Special Father's Day Gifts

      Early last week our twins went into Barnes & Noble together to buy Father’s Day gifts after having a rare lunch together. Just the fact that Max and Sarah shared a meal alone together was in and of itself a gift.  Despite being twins, they are opposites in so many ways.  Everything that comes easily to Max— reading, getting As in school, and making friends—has always been a herculean struggle for Sarah, who is on the autistic spectrum. 

      In the early years, Max was embarrassed by Sarah’s meltdowns and envied the extra attention she demanded from us.  He was always kind to his sister and protected her from bullies, but steered clear of her as much as possible. And who could blame him? More competitive than Max, Sarah envied her brother for being better at almost everything—especially his superior conversational skills and sense of humor—which earned him many friends and the lion’s share of our attention at family dinners.  Even when Max tried to include his sister and ask for her opinion—something as simple her favorite song in a Broadway show—Sarah would become nasty and defensive, worried that she couldn’t come up with the right answer.  As the years passed, our twins increasingly led separate but parallel lives, only intersecting briefly over occasional dinners, holidays and vacations.

     As hard as I’ve tried to bring my twins together, I’ve realized that it’s not possible unless they are BOTH willing participants.  So imagine my joy when Sarah suggested to me that she’d like to be closer to her brother.  To my great surprise, she quoted a friend of mine: “Jealousy is a wasted emotion,” she informed me. “How can our relationship get better?”

     This was music to my ears. “Maybe start by asking him to lunch?” This would be easy for both of them because they had done it from time to time in the past.  Sarah is very comfortable talking about food and restaurants.  Max would let her take the lead. 
     After sharing grilled calamari and salads, Max suggested going into Barnes & Noble together to buy Father’s Day gifts.  It was Max’s idea to buy Henry a book (his first store-bought gift ever).  Sadly, Sarah has never read a book that wasn’t assigned for school, nor would she set foot in Barnes & Noble unless absolutely necessary.  However, if Max was going to buy a book for their Dad, our ever-competitive Sarah was determined to buy one too, notwithstanding the fact that she had NO IDEA how to pick a book for my finicky husband.  But Max was savvy enough to guide her through Barnes & Noble to non-fiction in the History Section.

     According to Max, Sarah had tagged along yanking out books at random:

     “What about this one?” She’d pulled out a book about Bill Clinton.

     “Do you even know who Bill Clinton is? Max had asked, certain his father would not be interested in a book on any of the presidents who’d served during his lifetime.
     “He’s married to Hillary Clinton,” Sarah answered. “And he was also president.”

     Later, Max and I found this response very funny, as was Sarah’s next gift selection: a giant book about Hitler.

     “Not that one either,” Max had advised.
     “Hitler was a meanie,” Sarah agreed. “He killed a lot of people, and was a real Mr. Sluggo.”

     Our daughter had never studied the Holocaust.  Special Education schools have their hands full just trying to teach the Civil War to kids with learning disabilities, let alone tackle genocide.  Like many neurotypical people, Sarah was unable to wrap her mind around the enormity of Hitler’s atrocities.  Instead she compared him to the clay villain, Mr. Sluggo, in the “Mr. Bill” cartoon series she had enjoyed watching with Henry when she was  younger.
     Max continued searching the stacks and eventually found a book for  Henry, but he was unable to buy it and make it to his next appointment because the check-out line at Barnes & Noble was too long.  My twins left the store together, bookless.

     Later that day, Sarah wandered into a different Barnes & Noble by herself and bought her father a book.  Proudly, she texted me that she’d paid for the book using a gift card she’d received for graduation. She’d even managed to get the book gift-wrapped.  Scrolling through the rest of her rambling text, I learned that she had chosen “A Theatregoers Guide to Shakespeare” because she believed it was “a mix and match” of her interest in theater and her dad’s “interest in theater and history when he was in college.”

     Hell would freeze over twice before Henry would ever read this book, but my eyes welled with tears anyway.  Just two years ago Sarah had gone to Barnes & Noble with her Social Literacy class (one of the autism support offerings at Pace) and had a major meltdown.  The plan had been for each student to ask for help with locating a book.

     “BUT I’M NOT SUPPOSED TO TALK TO STRANGERS!” Sarah had protested loudly. Over and over she repeated that mantra to the teacher.”  Being rigid and overly literal is a common symptom of autism.

     Although the teacher patiently explained that it was the salesperson’s job to help customers find books, it took a long time to convince Sarah to ask for help. Even under the best of circumstances, Sarah hates asking for help.  In petulant tones, she insists that “she’s not a baby, and would prefer to be treated as an independent adult…” 

     Later I would explain the difference between random strangers on the street and people with service jobs—waiters, cab drivers, salespeople—who are paid to “help” all “independent” adults. “What’s the difference between going to a restaurant and asking for soda with no ice and asking for a history book at Barnes & Noble?”  I had asked Sarah after her 2012 Barnes & Noble meltdown. At the time, she did not have answer.

     Fast forward two years to Father’s Day 2014.  Sarah went into Barnes & Noble independently, asked for help finding a Father’s Day gift, paid for the book, and even asked another “stranger” for gift wrapping services.  It wouldn’t have mattered if she bought the Farmer’s Almanac, Space Travel for Dummies or a New York Times bestseller.  Our special girl gave her dad a very special gift.

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