Two fateful Sundays in my autistic brother's life

Ben (left) and Peter Kashatus in 2003.

is a history major at Earlham College

Sunday, July 29, 2012: The hum of the engine rang throughout the white van, as it met silence from those within. My friend Bill sat in the front seat, listening to music on his iPod, while his father drove. I was in the back, thinking about the painful loss our baseball team suffered earlier that day. I was ready to go home.

My phone rang. It was Dad.

"Peter, I have to tell you something. It's about Ben."

My little brother was back home. Ben never liked it when I was away from the house. Most 11-year-olds aren't too dependent on their older brothers, but our story is different; Ben has autism, and I was the only friend he had.

Everything I did was awe-inspiring to him. He wanted to play baseball like me. He wanted to play the piano like me. And he wanted to ride a bike like me.

That's why, two summers before, I had started teaching him how to ride a bike. He often fell and scraped his knee or bruised his hip. And every time, he would cry and scream loud enough for the whole neighborhood to hear. I would rush to his aid, hold his head, and tell him he would be OK. I would blame myself for his injury, and assure him I wouldn't let him get hurt again. Then he'd get back on his bike and continue riding. He didn't want to let me down.

By the summer of 2012, Ben had become an expert.

That Sunday, Ben was riding his bike through our neighborhood. He abandoned it outside our neighbor's shed, and went to investigate inside it. Without me there, he had to find some other form of entertainment.

But two young boys had seen him wander inside.

Maybe they wanted to play a prank on Ben. Maybe they just didn't want to be bothered by his presence anymore. To them, Ben was better off inside a box, where he wouldn't annoy the "normal" people outside of it. Whatever the reason, they shut the shed door and locked it. Then they stacked firewood in front of it to keep him inside, and left.

Ben's screams weren't loud enough for anyone to hear. There were no windows for him to catch anyone's attention outside. He waited there for hours before our neighbor came home and found him.

After Dad told me what happened, I was shocked. I shook. I cried.

I didn't want to be with my friend and his father anymore. I wanted to be right by Ben's side. I wanted to tell him everything would be OK. I wanted to let him know it was my fault, and I wouldn't let him get hurt again.

"If only I was there," I thought to myself.

But I wasn't.

Ben never rode his bike in our neighborhood again.

Sunday, March 12, 2017: Ceaseless chatter filled my small gray Yaris as it sped through Indianapolis. Sharing the cramped space with four other college students, I was leading a group expedition for our urban history class at Earlham College in eastern Indiana. Home felt like a distant memory to me.

My phone rang. It was Dad.

"Peter, I have to tell you something. It's about Ben."

After that fateful day in 2012, I knew Ben needed a new outlet. Riding bikes was no longer an option, so I picked a new activity for him: swimming.

Every day, we went to our grandparents' house and practiced in their pool. I would hold Ben's hands as he slowly descended into the shallow end, and tell him he would be OK as I coaxed him farther along the pool. He knew he would be all right as long as I was there with him, and I wouldn't let him get hurt again.

And after four years of practice, Ben became an expert.

Earlier that Sunday, Ben had his first swim meet at our local YMCA. His first event was the 50-meter backstroke. After finishing the race, he forgot to check the scoreboard for the results. He had won first place, coming in ahead of the second-place winner by more than 10 seconds. He even broke his club's all-time record for the event.

A mob of teammates hugged him as soon as he got out of the pool. Ben didn't care about the race, though. He was just happy to have friends there with him.

After Dad told me what happened, I sat in silence. I no longer wished to be there with my classmates. I just wanted to be there with Ben, so I could hug him and tell him I was proud of him. I felt alone in my car, surrounded by peers who knew nothing about who I really was. Who Ben really was.

I thought to myself, "If only I was there."

But I wasn't.

Ben doesn't need me anymore.

pbkasha15@earlham.edu