I was thrilled to learn about the recent New York Times op-doc by Canadian filmmaker and mom, Kelly O’Brien, “My Brother Teddy.” The piece is a selection from O’Brien’s prize-winning short film, Softening, which examines her young son with Cerebral Palsy through the eyes of his older sister. It is, in a word, gorgeous. Here is the link:
The scene begins with Emma, who is six, running through a field. “I have a brother named Teddy,” she tells us, and he is three. “He’s cute, cuddly, and funny. And I like him because he laughs at my jokes.”
O’Brien’s lens is trained on Emma and Teddy on the black and white screen. Although Teddy is incredibly alert, taking in the sun and wind on his face or laughing as he rolls in a pile of fall leaves, it is clear that there are mobility limitations. At one point, O’Brien recounts young Emma asking if her brother will need a wheelchair when he is older. The family does not yet know.
When asked why Teddy is as he is, Emma is articulate in a way that recalls the classic sibling: “Basically, he was in my mom’s tummy and he got this infection. And when he comed out it was really hard for him to walk or stand, so he needs physical therapists and he needs medicine and lots of help. But I love him. I love him, though. A lot.”
Her love for Teddy is unwavering and proud, this is clear. It is not the love born of pity nor is it shot through with jealousy or confusion, as some of the literature might have one believe. Emma’s love for Teddy offers a framework for both a different type of sibling relationship and also an alternative approach to understanding disability in the everyday closeness of family life. Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of O’Brien’s short piece is her uncanny ability to convey the embodied nature of such sibling relationships. Her camera hones in on the physicality of the bond, following Emma as she snuggles with Teddy on a spinning merry-go-round and cradles him like a baby in a windblown field. Emma’s words, too, stress the primacy of bodies and contact in her sibling world. She tells us that she likes helping Teddy bathe, feeding him, and picking him up and carrying around. She rattles off a long list of Teddy’s likes: foods (ice cream, sweet potatoes), being tickled, spinning around, the feeling of the wind on his face, warm water, the smell of oranges. The senses are alive. They crackle and, as a child herself, Emma’s senses are not yet dull.
There is perhaps a distance between her explanations of Teddy’s disability and its etiology (i.e., the infection), and her ability to riff easily on the things that make him whole despite an aftermath that has challenged her parents in completely different ways. There is an unthinking, assumed intelligence in Emma’s speech. She is used to being the one to help and explain, we sense. Or perhaps she isn’t. Maybe that’s my own history speaking.