging and patient. And he can't understand the gravity of this at 7 years old. He doesn't know that a million scientists haven't yet figured out what "this" is. When Frankie notices the looks and the stares, he doesn't get angry or embarrassed. He just does what he has been doing since the minute he was born, since the minute he breathed in room air and became, unknowingly, somebody's little brother. Lest you start to give this too much value, Frankie isn't doing anything remarkable or extraordinary, he just lives the life he has been given. He is Dominic's little brother, it's something that is unchanging as a neurological condition, as the blonde hair they both share, the blue eyes, the pale skin, the same last name. He buckles his 9-year-old brother up in the car, holds his hand in the parking lot (when Dominic will let him) and gets two popsicles out of the freezer instead of one.
And I don't understand "this" either. I can't explain it to Frankie in words he will understand, nor convince his little brother Gabriel that Dominic means no harm when he calls him "Baby" instead of his name. "I'm not a baby! I'm 4 years old", says Gabriel, indignant. But Frankie knows that even the word "baby" is a big victory; two years ago Dominic couldn't identify anyone in the family by "names."
Frankie explains it to Gabriel in the unique way a little-big brother can: "Dominic is special, be kind."
And the little brother looks up to Frankie, "Special? Like Zachary at school, Frankie?"
"Yes, like Zachary," says Frankie, patiently.
And then both brothers look at Dominic and nod conspiratorially, because special is enough of an explanation when you are 4 years old and 7 years old.
So while I don't know the "why," I know how brothers like Connor and Cayden Long can race in competitions and come in last and see it as the biggest victory in the universe.
Because they are special.
But mostly because they are brothers. This is a fact that supersedes logic. It's simply... biology.
And being brothers means that they don't need words to understand each other. And that autism or cerebral palsy mean almost nothing.
Being brothers means you are born into something that you can not change. And after awhile, you don't know if you even would.