It is late - thirty minutes past bedtime, and prime stall-tactic time. Big C shuffles into the kitchen, where I am mopping, rushing my house-cleaning routine in preparation for company tomorrow.
When I hear his footsteps, my first reaction is exasperation, God forgive me. I love him, but he is five years old, and sometimes I feel as if I will scream if I hear one more "What's that?" or "How do you spell...?" His mind never stops, this one, and in consequence, seldom do I.
I ready my best stern "Go to bed, son," admonition, but hesitate. There is something in the rhythm of his breath, the stillness of his body as he makes his way to me. I bite my tongue, and am glad of it when he warbles brokenly, "I don't want you to die."
In the heartbeat it takes to swing him up into my arms, he is crying, and my heart is breaking. I don't know what exactly is going on in his head, or what prompted this tearful declaration--not yet--but the tenseness in his body and my mother's instinct tells me that my baby is genuinely distraught. I just cling to him and let his tears run their course.
"When you're one hundred," he hiccups, finally, "are you going to die?"
I want to tell him no, so desperate am I to comfort my baby. I can't, though. Lies do neither of us any favors, ultimately.
"We all die, baby," I answer. "Nobody lives forever, but Mommy and Daddy aren't going to die for a long, long time. You'll be an wrinkly, cranky old man by the time we are ready to go."
I am trying to cheer him, surprise a smile onto that tiny, precious face--but he is having none of it. I fumble my way through an explanation of the hereafter, how bodies just get tired and worn out, and one day God decides He wants people in Heaven with Him, and they get to go home.
Positive by this point that I am scarring my poor child for life, I am unprepared when he drops the bomb on me.
"When everybody dies one day, who's going to take care of [Little C]?"
His shaky five-year-old voice asking such an adult question hits me like a ton of bricks. My mind races, trying to make sense of this. Where did this train of thought come from? Does he mean what I think he means?
Then I realize: Of course he does. We'd hoped that Big C was too young to think too deeply about his brother's differences, we'd hoped that given their closeness in age, Little C's quirks would seem normal, since Big C had known nothing else. We'd hoped to shelter our baby from the uncertainties in his brother's future for at least as long as it took us, his parents, to find a way to articulate them.
But here it was. Maybe my baby didn't understand that it was autism that made his brother a little different--even though we've broached the topic before--but he knew something did. All of the circular conversations, patient explanations of what was going to happen and when, the hard work on self-care skills...none of that had gone over this child's head. In his frank, five-year old way, he voiced the very thing that lurks in the back of my mind, always: Who will be there for him?
I knew, just then, that this was one of those moments for Big C. He would forever remember what came next--I could feel the strain in his body and read the earnestness in his eyes that told me this is important.
Carefully--oh so carefully--I picked my way across this uneven ground. I explained that when people grew up, they learned to take care of themselves, and each other. Taking care of each other was JUST as important as taking yourself, I told him. He and Little C would grow up, and learn to take care of themselves, but they would always take care of each other, too. I tried to couch it in terms that he would understand (remember when Mommy was sick that one time, and Daddy had to bring her medicine, and food, and he took good care of Mommy until she was better?). Husbands and wives, siblings--even people who weren't family at all--we all take care of each other, I told him, because we love each other. Even when Mommy and Daddy were gone, neither one of them would be alone. They would have each other--maybe even wives and kids of their own, too.
I don't know that I did a wonderful job of reassuring him. I hope I did a halfway decent job, at least-- and he did finally crawl into bed in a bit less of a worried state than when he'd gotten out of it. What I pray that I did tonight was to impress upon him the knowledge that his brother will always need him in a way that no one else will--just as he will need little C in a similarly unique way. Brothers need each other all over the world, in one way or another. Maybe their bond will be a little different than the next guy's, but so be it.
Who's to say it won't be better?