Two chance conversations recently have left me turning things over, looking at them from other angles.
The first happened like this. I was walking past my local pub one morning when a man sitting outside spoke my name. I looked up. I didn’t really know him – we’d introduced ourselves after a brief encounter the previous week. Now here he was outside The Rising Sun in the late summer sun. Previously I wouldn’t have stopped but in the split second of hearing my name I realised that now I could. As I didn’t have to rush home for Dylan why not sit a while? The man I didn’t really know made room for me at the table, ordered another pot of coffee and introduced his friend.
I sometimes wonder if people with autism in their lives can sense each other; it wasn’t long before the friend revealed he was a younger sibling. After the death of his parents, he told me, he had tried to stay involved in his brother’s life without taking responsibility for his care. Growing up with an autistic sibling had been hard, he mused, and involved sacrifices. Talking about it was hard too. It’s difficult for a child to complain about a disabled sibling. And parents don’t really notice, he said (looking away quickly, avoiding my eyes). He had just got on quietly, he told me. Made something of himself. He had never been sure if his parents had been proud. And then, he said, there had been the Will. That had really hurt. What did his brother need with all that money anyway? He explained the arrangement. ‘Hhm’, I said. ‘That sounds exactly like the Will I’ve made. It’s what the solicitor advised’. ‘Take my advice’, he said, ‘Change it. Leave it to your daughter.’
The second conversation was harder. I could feel him watching me – the way I fussed around my house, trying to make things right for Dylan coming home. ‘I need to get things straight by the weekend’, I said, ‘do you think you’ll be done?’ And it was then he told me. He understood, he said; he had grown up with disability. ‘So you’re a sibling!’ I exclaimed (expecting the conversation to run a particular direction). Then I noticed his eyes; the way they had a difficulty in them. Growing up had been hard, he told me. He hadn’t really had the attention he needed. His parents were too busy caring for his sister. He remembered being left with other people at weekends. It wasn’t a happy childhood. ‘It was a sort of neglect’ he said. ‘It’s hard to forgive that.’ He didn’t have any contact with his family at all now, he told me. He had just got on with his life, he said. Made something of himself.
I turned my own difficult eyes away from his. My daughter and I hadn’t had the easiest of relationships, I said. I explained that she had left suddenly, at 14, and gone to live with her dad – that I hadn’t seen or heard from her for years. That perhaps I recognised myself in his parents; I had probably made the same mistakes, I said. I never set out to get it wrong, I told him; parents just do the best they can. ‘I shouldn’t worry too much’, he said, ‘if your daughter’s back in touch now you’ll be alright. Just be patient’.
I remembered these conversations last week when my daughter telephoned. She wouldn’t be able to see me for a while, she said, as her father was visiting. ‘Not even on Monday?’ I asked (realising, as I said it, that this was probably the reason her father was making the trip). I had planned to ask my daughter if she would like to come with me to visit her brother in his new home this week but now was probably not the right time. ‘Just be patient’, I told myself as I put the phone down.
So I had resigned myself to not seeing my daughter today. Imagine, then, my surprise when my phone rang late this afternoon; did I want to go for a drink after work, to celebrate her birthday? Walking home tonight it struck me that this was probably the first birthday since she was born that she’d had me completely to herself.