We're gathered around the table together for the first time, my family and my boyfriend. Jonathan is going to be my fiance in a matter of weeks, and we'll be married in a few months, but for now, he's just meeting my family.
I've chosen the restaurant strategically. My younger brother Willie has gluten, wheat and lactose intolerances, noise-aversion and other sensitivities, and a history of violent behavioral outbursts. In other words, the restaurant cannot be too fancy or too loud. Willie needs to be able to wear his noise-canceling headphones and order something familiar. The ideal restaurant is a casual family place, and that's where we are tonight. The lights are low, and since we're practically the only patrons, the restaurant is quiet. Willie will order a burger without the bun, I know, and he'll eat his fries first, like he always does. Willie always eats whatever food he likes best first. I always save the best for last.
Bringing a significant other to meet the family is always a bit of an intimidating process. In my case, however, I just hoped my brother wouldn't get upset and try to tackle my husband-to-be.
That unsettling scene did take place eventually, but not that night. What happened was as follows: I introduced my husband to my family, and then I watched as Willie's anxiety became our central focus. He didn't have a total meltdown, but it was clear that the day of travel had tested his patience to the max. Whenever my parents would ask Jonathan a question, he'd barely have time to answer before Willie would interrupt.
Willie kept asking for validation, for the same repeated answers to the same repeated questions. I could tell that he was trying to keep himself in control. His anxiety was contagious. I felt my stomach doing flip-flops, and I held my boyfriend's hand tightly. I wanted Willie to feel calm, and I wanted a semi-normal supper. Neither was in the cards that night.
As we walked away from the restaurant, I felt frustrated. I felt as though my parents hadn't had a good chance to get to know my husband, and vice versa. Willie's drama had taken center stage.
What I didn't realize then was that Willie had made a connection. From that time forward, my brother started including Jonathan in his prayers. Every night, he'd say, “Thank you God for heaven and for prayers and for my sister Caroline, and for Jonathan in Washington DC...” The first time I heard him say it, I felt a shiver run through me. In his own way, I knew, Willie was welcoming Jonathan into the family.
While I would have scripted our first supper differently, it seems that it was a step in the right direction regardless. Willie's prayers showed me that, as did Jonathan's willingness to include my brother in our future plans.
Soon after we were engaged, we discussed the fact that I've agreed to care for my brother in the event that my parents cannot. I spoke at length about what this might mean for us as a couple. I tried to be fair to Jonathan. I invited him into my commitment to my family, and I tried not to be afraid.
In the darkest parts of my mind, I feared that, somehow, my brother's high level of need would demand too much, that it would be a “deal-breaker”. Never mind that Jonathan and I had met while caring for people with intellectual disabilities together. Never mind that his patience amazed me every day. Never mind that we were, in many ways, an ideal pair to welcome someone like Willie into our (hypothetical) future life. Though all of these things were true, I was still afraid when I asked Jonathan, “Can we agree to care for Willie if he needs us?”
Jonathan listened calmly, and then he said, “Of course.” In that moment, I could see that there was never a doubt in his mind. His answer was always going to be yes. Yes to me, and yes to Willie. Yes to leaving normal.
And with that realization, I let the tears fall.