Please take the bracelet, Bella, just take the bracelet…
I watched as Phaedra, after making a heartfelt speech, slid the blue plastic bracelet across the mattress to Bella, who lay hiding underneath her blanket on the top bunk. Even though I knew what would likely happen, I hoped against hope that Bella would recognize how important it was to Phaedra that she accept this small peace offering. But Bella couldn’t see it, just like she couldn’t see why it was so hurtful to tell Phaedra to her face that she didn’t want to be her friend. My heart sank as I watched the blue bracelet slide back across the mattress, then it broke as Phaedra ran out of the room, sobbing.
As the girls get older, it’s becoming increasingly clear that autism has a profound effect on the dynamics of these sisters’ relationships. Being a middle child, it leaves both Phaedra and Surrey without a playmate close to their own age. They each desperately want to play with Bella, since she is closest to their ages. Bella, however, usually prefers to play by herself, creating carefully staged, look-but-do-not-touch scenes in her dollhouse or with her dinosaurs. While Surrey and Phaedra can and do play together sometimes, it’s hard for a three-year-old and seven [going on seventeen]-year-old to find common ground. Bella’s meltdowns, while nowhere near as frequent as they were in the past, affect the girls differently than when they were younger. While I had hoped that age would bring Phaedra the wisdom and experience to understand and deal with Bella’s sudden rage, it has had the opposite effect. Age has bestowed upon Phaedra even more complex emotions that help her to understand exactly how deeply her feelings are hurt when Bella screams in her face or throws a toy across the room.
Sometimes, as I watch their struggles to interact gradually self-destruct into shouting and tears, I marvel at how I, an intelligent woman who has read so much, talked with so many professionals, and lived with these children for so long, can feel so utterly ill-equipped to handle this. I try to rationally referee their arguments, but when your feelings are hurt over and over again by someone you love, how can you listen to logic? How can you hear your mother’s words when your emotions and anxiety are blaring full-blast in your head?
I take comfort in the good moments. I take comfort in three little girls running around the house with ice cream cones in their hands during those fifteen golden minutes before bedtime, screaming and giggling over some silly game that they spontaneously created together. I take comfort in the sincere hugs given before Phaedra goes into her classroom on the mornings we’re running too late to catch her class waiting outside. I take comfort in Bella suddenly looking concerned before stepping into the shower and asking, “Where’s Baby Surrey?” while Surrey is away at dance class.
I know they love each other. I just wish I could make them understand each other.
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