First steps

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He looks like a criminal,” our neighbour, Claudia, told my mother. “Shifty-eyed.”

Claudia was elderly and happily divorced, tall with hunched shoulders and a loud voice. She was referring to my brother, Thomas. She did not like him.

“Look me in the eyes when I’m speaking to you,” she said to him on multiple occasions.

My parents weren’t fond of Claudia, but they felt sorry for her. We lived in the middle of “the boonies,” halfway between the two small towns of Lake Cowichan and Duncan, and my parents believed it was important to be kind to our neighbours—no matter how despicable they could be. My mother often tried to stand up to Claudia, but she had a way of talking over people.

One day, Thomas and I were caught unawares, when she had come over to return some borrowed gardening tools. My mother was inside and we were left to face Claudia alone in our front yard.

“You’ll say my name when you greet me,” she said to him, her voice cold.

We’d never been told to use an adult’s first name before, and her demand surprised us.

“Do you know my name?” Her tone implied she wouldn’t be surprised if he hadn’t managed to pick up that chunk of information. Nevermind that we had been living next door to her for at least a decade at that point. Or that my mother pronounced her name like it was a particularly nasty word when Claudia wasn’t within earshot.

But Thomas just wanted out of the conversation. “It’s Claudia.”

“Good,” she said. “And that’s what you’ll say when you speak to me.”

She turned away from him and her gaze alighted on me. I had been trying to blend into the background, certain that if I just didn’t say anything I would pass unnoticed. It wasn’t that I was scared she would treat me like she treated my brother—I knew she wouldn’t. When she looked at me I averted my eyes, somewhat deliberately. “What a lovely girl you are,” she said. She was always telling my mother how sweet I was, despite the fact that I never spoke to her. If she could read my thoughts during our conversations, “sweet” would be the last words she’d use to describe me.

Years later, my brother helped her when she had a stroke, while I cried helplessly on the sidelines—but I, of course, was the darling child. Never, in all the years that I knew her, did I address her by her first name. Never did I say more than one word at a time to her. But maybe I should have.

 

Thomas and I have always been close. I entered his life when he was four, and already used to being the centre of attention. Months before I was born he informed everyone he knew of my imminent arrival. “My sister Mallory is coming,” he said, despite not knowing my gender. He’d latched onto my name when my parents first said it and it stuck. Still, he was not impressed by me during our first meeting. His first words to me were, “Ewie, ewie, ewie.” I apparently had hair of a rather greenish tint, so I can see how I may not have seemed the appealing baby sister he’d been imagining.

He was the first person to make me smile, and the first person to make me laugh. Our relationship hit its low point when I was three and lost the flag for his sandcastle (a heinous crime), but we’ve been growing closer ever since.

When Claudia patronized him in front of me, I was fuming on the inside. But I didn’t say anything, and neither did Thomas. We never did.

 

Thomas was shy as a kid but now he’s just quiet. He says he just realized, one day, that he wasn’t shy anymore. That’s one thing I envy about him, that he’s grown out of his shyness. How is it possible to outgrow shyness without working at it? I’m conscious of my shyness all the time. It would be so easy for me to stop talking, stop making eye contact, stop going outside at all. I feel the magnetic pull of home tug at me every time I step into the outside world.

Three years ago, I plunged into the depths of my shyness. I hardly managed to croak out one word answers to questions, could barely even understand spoken words. Panic filled me every time I had to speak. My body would shake, my heart would pound, and I’d feel like I was about to faint.

When I close my eyes at night, sometimes all I see are the things I didn’t say, the times I let people hurt without stepping in. The times I didn’t stand up for people. I once watched a twelfth grader trip an autistic boy five years younger than him. I was in ninth grade and I was too scared to react, but I still think about it eight years later. I think about a lot of things.

 

When Thomas completed kindergarten he could only count to three, but this didn’t seem too unusual to my parents. My mother asked her friend, who home-schooled her own children, to help. Within a few weeks he was counting into the thousands, something my parents secretly wished he’d do silently. “Two thousand nine hundred and twenty-four, two thousand nine hundred and twenty-five …”

Yet he still struggled. Given extra time and an explanation he could understand, Thomas far exceeded the abilities of his classmates. More often than not, however, he didn’t get that help. One year, his teachers asked him not to do his Foundation Skills Assessment because they didn’t want him dragging down the school average. He did them anyway and received good results.

