Overhearing one’s parents fight is among the most terrifying things in the world for a child (and for a teenager, and for an adult, too). My brother and I have been very fortunate in this regard; our parents love one another and have stayed together through difficult times. But they’re human. They’ve had moments.

I can remember waking up in the night and hearing the argument. I was maybe 16 at the time. Somehow, being awakened by my mom and dad fighting was worse than being awakened by Willie having a meltdown. By then, I expected Willie to have meltdowns in the middle of the night. I didn’t expect to hear my parents yelling.

I tried to coax myself back to sleep, but instead, I found myself creeping to the top of the stairs. My heart was pounding. Like most teenagers, I had friends whose parents had divorced. And despite my youthful idealism, I was beginning to have a sense for how fragile our bonds can be, especially in times of extreme stress and tension. Especially for parents of individuals with special needs. Especially if those individuals have severe behavioral difficulties.

Yet my parents weren’t arguing about me or my brother that night (though I might have missed an earlier part of the dialogue). Instead, my mom was upset because she wasn’t feeling loved during that difficult time, and my dad was frustrated because he felt he was giving all he had to give, and that it wasn’t being received.

Back and forth they went, hurt and hopelessness in their voices. I felt my heart speed up. I knew they loved each other, but that night, the love wasn’t coming through. I was terrified that it wouldn’t come through.

And then my father said something that has stayed with me since. My mom was saying that she didn’t know if my dad loved her anymore.

As she said it, a wind of desolation swept through me. The love between my parents was an invisible, integral foundation I’d stood on for my entire life. Hearing it questioned that way was like an earthquake; it shook something deep inside of me.

But before she could say anything more, my dad interrupted her. With anger and force in his voice, he said, “…but of course I love you! How could you even say that?!”

As a teenager, it seemed strange to hear someone say I love you with such frustration, but as an adult, I can understand it better. I can understand that there are times when you are feeling lonely and scared and ticked through the roof at the one you love, and the best you can do is to try to speak the truth with honest kindness in the midst of it.

At times like these, fighting right can be constructive. It can be a way of persisting in love and resisting complacent disconnection. And communicating one’s fears and loneliness is a sign of trust in a relationship, a sign of hope amidst difficulty… just as saying I love you when you’re angry is better than not saying it at all.


Soon after, I heard something stranger still: my mom’s laughter, and then my dad’s. Something my dad had said made my mom crack up. Once laughter arose, they were given the grace to see both the reality of one another’s hurt feelings and the end of their argument. I heard them reconcile, and felt my heartbeat return to normal.

And in that moment I remembered something my mother had told me. When I’d asked her, “How did you know that Dad was the one for you?”, she’d said, “Well, he could always make me laugh.”

At the time, it didn’t seem like a good enough reason. Nowadays, I see that laughter can restore sanity in an insane situation. And I agree with Reinhold Niebuhr when he wrote, “Laughter is the highest form of prayer.”


How might you choose to let laughter into your life this week?

Tell me in the comments!

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  1. Cathy K February 20, 2012 at 3:38 PM - Reply

    Beautiful Caroline! Thank you for sharing such insight into what really makes relationships work. I’m a big fan of Imago therapy (www.gettingtheloveyouwant.com) and as a licensed social worker, I’m working on training to lead Imago couples workshops for special needs parents through Autism Home Rescue– because it really is all about “opening the door of our hearts just a crack” so grace can come in.

    Oh– and the “story behind the name” — I get it. Willie and Alex would probably be able to have the funniest word-changing conversations. I bet they’d make each other laugh in amazing ways!

    All best wishes as ever,

    • Caroline McGraw February 20, 2012 at 3:49 PM - Reply

      Thank you, Cathy! I really appreciate that affirmation. And yes, I agree – Willie and Alex would likely make a great comedic team. 😉

  2. Harriet Cabelly February 20, 2012 at 5:52 PM - Reply

    Once again a magnificient piece.
    Grace is the good that comes through our difficulty/struggle; some sprouting bud that peeks its head through the dirt.
    You are fortunate to have your parent’s wonderful relationship as a role model and solid core foundation of stability, goodness and Love.

    • Caroline McGraw February 20, 2012 at 6:36 PM - Reply

      Fortunate indeed; thank you, Harriet! I had to muster courage to share this story, but am so glad I did.

  3. Donna February 20, 2012 at 6:31 PM - Reply

    Very well done! I have thanked God for the blessing of Willie’s sense of humor and the good that laughter has done our family…and of course our “family hug”!

  4. Tara February 20, 2012 at 9:47 PM - Reply

    This post made me think of my own “moments at the top of the steps” growing up — they were very different — and, more recently, my husband and I. There was a time when my journey made no sense to him and I was so scared, I so badly wanted him to say, “I get it.” Instead, much like your father, he just told me he loved me (with tears and frustration) and it was so genuine that the need for him to “get it” didn’t matter so much any more.
    You seem to have a wonderful and very supportive family. A blessing, indeed.

    • Caroline McGraw February 20, 2012 at 10:23 PM - Reply

      Beautifully said, Tara. And I loved this quote from your last post: “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” – Mister Rogers

  5. Dawn February 20, 2012 at 11:25 PM - Reply

    I came across your blog from another site that you were on today. ( a friend had posted to FB). I really enjoyed your post….so open and honest. I will be back to read more:)

  6. Metod February 22, 2012 at 12:44 AM - Reply

    Caroline, it’s so wonderful to see your family pulling all together with enduring love…against those difficult moments. The picture says it all.

    Seems like Willie knew how to restore the balance with his quirky sense of humor…and even inspire you for a cool blog name 🙂

    • Caroline McGraw February 22, 2012 at 3:28 AM - Reply

      You said it, Metod! Thank you – and yes, I couldn’t have done it without him! 😉

  7. […] it’s true that my parents are my heroes, and that they’re primarily responsible for my brother Willie’s care, it’s also […]

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