May 15, 2014 0 Share

Letters from Home


Author reading a letter.
Photo by Jonathan McGraw

When my husband hands me the envelope, I smile as soon as I see it. My brother Willie's printing is distinctive; I know it at a glance, and I'm not surprised. Willie's latest IEP includes a goal to write letters to faraway family members, and as such, my envelope includes two notes. The letters are much the same, with few variations. The composite text reads as follows: 

Dear Caroline, 

I had a good day at [my day program]. I did x-rays, math word search, and word scrambler. I ate lunch with all of my friends. 

Love, Willie 

PS—Caroline, it's time to go to California next week, in San Diego for my birthday and [two family friends'] wedding. 

On the surface, his letters are simple and straightforward. Yet I'm sure that my fellow family members and siblings know exactly which line brings sudden tears to my eyes: I ate lunch with all my friends. 

It's hard to explain exactly why this sentence moves me to tears, but it had something to do with the profound ordinariness of the words. I ate lunch with all my friends is a typical statement for most young adults, one that many families hear and take for granted. But for those of us with “leaving normal” lives, it strikes straight to the heart. 

Willie has friends with whom to eat lunch. To me, that constitutes a miracle. After more than a decade of behavioral struggles, Willie has found some degree of stability and equilibrium. He participates in his day program on weekdays, and on nights and weekends he has a busier social calendar than I do, complete with bowling, weightlifting, piano lessons, and Special Olympics. Yes, he still has meltdowns. No, we don't know exactly what the future holds. Even so, reading my brother's matter-of-fact words is deeply reassuring. I ate lunch with all my friends. I've never heard that from my brother before. 

Willie's friendships may not look the same as mine, but that doesn't mean that they're less real or less valuable. My brother has his own way of making connections; that is, by engaging in activities side-by-side. If I want to connect with my brother, I won't start by asking him a dozen questions. Instead, I'll sit down and watch a video with him, ski down a mountain by his side, or accompany him on a walk with the family dog, Chevy. Conversations with Willie don't last long—he'll run off to play piano or watch videos once you've gone beyond a few sentences—and that's tough for someone who relies on verbal language as much as I do. So while I enjoy spending quality time with Willie, it can be difficult for me to “translate” that into a sense of connectedness. So when I opened his letters, I couldn't help but feel amazed; my brother was speaking to me in “my language” at last. 

What can I say? I'm a writer. The quickest way to my heart is through words. In fact, my favorite dreams are what I call “reading dreams.” In these dreams, I am reading an entire book, one that doesn't exist in the waking world. The process is almost indescribably joyful; I never want to stop, and as my eyes scan the pages, I keep thinking: This is amazing! This book is so great! Reading a dream-book is like reading all of my real-life favorites at once. Upon waking, however, I can't remember a thing about the content, only how the book made me feel: blessed beyond measure. 

On one hand, Willie's letters are nothing like the dream-books I adore. They aren't detailed or complex; they aren't literary masterpieces. Yet on the other hand, Willie's words leave me feeling just like I feel in those dreams: full to overflowing, reluctant to wake.  

With that in mind, I pick up a pen to write my brother back. I choose a greeting card with a bevy of starfish on the front. It's perfect for Willie, who's probably exploring Sea World with our parents as I scribble. My sentences are simple; my syntax is basic. Nevertheless, it feels like the most important work I could possibly do.