I had not planned on taking a 10-day summer vacation with Chris, my developmentally disabled brother, but when my aunt Janice invited us to her mountain house in the Adirondacks, I thought, “Why not?”

When we learned that Chris’s roommate and best friend, Arthur, shared that his hope for a summer vacation was just a meager weekend off from work, Janice included him the family plans.

Since the rather sudden deaths of our parents over the last two years, I thought this would be an opportunity to get to know Chris and Arthur better. My last week-long vacation with Chris was when we were kids in the early 1970s, so I reflected on what type of vacation did I want to have now that we’re both adults.

I decided that I would treat Chris as my equal, and use “I language” to give feedback and make requests. I was sure there would be some disputes—as there are when you go on vacation with anyone. But I was not expecting was how transformative and healing the experience would be for both of us.

Chris and Arthur are clients of The ARC Baltimore, so I used the ARC’s model of sharing the expenses with Chris and Arthur. They were responsible for part of the costs of the trip–the train tickets and some meals. They also had options to pick a few special events for fun.

After an early train trip from Baltimore, Chris and Artie took a break at my apartment. Later we ventured out to celebrate Arthur’s birthday and see a performance by the world-famous Blue Man Group. The guys enjoyed wandering around the East Village where we negotiated for a new straw hat for Arthur, enjoyed an al fresco Italian dinner, pushed around a ten-foot-high cube sculpture, and met a couple of blue guys!

Blue Man Group is a musical improvisation show with no dialog, featuring actors painted in bright blue makeup. The guys especially loved the scene where the actors chewed up a whole box of Cheerios, then spit it out to create a work of art!

During lunch on Sunday, Chris started talking a lot about our late parents and other family members. I interrupted him and said with empathy, “Chris, when you talk about other people who are not here, I don’t feel included. And, some of it we have heard many times about our late parents.”

I asked Arthur how he felt, and he said, “Chris, sometimes you are a broken record talking about the same thing over and over. And, when you talk about people who are not here, the conversation feels lopsided.”  Wow, I was taken aback by Artie’s insightfulness.

I looked at Chris and asked if he understood, and he said he did. Arthur and I made a request that Chris keep it short when talking about our deceased parents or other people and focus on the here and now. Chris did listen more and talk less about our late parents. Hmm…

On Monday we got up early to begin the seven-hour drive to the Adirondacks. I gave the guys two rules – no talking to me while I am driving so I can focus on the road and get us there safely. I told them we would be taking breaks every one-and-a-half to two hours.

When Chris started asking questions about how long the drive would take, or mumbled things that were difficult to understand, I playfully asked him to stop. It happened many times, so I was getting annoyed. After the long car ride, I realized that spending a week with Chris was going to be more challenging than I had planned.

Chris has adopted our late father, Richard’s bad habit of constantly talking AT people. While I loved my father, it was a struggle to spend time with him. I had given him feedback to listen better for over 20 years—with little success. The anger I had towards my father would leap out of my mouth every time I visited, until we would come to a truce. The typical conversation with Richard would resemble the following, “Richard, I need to interrupt you as I don’t feel like you are listening.” Then Richard would get angry that I interrupted him. Then, I would swear at him and he would ask me not to swear. I would say, “I will stop swearing when you start listening. Deal?” He would grumble, and we would both usually walk away angry.

I realized that Chris’s ability to “talk the paint off the walls” was pushing my buttons. I would need to balance providing tough love without becoming a bully. What were the chances that Chris would listen the feedback that Artie and I offered him? Chris is 56 years old and spent extensive periods of time with my father—talking AT each other for hours and enjoying it!

Tuesday, while walking in the woods, Chris talked endlessly. I stayed quiet. We returned to the house when it rained, and I sat in my room and did some writing. Chris came in and said, “I will leave you in peace…” So sweet. Chris does want to please. Who knows, maybe something is registering?

