The other night at dinner Jay displayed some new math skills: “Two fives is 10, four fives is 20, six fives is 30,” he said, as Caroline and I finished the last of our goat cheese pasta. When he got to “20 fives is 100,” we beamed at him and clapped.
Across the table, Wally had been watching all of this. As soon as the applause died down he started in on a trick of his own, counting the squares on his checked placemat. “1, 2, 3, 4…14, 16, 19, 21 squares,” he proclaimed triumphantly—and, completely inaccurately.
Later that night I thought about these dueling math displays. Both boys were displaying skills appropriate to their ages, but they probably left the table feeling very differently about what they’d done. As far as Jay knows, he’s practicing mathematics at its highest form, while Wally can see quite clearly that whatever he knows, it’s less than his brother knows.
In so many ways, Wally’s behavior is refracted through Jay when the four of us are together. Easily 10 times a day we hear him wail in utter despair because Jay has taken the marker he wanted to use, or because Jay filled the water bottles for school when Wally wanted to do that job. And when I say despair I mean despair—in these situations you can almost see Wally collapsing on the inside as a person.
Which is striking because he is so completely full of personhood. Last week I got to spend more time than usual just with Wally, on account of the cold he and I both had. We played the card game War, ate peanut butter toast, made blanket tents in his bed. What struck me most about our time together was how consistent his mood was. He was excited but not hyper, happy, talkative, and reasonable.
This was striking because most of the time around the house, I think of him as either way up or way down. When he and Jay play together—which they do pretty much the entire time they’re awake and at home—Wally’s either tearing around the house in delight or crumpling in defeat. There’s not a lot of calm, self-composed middle ground.
We all change the way we behave in response to the people around us, and some people affect us in better or worse ways. I’m glad my friends see me so often with Caroline, because I like who I am with Caroline. There are other people who make me feel nervous, or insecure, or angry, and if you only ever saw me around those people, you might regard me in a way I don’t want to be regarded.
For Jay and Wally, and their relationship as brothers, this cuts both ways. Caroline remarked over the weekend that if Jay were an only child we’d think he was perfectly behaved, because pretty much the only trouble he gives us is when he’s going at Wally. And Wally, if he were an only child…well, the change is almost too dramatic to imagine, which suggests just how strongly his behavior—and our perceptions of it—is influenced by the fact that Jay is almost always in the room.