On Friday night before bed, Katie set up a nail salon on the floor of the bathroom that she shares with her sister. She dubbed it the ‘Flying Pig Salon’. Pigs were everywhere – stuffed pigs, Calico Critter pigs, pigs flying on her pajamas and even pigs on her pig-slippered feet.
She asked if she could paint our nails.
Brooke was all for it. “I would get red nail polish, Katie!”
Katie painted her sister’s tiny nails and then set her sights on mine. I caved in and let her paint ‘feelings fingers’ on my nails – hot pink with purple faces depicting various emotions if you looked reeeeally hard and she was there to tell you what they were. By the time she was done with me I had a happy thumb, a sad pointer, a confused ring man, a scared tall man and a very sleepy pinky. Think we talk about feelings much?
Once Katie was satisfied with her masterpiece, Brooke asked if she could paint her sister’s nails. Katie balked, precisely mirroring the look that had been on my face when she had asked if she could do mine. She tried to say no, but I gently pushed and she gave in just as I had. I promised that we would ALL take the polish off in the morning if we wanted to. Call me crazy, but I wasn’t much for facing the world with feelings fingers, so it was an easy out.
Katie was shocked. Brooke was slow and meticulous. She painted about half of each of Katie’s nails, but kept the polish surprisingly well contained. Katie looked over at my hands – fingers slathered in hot pink – then back to her own, fairly free of purple but for her nails.
“Mama,” she stage whispered. “She’s doing a really good job!”
“Yes, baby,” I said. “Why don’t you tell HER that?”
“Brooke,” she said dutifully, “you’re doing a great job. You’re doing a better job than I did!”
“Yes I am, Katie,” said the little manicurist.
The following morning, Katie and I hopped into the car to run some quick errands. As soon as we were around the first bend, Katie said what had obviously been on her mind.
“So Mama, I don’t know if I should say this, cause I feel like you might get mad, but I really think it’s extra great that Brooke did such a good job painting my nails because of her autism.”
“Hmm, I’m not sure I follow, baby. What do you mean?”
“Well,” she said, “I just think it’s pretty amazing that she was able to do an even better job than I did on hers really. And not just cause she’s younger, but I feel like her autism makes things like that even harder for her sometimes than they are for me.”
“Oh, honey,” I said. “I’d never get mad at you for saying that. Not EVER. I really appreciate the fact that you understand that there are certain things that can sometimes be more challenging for Brooke. And you’re right, she had a lot of trouble with that kind of stuff in the past. It’s taken a lot of work to get her fingers to be able to do work like that. The fact that you not only recognize that but celebrate her achievements in the face of it is nothing short of wonderful. It makes me super proud of what a great big sister you are.”
We talked some more. She asked me what ‘achievements’ meant. We laughed about the first time that she had painted her sister’s nails. I reminded her that Brooke had looked like she’d dipped her hands in a vat of polish. We laughed about how I’d had to remove the nail polish all the way up to her knuckles. And then she grew quiet.
We drove in silence for a while. I know my kid. When something’s brewin, I stop talking. I drove.
“Remember when you said that it was OK for me to tell my friends about Brooke’s autism if I want but I told you that I wasn’t comfortable doing that?”
“Of course, Katie.” How could I ever forget?
“Well, I’m still not comfortable talking about it. Is that OK?”
“Of course it’s OK, Katie. You do whatever feels right to you. I can always help you come up with the language to use with your friends if you change your mind, but I will always respect your choice to handle it the way that you want to. Please know that. I promise you I will never be upset with you for the way that you choose to handle it.”
“I’m just embarrassed, Mama.”
“I don’t want people to laugh at her, and if they know that she has autism, I think they might make fun of her.”
We continued to talk as we drove. I told her that this is exactly why Mama tries to tell people about autism, so that they’ll understand it better and hopefully not tease people who have it.
We talked about some of her sister’s behaviors. The ones that can be difficult for Katie in public. How it can be embarrassing when Brooke asks someone their name over and over and over again or when she walks over to people and asks them if they are boys or girls. I tried to explain to her that in those situations, it may be LESS embarrassing if there were an explanation for her behavior.
“I might change my mind when I’m older,” she said.
“Of course you may, honey. You may change your mind long before then.”
“Maybe when I have kids of my own,” she said. “I know I’m going to have kids, Mama. I’m sure of it.”
I smiled. I remember being eight and sure. Sort of.
“And then I can tell my kids that the reason that Auntie Brooke does the stuff that she does is because she has autism. That it’s just, you know – Auntie Brooke.”
She seemed satisfied with her plan.
“So where are we going first, Mama? Can we go to the bookstore first?” she asked.
“Sure, honey,” I said, trying not to hyperventilate.