“I would always understand what we’d been studying only after we took the test,” he told me once. “But it didn’t matter if I knew how to do something or not. It only matters how well you do on your tests.”

It wasn’t until he was a teenager that a family friend first suggested that he could have learning disabilities. Asperger’s, perhaps. In all his years of schooling, his teachers had never once thought to suggest this. It also hadn’t occurred to our family. When he had trouble following oral instructions, it was assumed he wasn’t listening. When he didn’t follow the correct social etiquette, he was being rude. We didn’t understand that he was struggling.

This makes my family sound worse than we are. The reality is that we have always seen Thomas as someone smart and capable (which he is) and so we didn’t always cut him the slack he needed. It can be difficult to comprehend that we don’t all come into this world on an even playing field, especially in my family of high achievers. Straight As were commonplace among my cousins. Most of them were naturally talented in art, writing, and math. While Thomas could beat any of us in a race or a game of chess, his difficulties in other subjects proved hard for our family to understand.

Despite the fact that Thomas not only grew up with a learning disadvantage, but was also misunderstood by everyone in his life, he doesn’t hold a grudge. He’s a forgiving person and it’s difficult to make him angry. When Claudia called him down he understood that she was just a friendless old woman with her own social problems. He couldn’t care less what she thought. He developed a self-deprecating sense of humour, perhaps out of necessity, and he’s never been one to be jealous.

Thomas was never officially diagnosed with anything. By the time we realized how much we had wronged him, Thomas didn’t think a diagnosis would help, and he’s still against the idea. It’s tempting to try to assume that he’s somewhere on the autism spectrum, but I ultimately have to accept his wish to remain unlabelled. Thomas is just Thomas.

 

Even though I know Thomas’ brain works differently than mine, he still surprises me sometimes. Three summers ago I stood up to my waist in the waters of Cowichan Lake and gestured with my hands. “The breast stroke—it’s like this.” I waved my arms in a circular motion and waited for my brother to do the same. I was teaching him to swim, because although we’d both had swimming lessons as children, somewhere along the line Thomas had reverted back to the doggie paddle. Thomas was twenty-four, and after a cousin half his age beat him in a swimming race he’d decided he needed to improve.

It was one of the only sports I could beat him at, so I was reluctant to impart the secrets of the breast stroke. I wanted to hold onto my first place, but I also didn’t want him to drown.

“See?” I said.

I was surprised when the gesture reflected back at me was nothing like what I’d executed. I did it again and got the same results. It dawned on me that this was another thing in which he had trouble. How had I gone through life without knowing that he had difficulty mimicking physical movements? I felt like I’d failed him.

I moved so that I was beside him and did it again. Better. Not great, but better.

In order to understand something, Thomas needs to understand why it is the way it is. It’s not enough to tell him the answer, or even how to work out the problem. He needs to understand the necessity or it doesn’t click. Most physical movements already intuitively make sense, but some, like swimming, are more difficult. Humans are hardwired to do the doggie paddle—any other stroke requires diverting from what we intuitively know. My circular arm movements were abstract concepts to him. They weren’t helpful.

In the end Thomas took swimming lessons and his swim stroke repertoire expanded far beyond the doggie paddle. But I had learned something new about him.

 

Two summers ago, I was standing with my brother and four cousins in front of an obstacle course strung up between trees. We were at Wildplay, an outdoor course made up of ladders, zip lines, nets, and trees. Two of the cousins with us were visiting from Germany. We had met Evelyn seven summers before, but this was our first time meeting Linda, and we were still getting to know her. Olivia and Erica were our younger cousins from the Island. Although I’d mostly recovered from that particularly shy time in my life, the combination of new people and a new experience had me nervous.

This was the first time at Wildplay for me and Thomas. I had no idea what to expect. Our guide, a blonde girl in her early twenties, ran through a basic safety routine on the obstacle course meant for training.

