The French Lesson
Today is a gray day in Alabama, a day with the kind of dispiriting sky that makes me want to curl up and watch reality TV all day. But I know that doing so would not make me happy. On the contrary, I need to do something of value, and so I write. I tell the truth as best as I am able. True, there are days in which I don't want to create, to contribute. Likewise, though I care deeply about autism, there are days when I feel the burdensome weight of all that we don't know about it.
My brother Willie may not realize it, but thinking of him actually helps me through days like these. Why? Because these challenges are nothing compared to what Willie struggles with every day. My brother is an incredibly smart, hilarious young man who deals with self-injury and aggression. Moreover, he faces isolation and misunderstanding, as he usually can't communicate the reasons behind his behaviors. If I think that autism is “all too much” at times, what must he feel?
When the questions get too big and the answers seem too small, I call to mind a family vacation in Hilton Head last month. On the trip, there was a gathering in which I noticed my brother sitting to the side. This is typical for Willie. He'll sit with us for supper, but afterward, he'll dash off to be alone. The family understands; no one pressures Willie to stay when he needs to retreat. However, it's difficult to tell the difference between Willie needing time to unwind and Willie going off by himself because he doesn't have the words to ask someone else to be with him. And when I saw Willie by himself during this particular gathering, I had a hunch that he didn't want to be alone. I came over and sat beside Willie on the sofa. “What are you reading?” I asked.
“The illustrated French dictionary!” he exclaimed with enthusiasm.
“Oh, nice!” I said, meaning it. French is beautiful to me; I studied the language in school for nearly seven years for love of its lyricism. This being the case, I felt comfortable reading along. My brother turned the pages, stopping when he came to a listing of numbers, zero through 100. I felt a momentary flare of dread; he was going to read out every single number, wasn't he? This would take forever. The prospect of listening to Willie read those digits seemed dreadful. (In fact, it was the same sensation I felt this morning as I looked at the colorless sky.) It was a weighty, burdensome feeling, the belief that this page of numbers held no potential.
That day in Hilton Head, Willie did begin reciting numbers. But to my surprise, the recitation wasn't tedious … it was beautiful. Willie's voice was calm and soothing, and his accent was pitch-perfect. Listening to him pronounce each number with care and precision, I felt an unexpected peace arising within. Willie was doing his best to read to me in French, and I was doing my best to listen. And at the bottom of the page, a few larger numbers appeared. One thousand. Ten thousand. One hundred thousand. One million. As Willie recited these, a smile spread across his face. His expression seemed to say, “What outrageous figures!” Sensing his mood, I grinned too—imagine one million!
Just as one million seems indescribably large to Willie, autism can seem unfathomably daunting to me. Yet I can choose how I approach the subject. Will I dread that which I don't fully understand, or will I see the wonder—even the humor—in it? And so today, I ask myself: Will I approach autism with an attitude of defeat, or will I be open to the unexpected? Will I let myself get lost in abstract, fearful imaginings, or will I simply be present to my brother when he wants to share something with me? It's a constant choosing, and it isn't easy. But thanks to Willie, I know that, if I choose to listen, I just might be surprised by the beauty I hear.