Up on the Roof
Last year, my brother Willie spent a day with me at my studio apartment in Washington, DC. I’d offered to stay with him while my parents went to a wedding in Northern Virginia. Even though I'd been looking forward to our time, I felt apprehensive as well. I knew that the day might be difficult for him, and I was right.
When my family arrived, I could tell that Willie was tense. He seemed unsettled by the travel and the changes to his routine. So at first I tried, somewhat frantically, to entertain him. I brought out things he enjoys—books and word-searches—but my motivation was fear-based. I wanted to avoid confrontation. The thought of Willie having a meltdown in our tiny apartment scared me, even though my husband was present to help us.
Yet as the afternoon continued, I realized that fearfully entertaining him wasn't the way to go. Willie picks up on other people's energy; I’ve seen his behavior deteriorate quickly when he senses fear and anger. Likewise, I’ve seen him calm down when the person he’s with consciously tries to exude peacefulness. This being the case, I knew I needed to change my mindset.
With that in mind, I suggested that we head upstairs to the building's roof-deck. Though the day was overcast, I thought that sitting under the big sky would help Willie to stay calm. What I didn’t realize was that it would help me, too.
We sat on wrought-iron patio chairs and read our respective books. The skies continued to darken. As the storm neared, Willie started doing his deep-breathing exercises. In that moment, I realized that, though our struggles manifest themselves differently, both of us struggle with anxiety. Willie works to remain calm and avoid blowups; I work to remain peaceful and avoid a judgmental, controlling mindset.
These days, I have more and more moments of realization in which I see that my brother and I are two of a kind. He is a perfectionist with obsessive tendencies, just like me. I re-write my to-do list if it looks messy; Willie erases his math-problem mistakes so thoroughly that he wears out the pages of his homework. If he so much as doesn’t like the look of a number, he’ll erase and start again.
As we sat together on the roof-deck that day, I felt immense compassion for both of us. We were both trying so hard to be what one another needed, and somehow, the effort itself was a beautiful thing to witness. As I observed the scene in my mind, I thought: We two neurotic human beings are doing our best. We are trying, and that makes this day a success.
The rain eventually forced us downstairs, but we were able to sit together in the apartment, with minimal anxiety, until my parents arrived. And after we'd said our goodbyes, I wrote this verse:
We're sitting on the roof of my apartment
building when the light leaves us.
There are dark clouds above, darker
ones on the horizon. An ominous sky.
The wind picks up, and we set down
our respective reading, letting the pages flap.
Still we stay, staring out. When I feel
the first drops of rain on my arm,
we gather ourselves to go. There's
no hurry. Storms from without are nothing;
skies within, at last, are calm.
Sometimes I wonder whether or not my future life will involve caring for my brother on a daily basis. (My husband and I have agreed to be caregivers in the event that it becomes necessary.) If I do become “my brother's keeper," it will mean major changes for us both. But remembering that afternoon we spent together on the roof-deck gives me courage. It reminds me that, though both of us struggle with perfectionism, we don’t have to be perfect for each other. We just have to be human, to be ourselves. We just have to choose to walk through life together.