It’s an hour before we can see the Sunoco station and the moment we can, Brendan is sure to point it out to me. The line to the pump goes back for miles on the Palisades Parkway and will no doubt stretch further than that as the day goes on. We lose what feels like half a day idling here, the city within our sights but out of our reach.
“You should’ve gotten gas on Thursday,” Brendan says, eyes glued ahead. “The line wouldn’t have been as long.”
“The line would be long no matter what day it is.”
“I don’t think you planned ahead.”
He was right, and it irked the shit out of me.
When the mandate to ration gas was put into effect, Brendan got a piece of poster board and made a calendar that identified the days each of us could go, as he had memorized all of our license plates long ago.
“Hannah, if you need gas you can get it today,” he’d say. “But if you try to get gas tomorrow, you won’t be able to. You’ll have to wait until Thursday or Saturday.”
Today was Saturday, so it was my day. I should’ve gotten the damn gas on Tuesday or Thursday when the lines wouldn’t have been as long, but I didn’t.
This is our fault, I think. We gave Brendan language, taught him to be routine-oriented and how to regulate himself so that he could survive in this world. Now we were showing just how disorganized and chaotic our lives could be when the all structure we’ve implemented disappears.
“We could’ve gone to the Marathon in Montvale,” he adds. “That probably wouldn’t have had such a long line.”
“How’s school, bub?” I ask, tired of hearing about the damn line at the gas station.
“I don’t like my aide. She’s a real B-I-T-C-H.”
“Her voice hurts my ears.”
“Does she have a high-pitch voice?”
“Yes she does. It’s like when Kiki screams.” Kiki is our four-year-old diva of a cousin.
Rare is it for him to speak ill of others, but he doesn’t mince words. I also expect that no one has bothered to ask him why he doesn’t like her or consider that maybe her voice is the problem and not that he has “an issue with discipline.”
“I’m sorry buddy-boy,” I say, recognizing this is a serious problem for him. “That must not be a lot of fun to deal with.”
“No it is not.”
“So what did you get in trouble for?”
“I keep losing her.”
“What do you mean?”
“Between classes. I walk super fast and so I lose her. I know I’m not supposed to say mean things about people but she’s so loud. She’s always saying, ‘I got a bum knee, Brendan. Slow down.’ But I don’t slow down because I don’t want her following me, so I got in trouble.”
I laugh at this even though he never finds the humor in this, even though I’m “not supposed to laugh.” What they don’t seem to realize is that laughing is what has gotten me through those years when it got really hard, when all I wanted to do was cry.
When we reach the pump, he reminds me, “This is New Jersey. You don’t have to get out. The man will pump your gas for you.”
“I know, bub.”
He watches the numbers tick upward, commentating all the while about how it would’ve been cheaper at this station or that, quoting prices and referencing how the wait time was shorter at the such-and-such when he went with Dad on what he referred to as “his day.”
When I got home Monday night, Mom mentioned that Brendan had been escalated a lot in the past couple of weeks, even more than around Thanksgiving when he had a mini-meltdown because I wasn’t coming home. If it wasn’t the gas prices or which day we could go get gas, it was when the snow would get here. If it wasn’t the snow, it was, “What day of the recovery is it?” If it wasn’t the day of the recovery, it was the end of the Mayan fucking calendar. If it wasn’t the Mayan calendar, it was, “Is Hannah coming home for Christmas or is she going to be with Derek?”
I wasn’t going to allow myself to feel guilty about having Thanksgiving with my boyfriend’s family, even if it meant for Brendan a sixteen-year tradition was broken. Now that I was home, he seemed to have forgotten all about it.
The pump comes to a halt with a clunk that echoes through my car.
“$42.56,” Brendan says. “He’ll get it up to $43. You’ll see.”
The attendant pulls the lever two more times, covers the tank and hands my card back to me. I turn the engine and we jump onto the approach for the lower level of the bridge.
“What time will we be at St. Marks?”
“I don’t know. You can enter the address into Waze to find out.”
He punches the information into my phone and then tells me that we’ll be there at 9:34 a.m. I also remind him that he doesn’t need to tell me every turn we need to make, just to turn the volume up.
