Dec 08, 2011 0 Share

Lessons from a Respite Weekend


Magnetic letters on carpet with toy figures.
Photo by Donna Fischer

My brother is spending this December weekend at respite, and as his older sister, I can't help but worry. Will he be all right? Will he hurt himself, or someone else? Will my fears become reality? Will he enjoy the time spent away, or will he feel lonely? 

Even though, deep down, I know that Willie is ready to spend respite weekends away from home, the thought of him doing so still makes me nervous. It makes me feel like calling and checking in … at a reasonable frequency, of course. (Just every hour or so.) No matter that Willie is an adult, nearly 25 years old. He's still my younger brother, and I still feel protective. I suspect that I always will. 

Willie's been to respite weekends before; in fact, he even spent a week at respite when my parents went on an anniversary cruise. During that week, I talked with Willie every day. It was a sweet, strange time. I felt apprehensive, and simultaneously, so proud of him. 

Here's the thing about Willie's respite weekends: They show me my own weakness. They show me my own fear, and they give me a taste of what it means to let go and let my brother live his own life. To give Willie the dignity of risk, to let him try his wings away from home for a little while. Most often, he does beautifully. It's me (and, at times, my parents) who need help. Ironically enough, when Willie goes away, we are the ones who need help. 

These days, respite weekends are analogous to my experience of going for a walk or bike ride with Willie; they are akin to that moment when he manages to get so far ahead of me that I can't see him anymore. I know he's there, just around the next corner, but that span of time when he’s out of sight is always slightly terrifying. 

This respite weekend also calls to mind a small moment from our childhood, one that I remember with a smile. When Willie was eight years old, Disney released the animated film “Pocahontas.” My brother and I, like so many other children, were entranced. We showed our admiration in our own ways:  I practiced singing, “Colors of the Wind” with my cousin, and Willie watched the movie repeatedly, memorizing the dialogue. 

One day, though, Willie went a step further. He woke up early, ran downstairs and gathered all of the magnetic alphabet letters from our family refrigerator. After that, he laid the letters out on the living room rug to spell out the names of three of the film's characters:  John Smith, Governor Ratcliffe, and Percy. (Percy is Governor Ratcliffe's dog.) For a final flourish, Willie positioned his toy figurines of each character beside their names. He didn't tell anyone what he had done, but left the display on the living room rug for us to find. 

My mother was so proud that she captured Willie's work in a photograph, which still sits in an album on our coffee table today. It's become a family favorite. And when I look at that photograph today, I can see not only that it was a great accomplishment for Willie at the time, but that the individuals he chose to focus on were all explorers … even Percy, the dog. All three left their homeland to discover something new. 

This holiday, I'd like to give Willie the gift of attention, and also, the gift of freedom. The freedom to bike on ahead. The freedom to spend weekends away. The freedom to grow up, and become the creative, courageous explorer he was always meant to be.