May 29, 2014 0 Share

Arts and Letters


"United through Colors," notecard artwork by Jorge Yances.
Photo by Caroline McGraw

If I want to have a good relationship with my brother, I'm going to have to be the one to reach out. I accepted that a long time ago. As soon as I moved away for college, it was clear to me: Willie wouldn't pick up the phone or the pen unless I did so first. For years, I assumed that was the only way it would ever be. I know my brother loves me, but I thought I had to take the lead when it came to keeping in touch. And when I left my role as a caregiver for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, the pattern continued. If I wanted a long-distance relationship with my friends, I needed to remember birthdays, and send cards, and pick up the phone. Now, however, the times are changing. I've received a delightfully unexpected letter from one of my former housemates, and my brother is sending epistles every week. True, Willie's being prompted by the goal on his IEP, by the support workers at his program … but he's also taking initiative. According to our Mom, he's keeping in touch more often than dictated by the goal. 

I'm on the receiving end of letters from home, and it has allowed me to see the belief that I always had to initiate contact for what it was: an incorrect assumption. Perhaps it was true in the past, when Willie's behavior was out of control. But now he's fully capable of maintaining a long-distance friendship with his sister. And is it so surprising that letter-writing works well for us? With letters, there's time to think and measure one's response. There's a greater sense of control than in an in-person conversation. According to Lord Byron, “Letter writing is the only device for combining solitude with good company.” This sounds perfect for an introverted writer and a young man on the autism spectrum. Willie and I exchange letters, and it suits us both. His latest letter read: 

Dear Caroline, 

I had a good day at [my day program]. I did x-rays, math, word search, word scrambler, and I ate lunch with JP and Todd. 

Love, Willie 

P.S. Thank you for the photo album [a birthday present]. I like it!! Thank you my favorite sister. (My only sister.) Ha! 

He's answered a question I asked in my last letter (“What are the names of the friends with whom you eat lunch?”) and I can't help but feel proud of him for it.

“He's been writing to you a lot,” Mom says during a recent phone call. “Granted, it's pretty much always the same thing, but hey, that's OK—he's writing.” 

I smile and say, “Yes, he sure is.” I know she's been helping him out a bit with the wording—the “Ha!” in the postscript is definitely Mom's syntax, not Willie's—but I don't mind. 

Mom and I chat on the phone for a bit longer; then, she says, “Oh, I wanted to tell you … I was able to visit the new day support program I told you about!” 

“You did?!” I exclaim. “How was it?” 

“It was wonderful,” she says, vividly describing the rooms, the program founder, the student artwork. And then: “Willie's going to attend for a two-hour trial period later this week … I'm nervous,” she admits. 

“Oh, me too … but wow, Mom!” I say. “This is really exciting!” 

I try not to get my hopes up … but it's too late. I'm already buoyant. Even if this program doesn't work out, it's still a sign of progress. And the fact that Willie is going to visit tells me that he has options, that he's moving forward. 

After Mom and I hang up, I go to my desk. It's time to reply to Willie's letter, and I know just the stationary to use. After I gave a keynote presentation at a sibling conference, I received cards decorated by artists from a disability support program. The colors are brilliant, swirling together. I scan the surrealistic scene, spotting a tree, two suns, and stars. And I think to myself: Willie might do something like this soon. What a wonderful world.