Ever since Sandy hit he’d been looking for a way to help those in need. That was how we were able to curtail his anxiety about everything that was happening—give Brendan a task. I researched it and with his approval signed us up, knowing that I would be home for winter break earlier in the week.
All week long he was anxious about the 21st and what would happen to Earth. I hadn’t seen him like this in some time. It was a big step backward after all the progress he’d made in the last two years. Dad seemed more haggard than I could remember, and one morning after Brendan was picked up for school, I came downstairs to find Mom crying over the dishes. For the first time, I realized that they were older.
I played the role of the distractor—the extra time away from home had been a blessing in the long run. Brendan and I ran errands, bundled up and went on walks, played video games, and talked ad nauseam about our plans to volunteer at the church.
Yesterday was the 21st and it came and went without any fanfare. He woke up this morning having forgotten that he was worried about the world ending for the past month.
“What did they say they’re going to have us do?” he asked.
“Do you remember? We talked about it.”
“You’re sure you’re up for that.”
“Yes. We fold laundry in Life Skills.”
That was all he would say on the subject—not whether it was something he was interested in doing or not. I guess we would find out together.
I veer onto the Harlem River Drive. A grey day stretches as far as the eye could see. Brendan stares out the window as sad little raindrops zigzag along the glass before flying onto the roadway.
“What time are you going to call Derek?” he asks out of the blue.
“I don’t know. I told him we’d talk later.”
“After St. Marks?”
“Yes, after St. Marks.”
“You didn’t set a time?”
He couldn’t comprehend this, given that whenever we would FaceTime each other for the past three years while I was at Lehigh, we always had a set day and time.
“I’ll just call him whenever we get back from St. Marks,” I say.
“Did you show him your hair yet?”
“I showed him last night.”
“What did he say?”
Two nights before, Brendan and I had been watching V For Vendetta and he made some crack about how Natalie Portman looked like a boy. I had to enlighten him about the fact that some women choose to have short hair. When he asked me if I’d ever have short hair, and I told him I would, and he asked me, “When,” and I said, “Now,” I didn’t think I was going to commit to getting my haircut, but that’s what happened. We took his clippers and did it in the bathroom. When Mom and Dad came home they freaked, thinking he’d attacked me in my sleep or something. But whatever, I was in need of a change. Besides it turned out surprisingly well—a testament to how much Brendan’s O.T. has paid off.
“He was really surprised but I think he likes it,” I said.
“You can tell?”
“Yeah, I can tell.”
“He’s still coming on December 27th and staying until January 4th?”
“Yes. Do you want me to put it on your calendar?”
It was unusual for him to ask, but it was prelude for the even more bizarre comment he made next:
“I like Derek.”
“But…?” I ask.
“I said, ‘I like Derek.’”
“Yeah but anytime you say that there’s usually a but. ‘I like Keith but his front teeth are awfully crooked. I like Greg but his voice is kind of annoying.’ What’s the but about Derek?”
“I like Derek. That’s it,” he says. Then, “You need to relax.”
“You need to relax,” he says.
That was one of those statements we used to say to him all the time, just like, “you need to sit still,” or, “you need to be quiet.” We would say that to him when he was at his least relaxed, as if it was a reasonable request. It was a monumental demand to place on a child, much less a child with autism. His mind and body were hardwired by a different manufacturer, and so statements like “control your body” were drilled into his head to get him acclimated to our expectations. But knowing what was expected of him and actually doing it were two very different things. It took a lot of learning for all of us to get to where we are now. And now, years after the fact, our words were coming back to haunt us.
That aforementioned lack of a filter had caused problems for me on a number of occasions. Chief among them was two years ago when I came home for Thanksgiving with a three-month-old smoking habit. That was during the Keith years when I spent weeknights in his rehearsal space and weekends going to see him play shows. By the time I came home I was going through a pack of American Spirits every two days. I spent the first day back sitting and talking to my parents, but not before spraying my clothes with body spray, rinsing my mouth, and brushing my teeth to mask the smell. I had designated times for when I could sneak a cigarette in. Then in walked Brendan, on his way to the fridge to pour himself a glass of orange juice.
