“Now make a happy face,” Zack instructed. He was closely monitoring the production of this “mitzvah note,” which would be read aloud at some point this week to the whole class and then hung on the branches of the mitzvah tree that stretches out from a corner of the classroom.
In addition to the happy face, I threw in a couple of extra exclamation points. I knew parting with that last piece of Mike and Ike had not been easy for him and I was happy that this tangible bit of praise was going to help convey how proud I was. Besides, the excessive punctuation would leave no room for the crux of the mitzvah, the part I secretly wanted to include. The part about how by surrendering his candy, Zack helped avoid the kind of tantrum Benjamin, my autistic 7-year-old, throws when he is denied something he really, really, really wants. The happy face would go over better at circle time, I thought.
“You’re a great brother Zack,” I said as I tossed the note into his backpack.
As soon as I said it I froze, the sweetness of the moment suddenly polluted by guilt. There I was, patting Zack on the back for helping out his brother. Again. Come to think of it, I couldn’t remember a single recent mitzvah note that didn’t focus on something Zack had done for Benjamin.
“Zack made sure Benjamin stayed close to the shopping cart at the grocery store!”
“Zack reminded Benjamin to have a quiet body when he got too excited”
“Zack helped Benjamin’s teacher show him how to play Go Fish!”
Don’t get me wrong–those are some well-earned mitzvah notes. Growing up with an autistic sibling has given Zack a particular kind of sensitivity and maturity that a lot of adults never acquire. It has, I feel, made him a pretty awesome little person. But I worry about Zack ultimately seeing Benjamin as a burden, about him resenting having to play the role of big brother even though he’s two and a half years younger. So I try not to make him feel like Benjamin is his responsibility. Or at least I think I try. The snowflakes in his classroom say otherwise.
We were out the door on our way to school when I noticed Zack wasn’t just holding his backpack. He had the garbage, too.
“Mom, you forgot this by the door. It’s not recycling so I’m not going to put it in the recycling. It’s garbage so I’m going to put it in the garbage,” he said as he dragged the bag, which was at least half his size, down the stairs of our front porch.
“Wow, Zack–thanks! Good job helping out!” I said. And I made a mental note to write it down.