My autistic brother Noah and I once played together. He was two, and I was a year older. We wrestled, and I tickled him. He responded in a high-pitched giggle, halfway between a baby’s gurgle and a child’s laughter. I can’t remember ever playing with him again. Noah stayed forever a baby, profoundly retarded, always dependent, never very communicative. And my role changed, much too early, from playmate to steward. There was barely any sibling rivalry. There were no battles to be fought. He would always be the center of attention. I was treated as a sort of supporting player. Because my father had written a trilogy of books about our family with Noah as the title character (starting with “A Child Called Noah,” 1972), I would often be asked what it was like having an autistic brother. I never figured out how to respond. The answer I always gave — that I had never known any other life or any other brother — seemed cryptic and somehow unsatisfactory.
But that remains the only answer I can give. Noah, who can’t speak, dress or go to the bathroom completely unassisted, will always be the center of our family. He never earned that role; his needs dictated it. I wasn’t consciously resentful of this as a child. There was no more reason to be angry about this than there was about the rigid laws of basic arithmetic.
I accepted the fact that Noah and his problems could fill a battleship of parental duty and obligation, leaving my mother and father too spent to worry about the more banal problems of their normal son. But at some point in my early teens, in the confusing years of adolescence, I stopped having friends over. Noah’s condition dictated what we ate and when we slept and to a great degree how we lived. We never had fancy furniture because he chewed on the couch cushions and spit on the carpets. He would pull apart anything more complicated than a pencil. I was ashamed of our home and family. Already marked as different by virtue of being Asian American in a predominantly white community, I came to see Noah as an additional stigmatizing mark.
My father used to say every family has a skeleton in its closet. Only ours was out in the open. I don’t even remember if I talked about Noah in school. My friends knew about him, but after the first few questions, there wasn’t much to say. Noah didn’t change. Autism is a condition, I knew from close up, for which there are no miraculous cures. So he always stayed Noah. This kid who shared the same black hair and brown eyes as I had but couldn’t talk and wanted to be left alone. So what was there to say about Noah? He was my brother who was never going to grow up.
Noah is 35 now and has been living in institutions since he was 18. My parents visit him every weekend at the state-run Fairview Developmental Center in Costa Mesa, Calif. I go whenever I am in town. (Currently I live in Hong Kong.) We bring Noah his favorite foods: sushi, fresh fruit and Japanese crackers and take him for a walk or a ride. Sometimes he lashes out at me. Spitting. Scratching. Pulling hair. But he knows me; I can tell by the wary squint he gives me. We’re brothers, after all.
My parents are now in their 70s. My father underwent open-heart surgery a few years ago. Eventually, the responsibility for Noah will fall solely upon me. I imagine I may have to move my own family back to California to visit him every weekend, so that those caring for him will know that despite Noah’s temper tantrums and violent outbursts, he is loved; he is a brother and part of a family. He is still the center of my life. My travels, from Los Angeles to New York City to Paris to Tokyo to Hong Kong, will always bring me back to him. I don’t know any other life. I have no other brother.
Greenfeld is the editor of Time Asia.
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