Our eleven-year-old son Davy Hughes is our family hero. Over the years, he has summoned forth every bit of courage and humor he has to respond to his big brother’s situation. To us, he is Winston Churchill and Mel Brooks rolled into one character.
Walker, who is two years older than Dave, is tall, charming – and severely autistic. Walker can’t talk to Davy, can’t play and can’t toss a baseball. He can’t even tease his little brother about girls. We continue to have high hopes for Walker, but our anxiety over his well-being often casts a dark cloud over our household.
Young Davy has paid a high price for living with autism. He has listened to his older brother play the same Raffi tape until he thought his head would explode. He has ducked many times to avoid Hot Wheels flying through the air. He has heard his big brother scream in museums, on the street, and in the middle of the night in the bedroom they share.
Davy’s response? “I know how Walker feels,” he tells Ellen and me time and time again. “I feel that way myself but I can talk about it.” Then he makes up a joke, a good one, right there on the spot.
As a child I never experienced what Davy has to deal with every day. Growing up in a Chicago suburb in the 1950s, I had only one purpose in life: to act like Zorro. No part of my very normal family life could upset my happy, caped quest for fun. Davy tries to replicate this dream of a normal boy’s life. He’s a Pokémon master; he plays the South Park Nintendo game with the reaction time of an ace air-traffic controller; he rescues kittens from the alley behind our house.
But he has also bravely taken on a task of epic proportions: taming the tornado that is his family. He does this quietly, with generosity, with love and with humor. One recent night as he sat at the dining room table writing a history report, the other three of us – myself, my wife, and Walker – were at it again. Walker screamed out something incessantly and piercingly, that Ellen and I could not understand. Was it a request? A complaint? An observation? We didn’t know. We had exhausted all of the usual tactics to get him to stop: talking reasonably with him, ignoring him, kidding him, and acting quietly stern. Finally, tired and helpless, we waited for the storm to blow over.
Davy worked on, barely lifting his head, his fingers flying across his laptop keyboard. When the storm finally passed and Walker was happily bouncing on his huge therapy ball again. Ellen and I sat at the table, dazed and depressed.
Suddenly, Davy looked up from his work. “Hey, I have a joke,” he said. “What cologne was everyone on the Hindenburg wearing?” Wearily, we gave an “I give up” shrug. Davy smiled proudly. “Eau de Humanity,” he said. “Get it?”
We got it, and we get it every day. Thank you, Dave.