“Bren,” Mom said, “Say ‘hi’ to your sister.”
He poked his head out of the fridge, took a long look at me with his nose scrunched up, leaned into me, took a whiff, and said point blank, “You need to quit smoking. Smoking’s bad for you, you know.”
A lot of shouting ensued and continued throughout the weekend, but I no longer felt the need to hide my habit. Two months later I quit smoking and at the end of the semester, I quit Keith too. Both were necessary for my wellbeing.
We head through the toll plaza at the RFK Bridge.
“There’s a pothole coming up in a thousand feet but it doesn’t say which lane, so be careful,” he says, studying Waze.
“I’ll be on the look out.”
“I just don’t want you to hit it.”
“I know, bub. I appreciate you.”
“We’re also getting there at 9:32 a.m. now.”
“Hey, I managed to shave two minutes off. Pretty good, right?”
“You’re speeding,” he says. “You should probably slow down so you don’t get a ticket.”
Silly me, for a second I thought he was paying me a compliment. Sometimes he could be a real stickler for the rules—that is, unless it came to staying with his aide between classes. But I knew he meant well. Few people cared about others more than my little brother. He just had a funny way of showing it.
We arrive at the church at 9:29 a.m. A large cloth banner hanging on the wrought-iron gate reading “Occupy Sandy” served as our visual cue.
“You ready?” I ask.
“Oh yeah,” he says, getting out of the car and then making sure I know that yes, I can park on this side of the street because it’s Saturday.
The night hopping—as we came to call it—started when Brendan when was five. He would flop around on the bed, pull his sheets off and throw them around the room. Then he would start hopping. It went boom-BOOM.
His method was to take two steps forward, hop once on the balls of his feet in order to gain some height, then come crashing down with full force. It resonated in the floorboards and the walls, in the china downstairs and the light fixtures over our heads. We felt it in our marrow.
He was trying to regulate himself, trying to quiet the unrest he felt in his body. I see that now, but when I was nine years old, I saw only my own agony.
The night hopping reached its zenith in May of 2000, right as the warmth was returning to our lives. There was a two-night stretch when I had gotten five hours of sleep total. On night three, I lay in bed and stared at the ceiling, my nerves so frayed that a jolt of terror surged through me each and every time he hit the floor. Tears streamed down my face in a torrent but I didn’t have the strength to make a sound.
Resentment began to glow brighter and brighter with each passing moment. I felt the only way to get the point across was to go into his room, grab him by the shoulders, and scream into his round little face, “Stop jumping! Stop it, right now! Don’t you see I just want to sleep and you won’t let me and it’s killing me? You’re killing me!”
Instead, I went down the hall toward Mom and Dad’s room. When I opened the door, they both stirred right away. They hadn’t been sleeping either.
“Hannah?” I heard Dad say.
“Daddy…” I said, and my voice broke.
They both sat up in bed and I went to them, collapsing in their laps. I felt their loving hands on me; one of them stroking my hair while the other wiped the tears from my cheek. All the while, the boom-BOOMing continued to resonate through the house.
“Come on baby, let’s go for a walk,” Dad said, and he scooped me up in his arms and we went out of the room.
I don’t remember where in the house he carried me or how he managed to carry me for so long. For the past year or so, I was living in a cold new world where I was “too big” to be carried anymore. What that meant, I realize now, was that I was too tall, even for him. But when he picked me up that night, he made me feel weightless. He glided through the house with me cradled in his arms, as if I’d been momentarily returned to infancy. I buried my face in his warm, flannel-clad shoulder until I was all cried out.
At some point, he spoke into my ear, “You don’t ever have to go through this on your own, Hannah. We’ll get through this together, your brother too.”
I lifted my head up just enough to see that we were standing in front of the bay window in the living room, illuminated by the moonlight. Whether I was worn down from all the crying or comforted by his words, a sense of calm fell over me for the first time in three days. I felt no pain, no hurt, no hatred, nothing.
