Mar 29, 2012 0 Share

A New Kind of Homecoming


Black and white photo of man with head in his hands.
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To paraphrase Tolstoy, happy homecomings are all alike; every unhappy homecoming is unhappy in its own way. However, I'm not sure how to categorize this week's homecoming, as it was a strange mixture of both. 

This past Monday, I arrived at my parents' home. After welcoming hugs, my family enjoyed Chinese takeout by candlelight. Willie included me in his mealtime prayer, giving thanks that I had come. Afterward, my father lit a fire, and my mother got out the Christmas peppermint tea she'd been saving especially for me. In short, it was an idyllic first night home, and I didn't need to be told to appreciate it. I was soaking it all in, delighting in the comforts of being with my family. 

And then Willie started rapping out an angry rhythm with his hands. Our parents coached him to take deep breaths. Ordinarily, this helps him to de-escalate. On this night, however, Willie wouldn't calm down. I could feel a knot starting in the pit of my stomach, and I tried to take those deep breaths myself, hoping against hope that it might help Willie to calm down, too. 

It's frightening how fast Dr. Jekyll can give way to Mr. Hyde. Instead of deep breathing, Willie bared his teeth and swung his arms at our mother, tore apart a book he'd purchased with his own money, spat, bit his own shoulder, and hit our father. He was out of control. My mother whispered to me that he hadn't done this in a long time, and I believed her; when my husband and I had come for a visit in January, we'd enjoyed an entire week of peace with Willie. 

And then, as Willie's anger dissipated, his sobbing began. He always cries after a meltdown, and I can never decide which is worse: the raging brother, or the mournful one. The tantrums can be terrifying, but the weeping afterward … if despair could be a sound, it would be that sound. As I listened, I found myself drawing nearer to the fire, trying to warm some inner part of me that was freezing cold. 

Eventually, his sobs quieted, and I went to sit with him. I didn't know what I'd say or do, but I couldn't leave him all alone. 

Coming to a crouch beside him, I said, “Hi, Willie.”

“Hi, Caroooo-linnnnneee,” he said. Everything he says after crying sounds like a muffled wail.

For a time, no words came. I just patted him on the head, marveling at the soft thickness of his hair, how like mine it is. I moved my hand gently, hoping to soothe him. And then I knew what to say. 

“Willie, you know, you're the only brother I have,” I said.

“Yes,” he said.

“And I'm the only sister you have.”

“Yes.”

“So we have to be kind to one another, okay? We have to be kind.”

“I want to be kind!” he said, and even though I knew it was a partial truth—that a part of him also wants to be destructive—I believed him. Because at that moment I was feeling all the separate parts of me, too … all the strange contradictions that one person can carry. 

When it was time for bed, I walked to his room and stood in the doorway.

“Goodnight, Willie,” I called in.

“Goodnight, Caroline.”

“I love you, Willie.”

“I love you, Caroline.” 

How strange it was, that I could hold, simultaneously, fear for him and acceptance of him as my brother. The next day, I found a quote from Tolstoy that touched on the wonder I felt at that moment:  “... if it is true that there are as many minds as there are heads, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts.” 

Being Willie's sister means learning a new kind of love, being a part of a new kind of homecoming. It is by turns challenging and simple, bitter and sweet. But it is ours, and somehow, inexplicably, it is enough.