Saturday, September 22, 2018

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His brother’s hero: A debt is owed to an autistic sibling just as many of us owe someone in our lives

As his older, autistic sibling is about to make a major life change, a writer reflects on the debt he owes him and how many of us owe the same to someone in our lives 

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    Nick Erickson, left, with his brother, Brett, in September 2010. With severe autism that prevents him from speaking, life has not been fair to Brett, Nick writes, but Brett has always been there, in some way, to support Nick.

    Contributed photo

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    Nick Erickson, right, with his older brother, Brett, in September 2010 after the Luther College All-American Invitational in Decorah, Iowa.

    Contributed photo

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Much like many of the athletes I’ve had the privilege of covering in my three years at the Leader-Telegram, I entered my senior year of high school track and field in spring 2011 with a concrete goal in mind.

And for the entire calendar year, I had dedicated myself to that mission. I set my alarm clock earlier than I envisioned my competition did. I stayed late. I took care of my body —  so much to the point I turned down desserts at holiday meals, a feat my 25-year-old self shakes a head in dismay at 18-year-old me. 

The big day in June, the date I had taped on the inside of my locker for the entire school year, came. I was ready. Then I fell two-tenths of a second short of what I set out to accomplish.

When I left the track following the race, I scurried to the nearest place I could find that had space. Certainly not an easy task at UW-La Crosse on the weekend of the state track meet. 

My friends and family who shared this journey with me knew me well and let me be alone for a while. Everybody but one.

As I was hunched over unsuccessfully trying to keep the tears in, my older brother, Brett, with his red Platteville High School shirt sticking to his body on a warm day in the Coulee Region, shuffled over and grabbed my shoulder. 

I looked up and locked my watery eyes on to him. 

Nonverbal since birth with autism falling on the highest of scales, he lifted his right arm to his cheek, cupped his fingers together and asked for home in his form of broken sign language. And before I could even collect myself to answer, he switched gears and signed for a cheeseburger.

It was hot. And he was hungry.

That simple moment

My brother, who will be moving out of our loving parents’ house in Platteville — the only one the 27-year-old has ever truly known — and into a group home on Monday, gave me a perspective on sports and life I’m lucky to have.

I’ve had a wide range of emotions ever since this past fall, when I first learned of the move I always knew would be coming. And for the past month — when I knew of the actual date the move would occur — I’ve thought about everything he’s meant to me in my journey through life.

High school sports were everything to me before I left for college, maybe even to a fault. I would religiously check websites to compare myself to others around the state. I relived big moments and dwelled too much on failures. 

But when I sit back and reflect now, the biggest memory I have from donning the black and maroon trim of Platteville High’s uniform is that simple moment following my last race.

I’ve never been embarrassed by who Brett is when there were plenty of moments where he tested me. In fact, I’m damn proud of him. 

Brett came to my meets — many probably against his own choosing — and waited around until I was finished with all my events. He wore my different team’s shirt with the nutty sayings my coach would put on them. 

He’s got his back

Life hasn’t been fair to him. He’ll never get the chance to drive a car. He’ll never be able to live independently. He’ll never go to a breakfast table without a cocktail of medicines to help alleviate a nervous system that the rest of us can’t even fathom. And he can never pick up a phone to call me and express what’s happening in his life. 

But he has always been there, in some way, for his little brother. 

And that’s made me appreciate the opportunity I had in high school to lace my spikes to run high-stake races and the ones I have now living a life with an amazing family and fiancee in a job that allows me to tell young athletes’ stories every day. 

While I sit here today all set to wake up bright and early Monday morning to drive to Madison and help Brett begin the next chapter of his life, I want to take the time to say this to everyone — athletes, siblings, parents, businessmen and women — chasing big goals too: Do it for those who can’t. Be thankful for your ability to suit up in your school colors and compete in the sport you love. Value the opportunity to get up and drive to your chosen profession each and every morning. And cherish the moments spent sitting across from your loved ones at mealtime. 

Whether you are fighting for a state championship or the last one off the bench on your junior varsity team, a CEO or intern, you are somebody’s hero and somebody’s keeper. Reward them with your best effort and give them the inclusion and appreciation they have given you.

I’m so proud of you, Brett, for taking this next step. And now it’s my turn to be your biggest supporter in your next great challenge. As you did for me all those years, I’ve got your back and won’t hesitate to ask for food when I’m hungry.

Erickson is a Leader-Telegram sports reporter. Contact him or 715-830-5861.

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