Thicker than Water: Essays by Adult Siblings of People with Disabilities. Edited by Don Meyer. Woodbine House (2009).
Book review by Kathy Dickson
Funny. Relatable. Honest. These are some of the first words that describe Thicker than Water: Essays by Adult Siblings of People with Disabilities. As the title indicates, this book collects short stories written by siblings of those with disabilities. Their experiences are told with a refreshing sense of honesty, humor, and brevity that makes for a quick read. Yet, even though the book is fast, the essays are far from shallow. Indeed, they are profound.
As Don Meyer warns in his editorial preface, this book is not like the Chicken Soup for the Soul series; instead, the experiences of individual siblings are raw and genuine, allowing the reader to have a truthful sense of what life is like for a sibling of someone with a disability, told through the perspective of adult eyes (xi). This lets the book be highly relevant, I would think, to any reader interested in understanding the challenges of being human, more so, perhaps, to anyone with a sibling (“is there any topic more subjective, personal, and elusive than the relations one has with a brother or a sister?” Meyer remarks in the preface), and truer still for anyone with a sibling or close relative with a disability (xii).
Because I fit this latter category, I could not read this book without a pen in my hand to underline those strong points of connection, or to draw exclamation points in the margins as part of my emotional response that says, “Yes!” Meyer suggests that in reading Thicker Than Water, readers will be able to relate to other sibs with similar experiences and “develop a broader understanding of their own situation as authors share their views, concerns, and hard-earned joys” (xi). And, the authors certainly facilitate that experience. This book is an important resource because it collects perspectives and experiences in regards to disabilities. As Meyer points out, many brothers and sisters will “face the same issues and challenges as their parents at some point in their lives,” adding too that today’s adult brothers and sisters “already assume larger roles in the lives of people with disabilities than in previous generations” (x).
The voices of the writers vary in tone and writing styles, offering a fascinating display of diversity to disability based on location, life experience, level of education, family response, and most strikingly, time. The authors, who have experienced decades of conversations, care, and shifts in systems and societal changes, sound at points a bit disenchanted by the realities of assuming the care of an adult sibling. This experience, for example, is quite different in a family that has been separated by institutional care than it is in the experience of a younger generation that has only ever known a society full of many positive supports and collectively louder advocates. We see both perspectives in this book.
As one older writer shares, his marriage was strained in some ways due to his brother’s ongoing care: “Life is different for those who marry into a family where someone has a severe disability…as a blood relative, one has an unswerving duty” (Moyer 193). Jeff Moyer’s account is one that describes quite bluntly, the hard challenges of being an adult sibling with an active role in his brother’s care, including how that affects peripheral relationships. He articulates some of what might be read as a negative viewpoint, sharing clearly and honestly multiple challenges. Yet his love for his brother shines through, as is this case for every author: “Mark’s true gifts—which he offers everyone in the family—are love, a simplicity of spirit, an abiding appreciation of small gestures, and the gift of time. However, we’ve learned that a gentle and patient nature is a prerequisite before Mark’s gifts can be received” (Moyer 195).
Moyer’s perspective contrasts with that of Melissa Garrison, a sophomore in college, who struggles with not being at home and an active part of her brother’s life. The contrast comes not in the love for, or appreciation of, their brothers, where we find striking similarity; but rather through differences in places in time, affording different opportunities, and therefore different experiences. Melissa is an example of a younger generation, growing up with her brother as an active part of her childhood. Unlike Moyer’s account of visiting his brother in and out of institutions and following his many moves and family decisions regarding these things, she shares stories about points of common bonds (Disney characters, game playing) with her brother (Garrison 1-6). This kind of diversity in voice is the strength of this book; it reminds us that the experience of families with a disability interwoven is as diverse as each individual person.
Worrying about what the future holds for the lives of their brothers and sisters is a common theme among the stories. Siblings share concerns about where their brothers and sisters might live, how their lives might be without their parents around, with a common voice and the shared perspective that each have a responsibility and a place in the conversation: “All of us… are starting to have conversations about her future” (Skotko 17).
Another relatable theme articulated so well by several authors is that inescapable feeling of leaving siblings with a disability behind when heading off to college or making some other kind of move or transition. One sibling embraces new opportunities, and this highlights the differences in their lives. One author questions, “What audacity I must have, thinking about leaving my brother? How can I leave home?” (Garrison 2). Such questions easily hit home with the reader with a sibling “left behind” for whatever reason, but for the sibling of a person with a disability, there might be an additional layer of emotion, here expressed so well by this book. Still other themes, such as thinking about friends for their siblings, or even romantic partners and the challenges that come with that, challenge the reader into a deeper understanding of what faces a family with a person with a disability. Again, I had out my pen in these parts, marking points of connection to my own lived experience.
One can easily pick up Thicker Than Water and begin reading anywhere, and because the topic at hand can sometimes be heavy, this makes this book highly readable and welcoming to the reader who wants not only to learn, but to laugh, nod, and realize just how unique AND common living with disability really can be. While some readers may find the short vignettes a challenge to a smooth read, I found each in their diversity of story and perspective refreshing. Although the short story format of the book makes it easy to engage, the brevity of some stories does point to a need for a fuller, more sustained engagement with siblings, which would of course demand a different kind of book. I believe this compilation does just what it hopes to do: offer an easy to relate to account from a variety of perspectives that is welcoming and appropriate for demonstrating that these sorts of sibling relationships are ones of ease, trust, and mutuality, interwoven with threads of both care and concern.
While some authors have a stronger writing voice than others, I find the diversity of even this, the writing styles of each individual author, to be part of the uniqueness of the book. It highlights again, the variety of people who experience disability from a variety of places, which showcases the beauty of the common experience found through these familial realities, raising common themes of fear, frustration, love, and wonder—all themes any family with a person with a disability might find quite usual.
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