Apr 24, 2014 0 Share

A Walk to Remember


Close-up of man and woman walking dog.
Thinkstock

It was a Sunday afternoon during my recent trip to New Jersey and I was spent. Understandably so; I'd given a keynote presentation at a conference in Tennessee on Friday, flown to Newark, and rose early on Saturday to serve as a bridesmaid in a family wedding. Fortunately, I had a game plan for survival, which I referred to as Operation Crash-Land. On Sunday, I resolved, I'd rest and do nothing. I'd stay in pajamas just as long as I liked. In pursuit of this mission, I spent a good portion of Sunday afternoon hiding in the guest room at my parents' house. Much as I wanted to stay hidden, though, I had to come out eventually. A family dinner was on the table, and my grandparents were visiting too. 

Ordinarily, I treasure time spent with far-flung family members, but on this particular day, I could barely muster enthusiasm. After a highly social weekend, my introverted self longed for peace and quiet. The thought of one more conversation—even with a beloved person—was exhausting. The only thing that sounded remotely appealing was companionable silence—being with someone without having to say a single word. So when I saw my brother Willie lacing up his sneakers to walk the family dog, Chevy, I jumped up to join them. I'm not one for spur-of-the-moment decisions, but I seized the opportunity. Quality time with Willie, with no need for dialogue? Count me in. 

Just as I'd hoped, Willie and I walked without words for 45 minutes. The experience proved soothing and restorative for both of us. Yet the walk also offered an unexpected gift: the opportunity to see how far Willie has come. Since I was far too tired to offer guidance and direction, I hung back and let my brother take the lead. As we took our first steps, I resolved not to speak unless I saw a genuine reason to do so. By keeping silence, I wanted to show Willie that I trusted him enough not to hover or micro-manage. Without words, I wanted to communicate. I wanted him to know that I wasn't there to instruct, him, but rather to witness his abilities. 

It's all too easy for our family to focus on Willie's difficult behaviors, agitation, and aggressive episodes. But I believe that if he is to gain strength to deal with those things, he needs people who believe in him. He needs others who don't deny the reality of his challenges, even as they see his capability, competence, and giftedness. 

Watching Willie guide Chevy, I remembered another time in which my perception of him had shifted. At the time, I'd just spent several months caring for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Seeing Willie through the lens of my caregiving experience offered a valuable new perspective. I'd been spending my days helping individuals shower and brush their teeth, so I could appreciate how much Willie did for himself. In fact, I was blown away by my brother's (relative) independence. How had I not seen it before? 

That Sunday, as we walked home through the fading light, my honest impression was that Willie has come a long way. Nowadays, he is quite capable of caring for Chevy on a walk. The only real contribution I made was to wave at people we passed, or say, “Oops, sorry!” if we had to squeeze by them on a narrow pathway. To be sure, Chevy didn't make it easy. He's a high-energy puppy, so he gave us plenty of excitement along the way. He wanted to pounce on every dog we passed, and at one point, he took off at a sprint after a well-hidden cat. (That was the second and last time I spoke aloud. I said, “I see, it's a cat!” to clue my brother in; from Willie's vantage point, he couldn't see what was driving Chevy crazy.) But even if I hadn't been there, even if I hadn't said a word, Willie would have been fine. He handled each minor crisis calmly.  

When we arrived back at home, I told my brother the simple truth: “Willie, you did a great job. I'm proud of you.”