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.

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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:

Happy Birthday, Willie. I love you and I’m proud of you. You’re the reason I’m here tonight.

You, before anyone else, have taught me to see through eyes of love. Thank you.

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What’s been your greatest ‘acceptance challenge’ this week? Tell me in the comments!

If this post spoke to you, please share it with those you love.

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Overhearing that Argument (A Lesson Learned in Laughter)

Happy Monday, all! First off, I’d like to welcome visitors from Autism Key and I’m A Mom Too. I have two guest posts up this week; “Autism, Siblings and the R-Word Effect” and, “A Lifetime of Lies (And A Truth to Set You Free).”

First-time visitors, be sure to check out the welcome video (to your right and below), and visit the About page. Finally, I’d like to offer you a gift: Your Creed of Care: How To Dig For Treasure In People (Without Getting Buried Alive).

This book is about balancing the responsibilities of caregiving with the responsibility of caring for yourself. It’s is a labor of love, containing 60+ pages of true stories and essential insights on caring for yourself as you care for others. It’s about living a life grounded in self-respect. It’s about loving yourself, so that you can love others from a place of peace. You can access your copy here.

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Overhearing one’s parents fight is among the most terrifying things in the world for a child (and for a teenager, and for an adult, too). My brother and I have been very fortunate in this regard; our parents love one another and have stayed together through difficult times. But they’re human. They’ve had moments.

I can remember waking up in the night and hearing the argument. I was maybe 16 at the time. Somehow, being awakened by my mom and dad fighting was worse than being awakened by Willie having a meltdown. By then, I expected Willie to have meltdowns in the middle of the night. I didn’t expect to hear my parents yelling.

I tried to coax myself back to sleep, but instead, I found myself creeping to the top of the stairs. My heart was pounding. Like most teenagers, I had friends whose parents had divorced. And despite my youthful idealism, I was beginning to have a sense for how fragile our bonds can be, especially in times of extreme stress and tension. Especially for parents of individuals with special needs. Especially if those individuals have severe behavioral difficulties.

Yet my parents weren’t arguing about me or my brother that night (though I might have missed an earlier part of the dialogue). Instead, my mom was upset because she wasn’t feeling loved during that difficult time, and my dad was frustrated because he felt he was giving all he had to give, and that it wasn’t being received.

Back and forth they went, hurt and hopelessness in their voices. I felt my heart speed up. I knew they loved each other, but that night, the love wasn’t coming through. I was terrified that it wouldn’t come through.

And then my father said something that has stayed with me since. My mom was saying that she didn’t know if my dad loved her anymore.

As she said it, a wind of desolation swept through me. The love between my parents was an invisible, integral foundation I’d stood on for my entire life. Hearing it questioned that way was like an earthquake; it shook something deep inside of me.

But before she could say anything more, my dad interrupted her. With anger and force in his voice, he said, “…but of course I love you! How could you even say that?!”

As a teenager, it seemed strange to hear someone say I love you with such frustration, but as an adult, I can understand it better. I can understand that there are times when you are feeling lonely and scared and ticked through the roof at the one you love, and the best you can do is to try to speak the truth with honest kindness in the midst of it.

At times like these, fighting right can be constructive. It can be a way of persisting in love and resisting complacent disconnection. And communicating one’s fears and loneliness is a sign of trust in a relationship, a sign of hope amidst difficulty… just as saying I love you when you’re angry is better than not saying it at all.

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Soon after, I heard something stranger still: my mom’s laughter, and then my dad’s. Something my dad had said made my mom crack up. Once laughter arose, they were given the grace to see both the reality of one another’s hurt feelings and the end of their argument. I heard them reconcile, and felt my heartbeat return to normal.

And in that moment I remembered something my mother had told me. When I’d asked her, “How did you know that Dad was the one for you?”, she’d said, “Well, he could always make me laugh.”

At the time, it didn’t seem like a good enough reason. Nowadays, I see that laughter can restore sanity in an insane situation. And I agree with Reinhold Niebuhr when he wrote, “Laughter is the highest form of prayer.”

After all, that’s the story behind the name of this sitethe story of how a simple, silly turn of phrase gave me the gift of my brother’s laughter, which was a ray of hope in a very dark time.

In fact, I chose to name this community A Wish Come Clear not only because my brother coined the phrase, but because of how he has used it to teach me about the redeeming power of a good joke.

Yes, our bonds are made vulnerable by the circumstances that we face. But if we can surrender control enough to let go and really laugh– if we can open the door of our hearts just a crack — grace comes rushing in.

Grace doesn’t mean our every wish comes true (or that our parents never argue or our brothers never struggle). Grace means that we aren’t alone in what we face, that healing laughter can rise up from the unlikeliest of places. It means that right in the middle of difficulty, a wish (just might) come clear.

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How might you choose to let laughter into your life this week?

Tell me in the comments!

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