Later, we visited the The Wild Center (formerly called the Natural History Museum of the Adirondacks) and attended a brief lecture on otters. We watched them dive in and out of the water and learned that they are deadly predators. We took a short walk in the late afternoon and saw a variety of colorful birds—including my favorites: blue jays. We took “The Wild Walk” tour which included a giant 20-foot wide sculpture of a bird’s nest, set up high with vistas of the Adirondack peaks. The guys loved the views.

Then we found a “spider web,” which is a 20-foot web-like trampoline, filled with children bouncing up and down. I asked the guys if they wanted to jump in. Chris was hesitant, but then started laughing. The three of us started a game of tag and invited the kids to join us. Arthur jumped in, and at his height of 6 feet 2 inches, it only takes him a few steps to bound across the web! We ran, walked, fell down, got up, and kept laughing. We finally exhausted ourselves.

On the way back to the car, we kept our eyes peeled and spotted more blue jays. We were tired yet rejuvenated. Chris hugged me, saying he loves me and that he had a blast.

The next day we returned to The Wild Center. We walked the trail to the river and through the woods and were surprised to hear singing. Chris thought it sounded like a choir was singing in the middle of the woods and wanted to find out where it was coming from. To our pleasant surprise, it was a 15-minute iTunes walk with the most amazing choir piped in with speakers high on top of trees. We were told to walk slowly and listen to the music, so I asked the guys not to speak for 15 minutes. Chris mostly kept quiet and said once or twice that he liked the music—big progress for Chris. As we walked around the path, the singing echoed and flowed like the wind. It was a magical, spiritual feeling, like being transported to another place. We emerged in awe of the power of the forest.

At dinner that night, there was another tough conversation with Chris–he constantly changed the topic during dinner and he attempted to remove the food before people had finished. Chris’s monologue sounded like, “How long has that stuffed bear head been on the wall? Look – the dog is making a funny face… How old is this house?”

Arthur and I were just trying to have a conversation about the day’s events which was impossible. I told Chris that I was frustrated by his constant interruptions, to which he says he loves me. I wasn’t sure what to do. Part of me felt so angry at my late father for teaching Chris this bad habit, while another part felt sympathetic towards Chris, since no one ever told him how annoying he can be. Chris is so sweet, but he had to keep talking AT people, to relate to my late father.

I asked Arthur for his thoughts. He agreed that conversation with Chris can be challenging because he often doesn’t listen well. Arthur mentioned that Chris clears the table before Arthur finishes eating. I explained to Chris that it is rude to get up and take away things before others are finished. He listened and said he understands. The conversation became less lopsided over second helpings of my aunt’s amazing potato salad!

I kissed Chris goodnight and told him I love him, he did the same. After washing up, Chris is at my bedroom door. He said, “I love you and I want to be good friends. Let’s call each other once a week and have a good conversation. I want us to be better friends than the old buzzard (our late father). I want us to communicate the way dad did during the last few months of his life.”

My 87-year-old father apologized to me six months before he passed away. He shared deep regret for the many things he wished he had done differently as a parent. Our dad finally started listening with his head and heart. I started crying and Chris held me and said, “let it out.” I was beside myself and couldn’t believe this was all really happening.

We took another walk in the woods the next day. Chris chatted, but not like an endless broken record. Periodically, I asked him to be quiet and listen. Then he noticed unusual things – small fern trees growing, dead tree trunks that have become works of art, and the long-sloped cliff below which he imagined would be very dangerous if we slipped and fell down it!

At dinner Chris listened more, talked much less, and attempted to join the conversation. It felt very different. He was also very helpful cleaning up. Later, when we were saying good night, Chris said, “Let’s be good friends forever, better than the old buzzard.”

A feeling of warmth came over me as I feel Chris’s heart is healing mine. I too am softening.

On our drive home from the Adirondacks, Chris was quiet. I felt vindicated and smiled to myself. Because of Chris’s intellectual disability, I had looked at him more like a child. When I treat him like an adult, he starts acting more like one. I see Chris differently. He wants to be considered an equal, not just my disabled brother.

I left the vacation still in awe of Chris’s emotional intelligence, his sensitivity to the little things in life, more peaceful, and deeply inspired. This will be become a new family ritual and I can’t wait until next year!

 

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