Jan 19, 2012 0 Share

Crossing the Bridge

Footbridge over creek in meadow.
Photo by Caroline McGraw

My husband and I will be traveling home to New Jersey to visit my family soon, and along with the anticipation and excitement, I feel a sense of fear. I ask myself the same questions I always ask after a long period of time has passed since I've seen my brother: Will he still relate to me? Will it matter to him that I'm there? Will my presence help him to relax, or cause undue stress? 

These fears are unfounded, because Willie is always himself when we arrive; that is, always happy to see us, but not likely to be effusive. He’s always ready to put my husband and me at a place of honor in his daily prayers, but not likely to want to converse for more than a few minutes. That's Willie. 

Coming home is also an experience of living my fears. Invariably, Willie will have a hard time one day, and he'll lash out at me or my mom or dad. He'll feel awful afterward, and so will I. But somehow, against the odds, we will carry on. And when I start to feel anxious at the prospect, the phrase, “Let's cross that bridge when we come to it,” is tremendously helpful for me. It puts me back in perspective, back into the present rather than the imagined, feared future. 

“Crossing the bridge when we come to it” means that I won't imagine catastrophe. It means that I'll meet my brother where he is, rather than where I think he “should” be. It means that I'll resist my own tendency to put too much trust in words as expressions of love, and choose to trust our shared times together instead. I'll accept those experiences as Willie's primary way of showing that he cares. 

What will that kind of acceptance look like? Doing puzzles together, playing ping-pong in the basement, and going for long walks where he'll inevitably run ahead on his own. It will likely mean taking precautions, and making sure that Willie has time and space to cool off, be alone, and follow his own routine. Though I'll prioritize spending time together, I'll also honor his need to do things in his time, in his way. 

Most of all, I'll picture the kind of bridge we might come to, if we're able to simply love and accept one another as we are. Perhaps a bridge like the one pictured here, one that I discovered on a rambling walk through rural Virginia this fall. I was following a dirt road past a series of farmhouses, and I stopped to watch a small stream run by. The stream wound its way through the field, and at one point grew wide enough to require the wooden bridge that covered it. 

As I framed the shot, I remember thinking, This is such a metaphor for how I relate to Willie. Relating to someone on the autism spectrum with fairly severe behavioral challenges is akin to walking through an overgrown field, where there are no paths to speak of. It's a confusing journey, one that can feel foreign and frightening at times. 

But there's a flip side, too, because though there are no paths to be found, there are wildflowers. Though there are no markers, there is sunlight glancing off the grass. Navigating this journey, this relationship, may be a difficult experience, but it is also a beautiful one. 

It's only today that I notice: Given the angle at which I took the picture, you can't see the gap where the creek runs beneath the bridge. The divide is lost in green grass, in flowers, in growth. And that's my dream for my relationship with my brother—that one day, whatever divides us will seem insignificant compared to what unites us.