A Song for You
At present, I’m not a parent. I don’t have a son or daughter of my own, but if ever I do, I have a very specific item at the top of my parenting to-do list. Be forewarned—it’s not practical. It’s not about cloth diapers or nursery decorating or party planning or anything like that. It’s simply this: Write that child a song. The reason I feel so strongly about this is that my mother sang “my song” for me. And I remember how it used to make me feel: protected, cherished, beloved. When I was older, I would trace the lines as I read them in my baby book. My mother’s distinctive half-print, half-cursive script read: “Caroline, Caroline/ Oh that little girl of mine/ From the start, you stole my heart/ and oh, I love you, Caroline … ”
When my younger brother Willie was born, my mother wrote a song for him too. It was simple and easy to remember, like mine. “Little Willie, my sweet Will/ Close your eyes, be sleeping still/ Mother, father, sister too/ Send their love, sweet dreams to you.” As I recall, I wasn’t jealous of the fact that my brother also had a song. On the contrary, Willie's song was immensely reassuring.
When my brother was diagnosed with autism, I was too young to fully understand what the word meant. All I knew was that something was different about Willie. I knew that he wasn't like other children I'd meet, and that our parents needed to spend extra time working with him on various therapies. I knew that he loved order and lining things up, and that he hated loud noises. As I grew older, I came to understand more about autism, and my brother's ways of thinking and being. Yet listening to my brother's song served to remind me that we shared a common core. With or without autism, we were—are—welcomed with love.
These songs might seem like small things, but they were significant. As we grew beyond childhood, our songs weren't woven into the fabric of our daily life. On the contrary, our mother was selective. She would save our songs for times when Willie and I were most in need of reassurance. When I was teased at school, when I grieved my brother’s difficulties, when Willie was too upset to fall asleep at night … these simple songs were the music I heard. As time passed, she’d sing them less and less, but whenever she did, I knew what they meant. Between the lines, they told us: You have always been loved. And nothing can change that.
As a young adult, I used to think that maybe I was weak for needing that reassurance, that the songs were too simple, childish maybe. But as an adult, I have learned the difference between childish and childlike. And I have come to see that the simple solutions are often the best ones. (Getting a dog, for example, is such an everyday decision, and yet having Chevy in the house has already helped Willie.) And when I try to “figure out” autism with my mind alone, I get overwhelmed fast. The questions I really ask, the answers I really need, are those that come from the heart.
And I have a feeling it's the same way for Willie. These are the questions he asks with his actions, his tears after a meltdown: Am I loved, even though I've done these unlovable things I wish I could take back? When I hear the songs our mother wrote, I also hear the answer: You are. And nothing can change that.
Of course, there’s more than one way to show such love. Our mother wrote us songs, but our father suggested our names. My brother is the third William in our family; he’s named for our father and grandfather, and his name means, “Protector.” It speaks to me of solidarity, of heritage, connectedness, and honor. And me? I could have been a Caitlin or a Mary Louise, but my father insisted on Caroline. The name comes from the French word for Carol: A Song of Joy.