“Always have at least one safety clip on the line.” She demonstrated with her own clips, moving quickly through the course. “If you fall, you need something to catch you.” She approached a miniature zip line, demonstrated the thumb placement, and glided onto the last obstacle. “Your turn,” she said.

Olivia and Erica went first. Having done it before, they had no trouble. Evelyn was next—she too found the task simple. Linda stayed firmly rooted to the ground. She was afraid of heights and merely wanted to watch.

Thomas went next. He struggled with the clips and forgot to keep one on the line. The guide was quick to reprimand him. “Next time pay attention.”

But again he messed up.

“Hey, buddy, watch your clips.” She was growing frustrated with him and Thomas was still trying to figure out how to manoeuvre the clips.

Why, I wondered, didn’t she just run through the routine again? She’d gone through the course at a lightning quick pace, so why was she confused when someone didn’t get it yet?

I needed to intervene. I hurried up the obstacle course and made my way to Thomas. I explained the necessity of the clip rule and the logic seemed to click for him, because he got it. But then we arrived at the zip line.

When Thomas put his hands on the pulley, the guide no longer tried to hide her anger. “If you do it that way, you’re going to snap your fingers off, buddy.”

“Can you show us how to do it?” I said in a slightly passive aggressive tone.

She demonstrated with her hands. Thomas tried again.

No! Do you want to end up in the hospital?” She demonstrated again, exactly the same way she’d done it before.

Thomas stared at her for a moment and then turned to me. “Mal, show me how to do this.”

The guide’s face twisted into a furious scowl. I was panicking. It hadn’t occurred to me that I’d need to worry about anything like this. In hindsight, I should have said something like, “a few members of our group might take a little longer to understand things, so please be patient.” But I tend to forget that I have a voice, that communication can prevent difficulties like this from arising. Sometimes people ask me questions and I respond using hand gestures, and they have to remind me that words are a thing. It’s not even just about being shy. Sometimes I genuinely forget that verbal communication exists.

But at that moment Thomas had didn’t need verbal communication. I stepped beside him and held my hands out. He tried to copy me but I knew from our swimming lesson the previous summer that this wasn’t something he found easy. So instead I got him to place his hands on the pulley and then I moved his fingers so they were positioned correctly. I glanced over at the guide. She was silent, so I figured it was safe.

He flew off down the short zip line and I smiled. But then I felt butterflies form in my stomach. I knew I had messed up by not speaking beforehand and I also knew that if I didn’t say anything now, this would be another moment I’d see when I closed my eyes at night. And I really didn’t want to have to remember this day for the rest of my life.

When the guide started to follow Thomas I stopped her. “All he needed was some extra help,” I said. “That’s it. Some people have more difficulty with things than others.”

The guide glared at me. “That’s the kind of thing I need to be warned about. If he has ‘problems,’ I need to know.”

Asshole, I thought. “The situation could have been handled better, I know. But he was listening to you and he was trying his best and all he needed was some extra help.” I grabbed the zip line pulley and zipped off down the line, my heart hammering. I hate confrontation. And also heights, which I conveniently realized mid-way through the course.

I wish I’d said more to her. I wish I’d told her that her overreaction, more than his lack of understanding, was the bigger problem. How is getting angry at someone when they don’t understand something going to fix anything? It only serves to make them more nervous and likely to mess up. She jumped to conclusions about the kind of person he was and that, more than anything else, was the biggest problem of all. So often Thomas has to deal with people who grow irrationally angry even when he’s being polite and non-confrontational.

But then I have to remember that I wasn’t innocent in the situation either. Hadn’t my family, after all, not understood Thomas either? In many ways it was a breakthrough moment for me, because it made me realize the power of my own voice during a time when I still felt so incredibly insignificant. It doesn’t sound like the biggest of deals, but it was. I’m shy, but that doesn’t mean I can’t make a difference. It doesn’t mean I should sit back and let someone bully someone else. I have a voice and I can, and I will, use it.

 

Thomas and I laugh about Wildplay now. After a few days, he decided her overreaction was hilarious, and now every time we hear the word “buddy,” we exchange a smile. I know I shouldn’t worry about Thomas—his sense of humour can get him through anything. Maybe one day I’ll be as strong as him.