That my dad included Brendan in that notion of “getting through this together” was key to my understanding of how we would survive as a family—a seed planted in my weary mind. We were going to hold him accountable, but it was going to take all of us working together for the rest of our lives to manage this situation.
I didn’t even remember falling asleep. When I woke up the next morning I was on the couch, now with the sunlight pouring in through the bay window. The house was so calm I forgot where I was. I checked the clock and saw that it was 9:40 a.m. Then I remembered that it was Thursday. I knew right away that they had let me sleep in.
I crept upstairs and peaked into Brendan’s room, as the door was already cracked. He too was still asleep, though he was balled up in child’s pose at the end of his bed, uncovered with his mouth wide open.
He looked so peaceful, and in that moment the spite I’d felt a few hours earlier was stifled by an overwhelming sense of empathy.
Poor baby boy, I thought. I’m sorry for having these thoughts toward you. I can’t imagine what you’re going through. I’ll do the best I can to help you.
It took an emergency meeting with his teacher and the child study team and another two months of trial and error before they found a viable solution for the time being. Then we had to teach Brendan that whenever he felt deregulated to go down to the family room where we had set up a springboard for him and jump it out until he felt like he was ready to go back to bed. This helped to squash those boom-BOOM nights and soon after, they even weaned him off the springboard. Eventually the hopping was all but done.
I wish I could say it became easier from there but that wasn’t the case. There was still the occasional meltdown in the cereal aisle, the disassembly of one of my dolls or electronics, and early morning wakeup calls. And so my feelings toward him continued to seesaw, just as they had after the hopping.
Dealing with all of that emotional whiplash at such a young age was what sparked a wild streak in me that lasted a couple of years. By the time I was accepted into Lehigh, I wanted nothing more than to get away from all of it. But when I did, I realized how this life had given me structure too, to the point that I didn’t know how to live without it. Mom, Dad, Brendan, and I were all woven into the same fabric, keeping each other safe and warm.
I remember the first night I laid awake in my dorm room and I thought to myself, it’s too damn quiet in here.
She pours the hot chocolate into the cup, sprinkles a handful of mini marshmallows on top, and sprays it with a dollop of whipped cream.
“Good?” Mom asks.
“Good,” he says. Then he takes a sip and scalds his tongue, grimaces.
“You knew the consequences bub, we’ve talked about this.”
He pivots and heads upstairs and Mom rolls her eyes. I continue to blow on my cup, knowing it’ll be at least another five minutes before I can take a sip.
“How did it go at the church?” she asks.
“It went really well. He folded and sorted clothes for two solid hours.”
“He used to hate folding.”
“He used to hate sitting still.”
She sniffs as if to suggest a laugh, her eyes far away, as if she is watching a ten-year-old movie that still resonates with her the way it did when she first saw it.
“He takes a lot of pride in helping others, even if it means doing the job no one else wants to do,” I add.
“I’ll never forget when Mrs. Barnes said, ‘He’s just one of those kids who’s not going to have any awareness of his peers.’ I told her, ‘He’s eight. Teach him how to have awareness.’”
She spoke from a wounded place—a place that felt nearer than it should have. Some injuries we never recover from, I think, we just learn to live with the pain.
“I swear I need to double my grocery budget because of this kid,” she says to an empty space in the fridge. “He ate a whole meatloaf last week. And I don’t even know where it goes. He only grows up, not out.”
“Anyway, I’ll send you the pictures I took today. I got some good ones.”
“That would be great. I can send them to his school.”
I finish my hot chocolate and announce that I’m going for a walk. Right away she emerges from her hunched over position in the fridge, takes hold of me and hugs me tight. It was abrupt and firm and made me want to remind her I would be back, but I don’t. I just hug her back.
Then she holds me in front of her as if to examine me, her hands on shoulders.
“You know, you have been taking care of everyone around you for as long as I’ve known you, especially your brother. You’re like the moon kiddo—you change the tide. I just hope you take the time to recognize all that you do for others.”
