My Eleven-Year-Old Hero

She’s eleven years old and she’s already my hero.

She’s not on the spectrum, but she’s anything but typical. With a heart of compassion and a fiery, stubborn temper, she burst into our lives like every color of the rainbow. As she grows, her quirky mirth continues to bubble over, infecting us all -- especially her brother.

Whether he’s mired in anxiety or sorrow, anger or guilt, she can pull him free -- sometimes with love and sympathy; sometimes with sass and attitude.
She doesn’t overthink it, like I do. No hand wringing, no furrowed brow. Her hand might be on her hip; she may be crossing her eyes and sticking out her tongue.  Whatever she’s doing, she doesn’t pull her punches.

And it works: one way or another. Whether he’s pulled from his darker thoughts to laugh and engage or only to holler, “MOM! Tell her to stop!” I can’t help but feel immense gratitude.

She teaches me how to cope, how best to react. And she’s only a little girl. When she was very young, she adopted a few of his quirks, his fears.

That’s normal, the doctors said.

But she outgrew it quickly. Sometimes she sits with me to the side while he has physical therapy.

That looks fun, she says.
I can do something like that with you later, I tell her.

She sits with me, too, while he has occupational therapy.

He’s playing with LEGOS, she says.
I know; but we have LEGOS at home.

She doesn’t rage or throw tantrums. She’s not sullen or disrespectful. She enjoys some moments of drama, like any girl her age. And I have to be tougher than I want to be. I steel my heart; I don’t let either of us wallow in self-pity. We have to be strong. We have to be prepared.

It’s not fair, the way that she’s wrapped up in my thoughts as they speed to the future: What happens when I get old; when I’m no longer here for him? She will be.

It’s a comfort; it’s also a second burden on my heart. My son must deal with autism for the rest of his life. My daughter will too.

But it’s important that I don’t always look at her through blue-tinted glasses. She’s amazing with him, yes. God may well have given her these traits, knowing how much she would need them – how much HE would need her to have them. But she’s amazing on her own, without autism or her brother as a reference point.

She started playing piano last year, and her teacher says she has a natural gift for it. She sings harmonies with me in church; I didn’t teach her, she just picked it up herself.

She’s smart – advancing in school and taking on the challenges of an accelerated curriculum with a great attitude. She is an amazing writer – better than I was at her age.

She’s a good friend. She champions anyone at school who is being targeted for ridicule. She tells the truth, even when others try to conceal it. She sacrifices for friends, giving up privileges, negotiating. She is kind to younger kids too – whether by carrying her three-year-old cousin around all day long, or by sitting with a kindergartner every afternoon on the bus – just because she knows it makes her happy.

I try to make a special effort to spend time with her – just the two of us. Sometimes we shop together; we bake together, we make clothes for her doll. We take walks and snuggle under a blanket while we watch a movie. She still asks me for bedtime song, bedtime stories. She’s a wise old soul, but she’s also still a little girl.

Last year, we built a dollhouse together. It took forever:  sanding, priming, painting, gluing, waiting and then doing it all again. When we were done, I told her about a dollhouse you could buy already finished and ready to play with. 

“What fun is that?” she asked me. 

My heart soared. She’d just confirmed what I already knew:  she’s up for the challenges of the life she’s been given. She doesn’t want anything handed to her, ready made. She will work for it: she’ll sand, and prime; she’ll paint and glue. She’ll wait and then she’ll wait some more.

Through the tint of autism, or when blue filters are taken away, she shines. She’s who I want to be. She’s one of my greatest heroes and I love her with all of my heart.

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