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brother do you love me: A commentary

Updated: 3 days ago

brother do you love me is an exquisite book about the relationship between two brothers.  Co-authors Manni and Reuben Coe have crafted a gorgeous tale, with Reuben as the illustrator slash muse and Manni as the artisan of words.


I stumbled upon brother do you love me when I was browsing in a bookshop in the Brighton UK. Ironically I was there with my son Aaron for the Oska Bright Film Fest. Aaron has Down syndrome, as does co-author Reuben Coe. brother do you love me was proudly displayed as a “Book of the Month.” Along with Aaron’s warm reception at Oska Bright, a film fest for learning disabled actors and film-makers, spotting brother do you love me in a high-profile display reminded me how far Canada lags behind at telling the stories of people with Down syndrome. (I'm biased in saying this, but Lucy McNulty's film Chicken is a rare exception). Bravo to the UK for publishing and promoting a book that features the story of someone with an intellectual disability. It's about time.


I read brother do you love me with my mom hat on, thinking of Aaron’s brothers and sister as I turned the pages. Manni presents his perspective as Reuben’s brother with fine descriptions and a keen eye for details. He excels at the beautiful telling of the landscapes from the settings in Spain and the UK, particularly when the brothers embark on their many walks.


The valley cups the river like a pair of hands in an El Greco painting, fine and elongated, their long fingers stretching towards the sea.


The plot of the book is elegant in its simplicity: it is a book about the relationship between two brothers. Reuben struggled in his supported living environment during the height of the pandemic and one day sent Manni a text saying, ‘brother do you love me.’ Manni pulled Reuben out of the home and the story centres around Reuben’s healing and future plans. He slowly begins to eat and talk again and the brothers’ country walks are part of the formula that helped Reuben bloom.


I eagerly ate up the stories about Reuben’s mother. Manni recounts a story from when Reuben was a baby (which eerily mirrors an encounter I had with a mother after preschool, when Aaron was about two):


One mother approached her in the school playground to get a better look. ‘Oh dear, Love.  Didn’t you get the test?’ Mum fled all the way down Bennet Road, hurtling the pram down North Lane….she bellowed her pain all the way down the alley.


The exact same thing happened to me, except I swallowed my tears until I got to my car, where I burst into heaving sobs over my steering wheel. Here's a PSA: questions about prenatal testing might just be the most painful and offensive questions on earth for mothers who have children's with Down syndrome. So much so, I even wrote about it in this essay called "There's no such thing as the perfect child."


The tension in brother do you love me builds around where Reuben will live. “Am I ready to put my brother back in a system that’s so volatile?” Manni asks himself. (The chronically underfunded disability system terrifies me too).


I’m rooting hard that Reuben will stay with Manni, which isn’t fair I know. I won’t spoil the ending. As a mom, it was a bittersweet book to read. Sweet because of the beauty of Manni’s words and Reuben’s illustrations, but bitter as it fed into one of my biggest fears – where Aaron would live if/when we will aren’t able to care for him anymore. I read it carefully, taking in every word, but my chest was tight, and I could only read a few pages at a time. brother do you love me was an emotional book for me.


Reuben’s colourful illustrations brightened the serious nature of the book's theme. There’s a great diversity in people who have Down syndrome, but I saw flickers of Aaron in Manni’s eloquent descriptions of Reuben: his reluctance to walk, his comfort with routines, and his need for patience. Aaron seems more accepting of having Down syndrome (I AM Down syndrome, he tells me) and while he has had bouts of painful loneliness, especially during the pandemic, we are lucky enough to live in a big city where he has community and friends. We all search for belonging and I so wish it was easier to come by for people with Down syndrome. It reminded me that the world can be a harsh place for those with an extra chromosome.


The story also addresses hard issues, like identity, agency and independence. Manni talks honestly about this, “His (Reuben’s) will, wherever it leans, is always bound to others.” Although my own son is only 21, I ponder these questions too. I’m always growing, and there is nobody better to learn from than families who are further down the path. I'm grateful to Reuben and Manni for their generosity in sharing their stories.


If you love someone with Down syndrome, or work with people with Down syndrome in any way, brother do you love me will give you a glimpse into the joys and challenges living with someone who has an intellectual disability. Importantly, Manni captures the pace of his life as Reuben's roommate, in a way I've never seen so accurately described before.

brother do you love me is a heartfelt and important book. Without offering a spoiler, I can tell you – paraphrasing from Natalie Merchant’s song Wonder - that with love, faith and patience, Manni and Reuben made their way.



If you are in Toronto-area, you are in luck!  The only Canadian book launch event will be in Toronto on June 17 and I’m happy to discover from Yona Lunsky, who is with the CAMH Azrieli Adult Neurodevelopmental Centre, that there will be a recording of the event available afterwards.



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