Sep 14, 2011 0 Share

Footsteps of a Stranger

Fingers on piano keyboard.

Upon traveling to my parents’ home last weekend, I seized the opportunity to listen in on my brother Willie’s weekly piano lesson.

The fact that Willie takes piano lessons is a victory. A few years ago, his behavior was out of control, and we questioned whether or not he could continue to live at home. Yet despite the doubt and discouragement of those years, the lesson allowed me to see: he’s made tremendous progress.

Though Willie has always had a talent for music, lessons have taught him to read notes and play complete pieces. Moreover, lessons have helped him to cultivate the self-control necessary for practice. 

Perhaps it was because I had miracles on my mind. Yet whatever the reason, I felt a moment of magic arise as I watched the lesson.

Willie was playing “Colors of the Wind,” the theme from Pocahontas. The sun was setting, and the windows of the piano teacher's living room were letting in all the light.

Though Willie wasn't singing, I could hear the lyrics as he played:

You think the only people who are people/Are the people who look and think like you./But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger/You'll learn things you never knew you never knew.

As those words ran through my mind, I said a silent prayer of gratitude: for Willie, who does not think like me. For Willie, because being his sister has taught me what I needed to learn: the importance of acceptance, the wisdom of empathy, and the rightness of celebrating people exactly as they are.

Those lessons hit home for me last year, when Willie spent a week at a respite home for the first time. While my parents were looking forward to spending their 25th wedding anniversary in Bermuda, they were apprehensive about traveling without Willie for the first time in a decade. Since phone service would be difficult to come by, they asked me if I'd check in with my brother each day. Naturally, I agreed.

Those daily phone calls made for a strange but memorable week. Willie would stay on the phone for only about two minutes, but those two minutes became more meaningful each time.

When I picked up the phone to call him, I was always afraid that something would be wrong. I was afraid that he would be struggling and that I wouldn’t know how to help. Or worse, that he would be having a hard time and I wouldn’t know about it.

Though I imagined horrible scenarios, Willie actually did very well at respite. I felt proud of him and of my parents, who had to summon bravery to offer him the dignity of risk.

Every time I picked up the phone to dial, I felt my throat tightening; my younger brother was “on his own.” But every time, I also had the sense that it was the right step toward maturity, the right thing for him to be doing as a young adult.

This was the context for my lesson in celebration: my parents' anniversary falls the week before my birthday. As such, Willie instituted an unprompted countdown.

Every evening, I'd say, "Hi Willie, how are you?" and he'd reply, "Hello Caroline! It's [number] days until Caroline's birthday!" At which point I'd gently remind him: "You can say 'your birthday', honey." So he'd repeat, "Until your birthday."

My brother may never say to me, “I’m glad you’re my sister,” or even, “It’s nice having you around." But he will probably count down the days until my birthday again next year. And that small celebration will be the best gift he could possibly give to me.

Why does that small remembrance carry such significance?

Because when I imagine Willie counting down the days until my birthday, I get the same feeling I had in that sun-filled living room, listening to him play.

It’s the sense that I’ve only just begun to appreciate the mystery that is my only sibling. It’s the feeling that his expressions of love, enigmatic as they may be, are infinitely valuable. It’s the belief that maybe, just maybe, that love will be enough to carry us through.