Jun 07, 2012 0 Share

We Learn by Going

Author with her brother asleep with his head on her shoulder.
Photo by Caroline McGraw

“It's too early,” I protest as I roll out of bed. I stumble through my morning routine, and before I know it, I am seated with my husband and the rest of our family on the top deck of a cross-island ferry, riding from one side of Bermuda to another. Bermuda isn't just one island, but an archipelago, and as such, ferries and buses combine to make up the public transit system. We're here on a weeklong cruise to celebrate my parents' 30th wedding anniversary and my grandparents' 60th. Early wakeup call aside, I know that this is a time for being together, and I try to keep my eyes open. But the warmth of the sun makes me sleepy, and it has the same effect on my brother Willie. When I glance over at him, he has fallen fast asleep in his seat next to me. He rests with his mouth open slightly, and seems totally content to doze in the thin plastic seat with people talking and laughing all around him. He has the gift of being able to drift into sleep just about anywhere when he's tired, and I envy it. 

But in just a few minutes, the ferry boat rocks, jolting Willie out of his light sleep. He shakes his head and wipes at his eyes, bleary. Still half-asleep, he mumbles the date of his 26th birthday, which is coming up in 2013. (No matter that his 25th birthday has only just passed; for Willie, there is always an ongoing countdown.) Inspired, I take my lightweight jacket and ball it up into a makeshift pillow, which I place on my shoulder. Willie needs no prompt; his head drops immediately to the jacket, and he falls back to sleep for a few more minutes. 

There is something enormously comforting in this gesture, the way in which we do not need to speak to understand one another's needs. The simple touch of Willie's head on my shoulder steadies me. I feel connected to my sibling, connected and calm. For all the times when I have not had what Willie needed—be that a calm presence, a greater understanding of his mind, or a solution to his behavioral challenges—in this moment, I do have what he needs. In this specific instant, I can offer him a peaceful place to rest. (And isn't that what we all want:  just a few more moments of respite, just a little more peace?) 

Yes, Willie will feel anxious on this trip. He will have one difficult night, as well as a few frustrated moments in the days ahead. But for this moment in time, he is resting, and so am I. And in addition to the stressful moments—the times when we will have to count out 10 deep breaths to help Willie to be calm—we will also have times of breathing easy. We will wade into crystal-blue water and search for treasured pieces of sea glass together. The sun will break through the clouds unexpectedly, and shards of glass will glimmer in the light. We will have neglected to apply sufficient sunscreen, and so we will get our perennially pale skin sunburned and look a little bit silly. 

We will not have a perfect family vacation, because there is no such thing. There will be times when Willie looks at me with confusion in his eyes; there will be times when I know we're both faking our smiles. Yet when I think of our time in Bermuda, I know I'll remember the moments of true connection. In remembering our vacation—as in remembering our life—everything that is not love eventually falls away. Everything that is love remains. 

As Willie falls asleep on my shoulder, the elegant opening lines of Theodore Roethke's poem, “The Waking” run through my mind: 

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

And I know it's true; Willie has taught me that much.