Sweet Home Alabama
I woke up today thinking about the many small choices that add up to the larger whole that is my “Leaving Normal” life. At present, I'm a self-employed writer living in a small town. As I consider the decisions that brought me to this point, it's clear that my brother Willie has played a major role in many of them.
First, I chose to spend a year living at L'Arche Greater Washington because I wanted to learn how to love and accept my brother. (L'Arche is a faith-based non-profit where people with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities share life together in community.) My “year of service” led to a five-year commitment to the community, and the experience gave me a good sense of what life can be like for people with special needs who are receiving individual-specific supports within the context of community. In “It Takes a Village,” my AA16 colleague Julie van der Poel noted, “If I’ve learned anything on our [Transition] path so far, it’s that you will need help from various villagers …. The transition path isn’t clear cut, and many hands make light work. Fortunately, most of the villagers along the way are friendly and helpful in countless ways.” I wholeheartedly agree.
Next, my husband and I recently chose to leave Washington, DC and move to a small town in Alabama. We made this decision for practical reasons (such as the significantly lower cost of living), but for relational ones as well. In Washington, we were working long hours, and we barely saw one another during the workweek. When we did spend time together on the weekend, one (or both) of us was always too exhausted to do much. I wanted more for our marriage “in the now,”and in the future as well. During that time, I also remember thinking, “I can't imagine needing to provide care for another family member while we're living like this.” The idea of having a child, the thought of someday supporting my brother … these weren't just overwhelming possibilities. They were impossible given the constraints (and associated costs) of our lifestyle. And I knew that some form of family caregiving—be it for young children, aging parents, or a sibling with special needs—would probably become a part of our life at some point. This being the case, we decided to make a big move, for the sake of our current and future relationships.
Finally, our historic home contains three apartments; we live in one and rent out the other two. We've chosen to “live lightly” in a space that meets our needs (and is much roomier than the tiny studios we rented in Washington). And it's been in the back of my mind that, should Willie ever need to come and live with us, we'd have the possibility of offering him his own apartment. Our home lends itself to the idea that Willie could have some degree of daily life independence while receiving practical and relational supports. To be sure, providing care for Willie would be a major change, one that would require a great deal of communal support. Even so, it reassures me to know that our home could facilitate a life of dignity for my brother.
Finally, the flexibility of my work allows me to take more time to care for others, and to care for myself as well. For example, I help out at the local yoga studio, go for morning walks around the neighborhood, and hike with my husband on the weekends. In slowing down and spending time in nature, I can relate to AA16 columnist Benjamin Kellogg's reflection: “Sunsets are a common event in my life, but now I truly appreciate them. I am continually amazed by how beautiful, moving, and meaningful each one is to me.”
I don't know if I'll ever need to become Willie's full-time caregiver, but I endeavor to prepare for that possibility. I've had to listen to the rhythm of what was most important to me, and make decisions accordingly. And, ironically enough, the choices that I've made out of love for Willie have been the ones that have most nourished me.