Jan 17, 2013 0 Share

Territory of the Heart


Photo by Caroline McGraw

It was 10:00 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, and I was in tears. Words failed as I tried to explain what was going on. My husband and I had planned a quiet evening, complete with a movie; neither of us wanted to go out. But as I stood in our den trying to pick up clutter, my husband encouraged me to let him deal with the mess later. The idea of ringing in the New Year without tidying up didn’t sit well with me; I was struck by an overwhelming sense of, “This isn’t what I wanted for tonight!” But even so, I couldn’t articulate what I did want for the evening. Given that he hasn’t perfected his mind-reading capabilities, my husband was (understandably) confused. In turn, I felt frustrated with him and especially with myself. 

In hindsight, of course, everything was clear: I wanted a “special” evening, one in which the room reflected the fact that it was New Year’s Eve. (Our surroundings really do matter, and we are more sensitive to changes in our environments than we realize.) Of course, it would have been helpful if I’d realized this earlier. If I had planned ahead and communicated with my husband, we might have made the space cozier and more inviting in time for the holiday. 

But sometimes you don’t know what you need until you don’t have it, and that was the case for me. The depth of my desire for order struck me with unexpected force. Yet even this wasn’t the main issue; the real need was for relationship. I was missing my family and friends on New Year’s Eve, feeling lonely and isolated after a vacation filled with connection. 

In times like these—moments in which I fail to fully understand my own desires and motives, much less articulate them—I can understand more about what life must be like on for my younger brother, Willie. Willie is on the autism spectrum, and he has strong verbal skills. However, he struggles to form a response when posed questions that deal with motivation or interior life. 

For example, if I were to say, “When you were watching TV downstairs, I heard a crash. Did you throw something against the wall?” he might reply, “Yes. I got angry!” (One of Willie’s braver qualities is that he usually doesn’t try to “cover up” when he has made a mistake.) However, if I were to follow up and ask, “Why were you angry, Willie?” he’d likely say, “Because … I was angry!” (This would, in turn, make me feel like throwing something against a wall!) 

Asking, “What made you feel angry?” sometimes elicits a clearer response; Willie can occasionally point out triggers such as, “The shark in The Little Mermaid,” or, “That dog barking.” But most of the time, we don’t know what sets Willie off. We can be watchful, but we can’t experience the world in the same way that he does. And that, ultimately, is the greatest challenge of being in relationships … not only with individuals on the spectrum, but with anyone. Given that, perhaps the best gift we can give one another is grace, and the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps the best we can do is listen, in the deepest sense of the word, for the needs beneath the behaviors. 

In any case, that’s the gift I received from my husband on New Year’s Eve. He stayed with me as I struggled with feelings of loneliness, and his presence helped dispel them. And so, despite the bumpy start, our evening ended beautifully. We recounted joyful memories and danced to “our song” at midnight. This New Year’s Eve, I got what I needed most, and it wasn’t an organized room. It was real love, the kind that is willing to enter into the territory of the heart, those vast, unknown canyons of need. The experience reminded me of how important it is to stay present to my brother in times when his behavior seems inexplicable. After all, having someone stay with me when I couldn’t understand myself made all the difference. Thanks to my husband, I rang in 2013 filled with hope and gratitude.