Our car trundled along a dusty gravel road one day in the middle of July. I stared out the window at the clouds of dry dirt that billowed from beneath our tires, picturing what our car must look like from the outside. Aside from the layer of dust covering it, our big red Subaru looked completely normal. With two kids in the back seat and a trunk filled with towels, bags, and blow-up water toys, our car was the image of an ideal family headed off for a fun summer day. I sighed.
I wonder what it would be like to have a normal family. How different would life be if Aaron were an average ten-year-old boy? I pondered. I knew that if anyone looked past our car and surveyed the people within, they would not find an ideal family. They would see that my younger brother has autism. They would see that, at age ten, he can’t do certain simple things like dress himself, read, or talk in full sentences. And they would see how much Aaron’s special needs keep our family from being perfectly normal.
After a few more miles, our car crunched to a stop in a dusty parking lot, and my train of thought was interrupted as I climbed out of the hot back seat. I was relieved to be back at the lake that my family travels to every summer for a day of swimming. It looked just as I remembered it, a small green lake nestled into a wooded hillside. I inhaled the spicy scents of sagebrush and pine, wafting from the central Oregon vegetation. As I exhaled, glad to be back in this beautiful setting, thoughts of my family’s imperfections were momentarily wiped from my mind.
Emerging from the car behind me, Aaron let out a joyful yell, exclaiming “Oh! Oh yes!!!” He then picked up a nearby stick and attempted to hit a pinecone with it, pretending to play baseball. He associates baseball with happiness and does not hesitate to grab a makeshift ball and bat whenever he is pleased. Embarrassed with his behavior, I grabbed my towel and ran down to the rocky lakeshore.
I immediately plunged into the chilly water, frolicking around and shouting that everyone should hurry up. It was a sweltering day, and the lake was dotted with other swimmers, many in the vicinity staring at Aaron, who was still playing “baseball.” Upon reaching the point where ripples of water lapped up against the pebbly ground, my dad plodded slowly in, punctuating each step with a loud “Ow!” as the icy water made contact with his skin. Aaron tried to run right in but forgot to take off his shoes, shirt, and glasses. After my mom removed them, he proceeded with painstaking care until, with an enormous splash, he lost his footing and fell chest-deep in water. Finally my mom, who has a notoriously low tolerance for cold water, screwed up her courage and dove under.
We took off swimming—Aaron swims with a peculiar dog paddle—until we reached the very heart of the lake, where huge white driftwood logs floated and provided nature’s best toy. I pulled myself up onto one, noticing how pale and eerie my feet looked as they kicked a few feet below the surface. Aaron struggled for a moment to pull himself up on the log, the difficulty of this simple action reminding me how much his disability affects his coordination. I took pity on him and helped hoist him up.
Exhausted from his efforts, Aaron collapsed on the log and pushed his sopping brown hair out of his eyes. Suddenly remembering last year, he exclaimed, “Jump!” Upon his command, I sprang off the slippery wood and dove into the water, causing the log to rock and create a sea of ripples. Following my example, my mom jumped off, and my dad helped Aaron to fall off the log in an uncoordinated dive.
After dozens of crazy, log-rocking, water-spraying jumps, many involving disastrous attempts at cannonball contests and synchronized diving, we finally took a rest. My mom stretched out on the sunlit log, and my dad sat next to her. We were all lost in the moment, a whirl of happiness and fun that warmed us as much as the late afternoon sun did. Aaron, perched a few feet down the log, patted the wet patch of wood beside him, smiling proudly as though he offered the coziest chair in the world. “Sit! Come sit!” he invited me.
I climbed closer to him, and together we sat. My feet dangled in the cool green water and I listened contentedly to the buzzing of millions of pine needles tingling in the forest. My nose took in the wilderness-like, sunny smell of the set- ting. We were just a family sitting on a log in the middle of a lake. My family.
And in a dawn of realization, it occurred to me that I had just spent the last hour completely enjoying my family just the way we are. Anyone looking on wouldn’t think about how strange and different Aaron is. They would have seen how happy we were, they would have been caught up in the joy and fun we had been radiating. It seemed to me in that moment that nothing, not even perfection, could match the happiness, spontaneity, and love that makes my family unique.
Overcome by my new thoughts, I scooted even closer to my brother, and together we gazed at our reflections in the green lake. The image of our smiling faces was bent a little by the water, but the imperfection made us look all the better.