Apr 18, 2013 0 Share

Kicking the Trees

The author with her husband (Jonathan), father (William), and brother (Willie.)
Photo by Donna Fischer

It’s true, last week’s visit with my family was filled with moments of connection and terms of endearment ... but that’s not the whole story. (Is it ever?) 

On Friday, we did a walking tour of our town. Together, we strolled for two hours in the morning sunshine, then stopped to eat at a favorite local coffee shop. We arrived during the lunch rush, and while I savored the energy of the place, I knew Willie might have trouble with the noise level. No matter, I thought, he has his noise-canceling headphones. But unfortunately, he’d forgotten to bring his headphones along for our walk. 

Our parents exchanged glances and watched Willie closely. At first, everything seemed fine, but just as I was finishing my salad, things took a turn. Mom asked Willie a question, and rather than reply in words, he let out a sound between a shriek and a bark. (Translation: The noise level is really getting to me.) I grabbed my purse and gently prompted Willie toward the door while everyone else gathered their things. As we stepped onto the sidewalk, Willie looked better immediately, and seemed to regain his equanimity. Even so, I was on edge. The visit had been going so well. I’d been lulled into forgetting about challenging behaviors, but there on the sidewalk, I remembered. 

In the afternoon, we walked for another hour through a neighborhood of historic homes. Willie repeated the same questions; we tried to help, but I could tell he wasn’t doing well. And then, as we came to a crossroads, he lost it. He kicked a nearby tree, bit his shoulder, and tried to strike both our parents. (Fortunately, he didn’t succeed.) Our parents handled it, and no one was hurt. 

My husband held my hand; together, we waited it out. It was hard to stay present—everything in me wanted to run away—but even so, I gave it my best shot. (After all, if I expect Willie to maintain calm behavior, the least I can do is attempt the same.) I reminded myself to breathe, to hold on to that which I know is true. Yet I also felt myself numbing out, trying to avoid feeling the grief, frustration, and yes, embarrassment (we were in the middle of a residential neighborhood at the time, with pedestrians nearby). 

Afterward, I felt shaky. My mind whirred, trying to think of ways in which the meltdown could have been prevented. What if Willie had had his headphones at lunch, in the noisy cafe? What if we’d chosen to rest instead of going for another walk? But I heard a dear friend’s voice in my mind; I remembered her telling me, “It’s not your fault,” when it came to Willie’s meltdowns. I held to that, and was able to forgive Willie before he apologized. 

When we arrived home, he sat on our front porch and wept; we brought out the tissues and water bottles. Our neighbors’ wind chimes rang; it was a beautiful afternoon, and that helped wash away the ugliness of the meltdown. After a time, I could tell that the storm had passed. 

That evening, we met for supper at a restaurant downtown. Willie had his headphones on, and we shared a delicious meal. But then, as our plates were cleared away, I saw silent tears running down my brother’s cheeks. The sight took me entirely by surprise. “Willie, honey, what is it? What’s wrong?” I exclaimed, kneeling by his chair and putting my arm around him. 

“I kicked the trees,” he said, his voice mournful. He always weeps right after a meltdown, but to see him crying hours later was unusual. And even at the time, I was impressed by what a clear, direct statement he’d made, how he’d effectively summed up the reason for his sadness. I noticed, and was proud of him. 

“It’s OK, Willie,” I said, and meant it. I lay my head on his shoulder; he put his head gently on top of mine. Conscious of his need for space, I pulled away after a moment, but he kept his head bent toward me; a rare gesture, as though he wanted to stay close.