“How do you feel, Ned?” Ned is Alex’s typically developing younger brother, and this Christmas afternoon he’s on the couch.
“Do you want anything?”
Like his older brother, Ned doesn’t answer. Ned is absorbed in the Cartoon Network, though, and doesn’t have autism. “I feel okay,” Ned says, “but I don’t feel okay when I move.”
“Don’t move then.”
Alex has gone with Jill to her stepfather’s for a holiday party. Ned, normally a rush at such things, is home with a slight fever and a queasy stomach. Jill and Alex just left, and it was Ned’s decision to remain home. Good thing: Not 20 minutes after they left, he went pink and felt kind of hot for a few minutes.
“Ned, this just happens sometimes during the holidays.”
Tell me about it. About 20 years ago, I got sick every Christmas. Bad sick, too, bathroom sick. I blamed everything from bad shrimp at an office party (back when I had an office) to the stress of running around trying to buy the gifts for both Christmas and Chanukah. It was a mess, for a while. “Christmas is hard on non-Jews,” my late mother-in-law used to say.
“Can I have some more ham?” Ned asks. Instead (see “queasy”) I make him pasta with salt and pepper. “Thank you for the food,” Ned says.
Thank you for the food. Ned naps on the couch, turns pink and warm for brief times, and is mostly miserable because this bug struck during a school holiday and he can’t see friends. He dozes to the Cartoon Network. I could, at any moment, ask “How do you feel?” and get an answer.
Ned’s illnesses, so far and knock wood, have been easier on me than Alex’s. At any time in Alex’s life when he was sick I could’ve asked “How do you feel?”, from those first moments in the hospital when he was intubated in a plastic box to the terrifying depths of his seizure this last September. I could’ve asked him at any time. He never would have answered. All we can do with Alex is stare and watch for the flicker of the eyes, slide our hand inside the back of his shirt and feel the fever burn our palms. We can watch and watch and wait, but we cannot ask and get any real answer.
“Can I have some more ham?”
“Sure you don’t want to wait, Ned?”
“Maybe I’ll wait.” I wish I didn’t feel that Ned’s sicknesses, like the other bumps and downs of his life, will be easier on me, but I do. Doesn’t seem fair to either kid.