Jun 14, 2012 0 Share

A Voicemail Serenade

Five heart-shaped telephone icons.

On the evening of my 27th  birthday, I came home to several voicemail messages, but one stood out above the rest. It was from my family, and as I hit play, I felt a wave of loneliness, despite the day I'd had. On my birthday, I'd spent time with wonderful friends and been blessed by their presence and generosity, yet there's something about hearing the voices of your family members that makes you feel (and grieve) the distance that separates you. 

The voicemail began with no introduction, save for the soft sound of my mother's voice counting in the background, “And one, two, three!” I knew what was coming next; it's a tradition in our family to call and sing happy birthday to one another. But I didn't expect such a swell of voices; it sounded like my parents had a whole choir and an orchestra backing them up as they sang. And then it hit me: My grandparents were there, singing along with my parents, and my brother Willie was singing and playing the piano to accompany them as well.  

They sang "Happy Birthday” together—sometimes on-pitch, sometimes not, but even the off-key moments were beautiful to me—and then each person spoke into the phone individually, saying, “Happy Birthday, Caroline!” in their own specific, heart-wrenching way. It was overwhelming, hearing their voices wish me well one by one, and yet, I never wanted it to end. I felt, paradoxically, like I was both farther away and closer to them than I'd ever been. 

And even though I couldn't see Willie playing the piano, I could picture him perfectly, and a swell of pride rose within me. I love that he can use his musical gifts to lead our family in song. I love that, in moments like these, he can be at the center of a celebration and play a vital role. 

Yet when I called my parents to say thank you the next day, I heard from our dad that Willie had had a difficult time that afternoon. He'd banged his head and lashed out with aggression at our mom when she was alone with him, before our dad had arrived home from work. My stomach drops when I hear accounts like that; even though Mom came through all right that time, there's always the fear that next time, she might not. Moreover, the trigger for Willie's rage that afternoon was, in fact, his piano; apparently, he'd been practicing a piece and grown increasingly frustrated that he couldn't get it right. We're two peas in a pod, my perfectionist brother and me, but how I wish he could give himself more grace, more room to make mistakes. 

So here is how things stand: My brother played me a beautiful serenade for my birthday … and he also hurt himself and tried to hurt our mom the next day. It's a difficult thing, to hold these two truths side-by-side, to accept both as the reality of where Willie is now. 

There's a part of me that feels guilty whenever I write about Willie's gifts, because doing so can feel like turning a blind eye to his difficulties. I don't want to negate or deny that Willie has significant behavioral challenges, which my parents have to manage and endure on a regular basis. And yet the capacity for celebrating Willie is essential to me; without it, I'm not sure I'd be able to bear the harder realities. My parents have told me that my stories help them, too. As such, I have to believe that I can—and must—do both: acknowledge Willie's struggles and rejoice in his victories. 

In a few short weeks, my husband and I will be moving from Washington, DC to a small town in Alabama, and we're looking forward to this new adventure. Even so, the knowledge that I'll be farther from my New Jersey-based family than ever before is another hard reality. Yet when I listen to my birthday voicemail, I cannot escape a deeper truth: That my family's song sings within me wherever I go … and Willie's the one carrying the tune.