Mar 08, 2012 0 Share

The Love Letter

Illustration of letter with heart-shaped thumbprint.

I no longer have the best letter I ever received. I let it go earlier this year, because I knew that, even if I threw away the paper itself, I'd never forget the contents. 

When it came time for me to choose a college, my choice was simple. Though I visited more than a dozen campuses, the second school I visited was exactly where I wanted to go: Vassar College. I was in love with the library, the lawns, the list of English courses. It also didn't hurt that the school was exactly an hour-and-a-half-long drive from my family in New Jersey. It was just far enough for me to feel like I was truly “away,” and just close enough for me to come home at a moment's notice ... or to flee back to school, as I did one afternoon. 

It started out as a routine visit home. As always, I offered to stay with Willie for a time while my parents went out; as usual, they hesitated, but said yes eventually. I assured them that I would be careful, and that I would call them immediately if Willie was having a particularly hard time. Unfortunately, neither of these things prevented what happened next. 

I don't remember many details of that afternoon; my memory has blocked them. Or perhaps, having received grace to forgive them, I have also been given grace to forget. In any case, I know that Willie was edgy and upset. I know that I helped him to roll up in the rug, applied calming pressure, and prompted him to take deep breaths. Yet I also know that, as it became clear that he wasn't calming down, I got angry. And scared. 

Nowadays, I'm better at keeping calm when Willie is upset—In part thanks to years of practice, and in part because I know that maintaining a peaceful energy is one of the best things I can do to help. But that afternoon, I wasn't prepared. 

Willie was rolled up in the rug, and then suddenly, he wasn't. Almost before I knew what was happening, he bit me. He sunk his teeth into my right leg, and I screamed at him. Furious and hurt, I ran upstairs and locked a door behind me. I called my parents to come home, and they did, right away. As soon as I heard the garage door open, I picked up my bags and put them in my car. Though I knew it would upset my parents, I drove—flew—back to Vassar. 

Several days later, I received a card in the campus mail. I remember opening it in the busy mailroom area, and then closing it quickly, knowing that if I stopped to read it I would end up crying. I took the card back to my room. Inside, my parents had sent their love, sorrow, and comfort to me … and they had included a letter from Willie as well. 

Dear Caroline, the letter said in my brother's best printing, I'm very sorry I bit you. Please forgive me. Love, Willie. 

When I saw his handwriting—those distinctive letters, the spots where he'd used White-Out to make everything perfect—I knew I would forgive him. Before I even read his words, I felt the tears pool in my eyes. He had hurt me, but he was still my brother. Somewhere underneath the aggressive behavior, he was still Willie, and I still loved him. 

The bruise from the bite took months to heal. Every time I looked at it, I wanted to weep—for all the similar cuts and bruises my parents had incurred, for all the anger and frustration inside Willie that made him strike out. For all the beauty that was hidden behind his terrible behavior. 

Nowadays, Willie's doing much better. Each time I see him, I am amazed at how far he's come. And even though my skin tends to scar easily, that fateful bite didn't leave a mark. The letter, however, did