One spring evening when I was 17 years old, I stood alone on a high school stage waiting for the music to begin. I was not nervous about performing to an auditorium full of my peers. I was not afraid that I would forget the words or that my voice would fail me as I sang the solo I’d chosen.
Instead my haunting worry was somewhere out in the darkened hall in front of me. My eyes searched the dimness, and then I heard it. A wild peal of laughter and the high, clear voice of my sister Margaret, the one with autism, echoing across the theater.
“Now you be quiet!” she yelled cheerfully, scolding herself, surely an echo of our mother’s quieter admonition.
My heart quailed within me as I waited for her voice to fade so I could begin. The moment stretched interminably. I waited for years.
You Can’t Be Shy When You Have a Sister Like Margaret
I was never the shy girl. You can’t be shy when explaining to a grade school friend why your older sister is lying on the living room floor spinning cushions in the air in time to the music and ignoring everyone. You can’t be reserved when convincing a police officer that your sister is not being flayed alive but is screaming because she’s lost a favorite empty soup packet that she liked to carry around. You can’t be quiet in cajoling the same sister, now a buxom woman and naked in the lobby of the community pool, to come back into the locker room to put her swimsuit on.
Big sister to my big sister, I was always bracing for Margaret’s next act.
On my own time, I was the life of the party. I loved the spotlight of the high school stage. Tipping the scale at 115 pounds in college, I was not shy of the beer bong or keg stand. I had to be pulled down off pub tables more than once during study abroad in England (where, in my defense, the song “Come on Eileen” was seeing a renaissance). I was the cheer-writer for my women’s ultimate frisbee team in grad school and could compose multi-versed songs with accompanying dance moves on the spot. At work I was funny, mouthy, unapologetic and unafraid. I traveled widely and was ready for anything. In between I still found myself called to speak for Margaret — leaping into the fray to defend or explain her to a world that didn’t understand.
Quiet Settled Over My Life
I was unprepared for what happened in our third decade. I got married, moved away, and didn’t have children. In the comforting routine of steady work and a stable marriage, I felt a quiet settle over my life. Out of that stillness crept the tale of what it had been like to grow up in Margaret’s shadow. Some of her hijinks were funny — like when she spanked the priest at Easter dinner. But mostly I had felt overwhelmed by frustration, sadness, and isolation as I helped raise her. I wrote down one story after another until I had a book about growing up with Margaret.
After it was published, I talked about our childhood together a lot. At bookstore readings and conferences, I explained how difficult it had been to feel responsible for her all the time. Strangers listened and applauded. They stood in line to shake my hand and wrote emails saying how much my stories moved them. It was gratifying to be heard, and my experiences felt more real written down on the page where I could see them.
But after a while, this tale grew tired and stale. It was then that a bald, unwelcome truth emerged — and I was unmasked to myself. It seemed possible that the fun, loud version of me was simply an attention-starved young girl. I wasn’t really game to say anything, try everything, go everywhere. In truth, all those years my sister’s needs trumped mine, I was some kind of Who down in Whoville shouting to be heard. Look how fun I am! Look what a good sister I am!
But those days were over. My sister had made a life for herself apart from me. Though her autism brought daily, unpredictable struggle to her life, she managed as well as she could. With some shame, I relinquished the idea that the accident of our birth order had made me some kind of hero. No one was asking me to speak for her anymore, and I grew quiet.
What Was Wrong With Me?
Things got a little weird then. At parties, I couldn’t think of anything to say, and no one seemed to noticed when I slipped out early. Work meetings I had led for years now left me sweating and dry-mouthed. The thought of raising my hand to make a comment at a conference caused my heart to hammer in my throat. People asked about my writing and I had nothing to say.
What was wrong with me, I wondered.
Then I read Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, and it was like a veil fell away.
“Some (introverts) fool even themselves,” she writes, “until some life event — a layoff, an empty nest, an inheritance that frees them to spend time as they like — jolts them into taking stock of their true natures.”
This new idea dawned then: Striving to be out in front of whatever wild thing Margaret might do next, I had been an accidental extrovert. My true nature was seated in the routines that had comforted me since I was a girl — reading, writing, and daydreaming in the woods. The more I opened the door to the idea, the more real it seemed. Then I stepped through, and there I was.
Now I Carry Silence Like a Gift
Hello, you, I said to my real, calmer self. I discovered the sweetness of running alone in bird-filled woods with my dog. I felt giddy when I snuck out of parties or missed them altogether. The silence in me grew, and I carried it like a gift. Some friendships faded. Others blossomed in the space created by less noise. I was calmer around Margaret too, who prefers not to talk much, and my lower frequency was a kindness to us both. In the second half of my life, I was reborn to my birthright — attentive observer.
On a recent evening, I stood in front of the microphone at the local pub and waited for the music to begin. I was not nervous about singing to a room full of my peers. I was not afraid I would forget the words or that my voice would fail me. I am no longer putting on a desperate side show like the Wizard of Oz laid bare.
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Instead I feel a keen sense of gratitude for the life I have made for myself. It is a quiet one, and it belongs to me. Even in the spotlight of a stage, it is something I can inhabit with quiet intention. It’s a shell, it’s a circus tent, it’s a star-filled sky. It expands and contracts and has room enough for me to just be myself.
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