Nov 01, 2012 0 Share

Beyond Words

Illustration of two people talking, one with an icon-filled speech bubble.

“Is it time yet?” the filmmaker asked. “Not quite,” I replied. “He should be home in about a half an hour.” The filmmaker and I were waiting for my brother Willie to get home from work, so that we could shoot me having a phone conversation with him. I'd cleared the idea with my parents; now, it was just a matter of waiting for the right time to call home. While we waited, though, the filmmaker made a strange request: Could we shoot a pretend phone call before we shot the real one? 

At first, I thought: That will be quite the challenge. Imagining what the other person would say, when they'd say it, and how I would, realistically, respond? Doing all that while acting relaxed, as though the camera wasn't on me? Suddenly, I had a new appreciation for actors. But to my own surprise, I was able to act out the call. In just one take, I role-played a conversation with my mother and brother. Doing so gave me chills, because as I was timing my replies to their imagined speech, I could almost hear their voices in my mind. If I imagined them there, I could conjure their conversation. With Willie especially, it was easy to recollect our typical dialogue; we ask and answer so many of the same questions over and over each week. True, he sometimes surprises me with his replies, but for the most part, I can predict his answers to my questions. 

In a sense, my brother and I do follow a script when we speak on the phone; there are only so many concrete topics I can touch on with him before he loses interest in talking to me and hands the phone back to Mom. But is keeping to a “script” such a bad thing? No, especially if it helps him to practice his social skills … and especially if it allows us to have a relationship, a point of connection even though we're far apart. And if there's one thing that being Willie's sister has taught me, it's that words aren't everything. Much as I love words, he's helped me to see that sometimes, words are secondary. Our weekly calls are really about what runs beneath every word, every sentence, every second. And when I talked to Willie “for real,” our conversation followed its usual script … and it made me unusually happy. 

After filming had wrapped, I curled up and put on the latest episode of the TV show “Parenthood.” I love “Parenthood” for its depiction of Max Braverman (played by Max Burkholder), a young man with Asperger's, and his older sister Haddie (played by Sara Ramos). Though the fictional characters are different from Willie and me in many ways, their storylines often hit close to home for me. This week was no exception. In this episode, Max is running for student body president, gearing up for a speech on election day. Given that Max has refused to write down his speech, his family members are all concerned about the possibility that he might freeze up and forget what he's planned to say to the student body. Fortunately, Haddie  comes to the school to support him. 

As they wait together in the wings, Haddie encourages Max by listing his best qualities, including his remarkable tenacity. And she promises him that she'll be waiting in the wings to give him a thumbs up if he gets nervous during his speech. In characteristic Max fashion, he replies that he wouldn't get nervous, but lo and behold, just moments into his speech, he's glancing Haddie's way. She gives him the promised thumbs up … and suddenly, Max starts talking about his good qualities—like his tenacity—and how it's connected to his Asperger's. He tells the crowd of students that having Asperger's makes some things more difficult, but it also makes some things easier—like being tenacious and fighting for what he believes in. (And in this case, what Max believes is that every student should be able to buy food from vending machines.) 

Tears filled my eyes as I realized: He's speaking from his heart … and he's following the “script” that Haddie gave him.