There was a long gap where there had been few hugs—those selfish teenage years when disagreement was our business, back when business was booming. There had been piercings and boyfriends and other attention seeking actions and the subsequent shouting that came with the baggage like a side order of fries. I remember on a number of occasions, she would say, “I don’t need this right now.” But it was exactly what we needed to happen to get to this moment. It was a reminder that what made life more difficult at the time made us who we are today, helped us foster a functional relationship.
“Be sure to go down to the A&P and check out your brother’s memorial he helped to make with his class,” she said. “It was his idea.”
I wrap my scarf around my neck, pull my jacket on, and head out the front door.
The spitting rain that marked our ride to Brooklyn had long dissipated but the sky was still a lifeless shade. Snow was coming—Brendan told me as much.
Before heading down the front walk, I turn and look up to find him framed in his bedroom window. His face is illuminated by the TV screen and he’s holding a Wii nunchuck. Suddenly he hops a single, little hop as he has no doubt won a race or defeated an opponent. Then he comes to an abrupt halt, as if keeping himself in check.
I chuckle then head out on my walk.
My mind is steeped in thoughts of Derek. I put a lot of stock in the fact that Brendan said he likes Derek, not because I live and die by the edict of a 16-year-old boy, but because he sees things the rest of us don’t.
During the year Keith and I were together, I always wondered why Brendan wouldn’t look him in the eye or would act so cold toward him. I was certain it wasn’t just Keith’s “crooked teeth” or the fact that I started smoking when we were together. For me, it was more of a slow reveal, like when I was singing in the car one time and he asked, “How can someone who’s so tone deaf be so into music?” Or the time when he cursed me out in front of all our friends when I was offered the chance to sell merch for another band. When I left him, I left a lot of my worst habits behind for good.
Derek is different though—I could see that when I first set eyes on him. He is an unapologetic dork, something he wasn’t afraid to let me know the night I met him, when he showed off his wide array of dad moves on the dance floor. But he is also present when I need him to be, like last weekend when I was having a hard time. Even though I had my last final on Monday morning, we stayed up all night just talking in my bed. It was the most normal I’d felt in a couple of days. He didn’t brush aside my craziness or change the conversation when it got too real for him. And he certainly didn’t judge me when I decide to chop all of my hair off one night. In fact, he tells me he loves it.
I walk over the old footbridge, step out of the woods and into the baron parking lot of the old A&P. I make my way toward the ramshackle entrance and peak through the window to see a small lake forming on the floor near the entrance, right where the Chiclets dispenser used to be. The whole joint has been picked bone dry; the gutted interior of the dilapidated supermarket echoes the feeling outside of it.
Then I look down at what my mom suggested I go see: On the bench out front, against the wasted, industrial backdrop is a bundle of brightly colored stuffed animals, an assortment of flowers, handwritten cards, and extinguished tea lights, neatly arranged like a Hallmark store display cabinet. Above it on the dirty glass was a banner that read, “Alexander Day School Stands With Newtown.” I recognized his signature right away, scribbled an inch below the message.
Brendan had never been to Newtown, Connecticut. In fact, I wasn’t even sure he could grasp what took place there. But Brendan, who at one point was “never going to have any awareness of his peers,” has a very acute awareness of all people, whether he knows them or not. He is aware of people who have lost their homes to a hurricane and parents who have lost their children to gun violence. When all I wanted to do was freeze up and spend the weekend in bed thinking about how tragic it all is, Brendan would say things like, “Well, we should do something for the families of those kids, right?”
That, I think, is the result of all the work we’ve done.
As I stand here in the cold grey, I see all the brightness that my brother has to offer this world. I see the work has he done to make it a little bit better for everyone else. The sodden stuffed animals and withered flowers might not survive another day but all that positive energy will linger as long as we’re willing to hold onto it.
I turn on my heels and head back home.
I’ll call Derek and inform him that he’d received the seal of approval from Brendan. I’d confirm that he’s coming to visit after Christmas and through New Years. Then, when I get off the phone, I’ll be sure to put the dates on Brendan’s calendar.
About the Author
John William Mabery is a New Jersey-based writer with over a decade of experience working with individuals with disabilities. He is currently working toward his MFA in Disability Studies from CUNY. He dedicates “Brendan” to the memory of his friend, Peter Naffah.