My Greatest Teacher in the Art of Acceptance: My Brother with Autism
This is the 99th published post here at A Wish Come Clear. With the 100th post around the corner, I’m thinking about another milestone that’s coming up soon: my younger brother Willie’s 25th birthday. (Willie has autism, as well as myriad creative gifts; he came up with the name ‘A Wish Come Clear’.)
Willie has been talking about his 25th birthday since, well, the day after his 24th. At regular intervals, he announces, “On May 10, 2012, Willie will be 25 years old!” And then, of course, we gently prompt, “I will be 25″, and he says it right back, proudly, “I will be 25 years old.”
Though Willie and I have vastly different personalities (for example, at any given meal, he eats his favorite item first, and I save the best for last), and our love for (and anticipation of) birthdays is one of our shared traits. Growing up in our house, birthdays were a big deal.
My mom started a tradition of hiding my gifts the night before my birthday; she’d leave a treasure-hunt trail lined with Post-It notes. Each Post-it contained a rhyming clue to the location of the next Post-It, and the next, and then, at the end, the final note, with the cache of presents and treasures. (Royal treatment? Absolutely.) Later in the day, we’d go out to supper as a family, singing and celebrating in high spirits.
L’Arche also makes big deal out of birthdays. Each community member gets a celebration, a night of songs, gifts, and dessert. On the anniversary of each person’s time at L’Arche (i.e., their L’Arche birthday), they are anointed with water by their fellow community members. This simple ceremony is an intimate thing. It is a time for us to affirm to one another: yes, you matter. Yes, our love for you is alive.
I miss Willie more than ever as his birthday draws near. As it happens, I’ll be speaking at a local church on his special day, giving a talk entitled, “Not A Burden, But A Privilege” (You can view the event flyer here.) And it’s bittersweet to be giving this talk on Willie’s birthday; bittersweet, yet somehow, entirely fitting. If it wasn’t for Willie, I’d never have been a part of L’Arche, or discovered the amazing gifts of the people therein. My life would have been so different, and I cannot wish any of it away.
Since I won’t be able to celebrate with Willie, I took my time selecting a gift for him. I scrolled through the books available on Amazon, looking for one he’d enjoy. Willie loves dogs, so I picked a pocket dictionary of dog breeds. I chose the pocket edition because he likes to carry books with him wherever he goes (another similarity between us), and also because I knew that he might tear the book to pieces, and I didn’t want to spend too much on something that might end up shredded.
It was surreal, shopping for a present with calm acknowledgement that Willie tears up even his favorite books when he’s out of control. I was purchasing something I knew might not last, and, miraculously enough, it didn’t bother me. I was taking Willie’s meltdowns into account, and doing so was a form of acceptance.
That said, being with Willie when he has a meltdown is terrifying. I wish, hope, and pray every day that there might come a time when he’s free of their tenacious grip. But as I hit “Purchase”, I felt the truth of what I can and cannot do. I can buy a good gift for my brother, but I cannot control how long it will last in his hands. I cannot change Willie, but I can love him.
It was a moment in which the Serenity Prayer became real for me, a moment in which I was granted “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
Yes, I will struggle to accept Willie as he is. I will feel anger and terror and grief when he melts down. But those feelings are not my only truth. They are a part of how I feel, but they are not the truest part.
And so I plan to close my talk at St. Francis this week by saying what is most true: