Hilton Head, 2012

Once upon a time, I ran away from home. I ran in a very structured, organized, responsible sort of way, which is to say, I disguised the escape.


When my husband and I visited family last month, we spent time with my parents, brother, grandparents, and an aunt and uncle too. I’m blessed with a wonderful extended family, and I feel particularly close to this aunt and uncle. Why? Because I lived with them for a summer seven years ago.

When people asked me why I was staying with my extended family that summer, I had a list of answers ready. I wanted an adventure, a change of pace. I wanted to spend time with my aunt, uncle, and cousins. I was working to save money, and I’d found a job nearby.

Rarely did I mention the fact that, at the time, living with Willie had become nearly impossible. I don’t recall if I spent that summer away before or after he hurt me during an outburst, but I know that I didn’t feel safe with him at the time. Try as I might, I didn’t feel love for my brother. Fear consumed my heart.


Part of me felt intensely guilty about the choice. I felt like a bad daughter and a bad sister, for not coming home after my sophomore year at Vassar ended. But another part of me was so relieved to be someplace else, which made sense; I’d been physically and emotionally hurt by Willie’s behavior.

Cousins, Summer 2005

It was a good summer. I struggled with the guilt, and it was lonely sometimes, but it was also a restorative season. I wrote and went for runs everyday. I discovered that I enjoyed living simply, as I’d brought only a small number of personal belongings with me. And I felt connected to my aunt, uncle, and cousins in a way I never had before. We’d laugh and talk and take pictures and savor Wegmans pastries.

But in hindsight, the best thing about that summer was that living with my extended family actually helped me to accept and embrace my immediate family. Somewhere down the line, living with my aunt, uncle, and cousins calmed my frightened heart.

My family members taught me what I needed to know, just by being themselves. At the time, I hadn’t heard of L’Arche*, and I found it difficult not to judge Willie for his struggles. At the time, I tended to take his difficult behavior personally. I was angry with him when he acted out.

But that summer, I learned that every family struggles. My cousins and their parents weren’t dealing with autism, aggression, or self-injurious behavior, but they had challenges of their own. (And joys. And then more challenges.) They, too, were living this crazy thing called life.


When I ‘ran away’ in 2005, I also discovered that my parents’ home (tumultuous as it was) and my aunt and uncle’s home (which felt calm by comparison) had a key element in common. Quite simply, both homes were full of love. Real love.

My parents were doing their best to love both Willie and me. And in that season, loving their son meant keeping the faith. It meant letting him stay in their home even when it wasn’t easy to do so.

And in that season, loving me meant letting me go. With tears in their eyes, my parents let me make the choice I needed to make. They gave me no guilt trips; they didn’t imply that I was letting them down. Instead, they loved me enough to open their hands.

In turn, my extended family showed me mercy by offering a safe haven. They told me that I could live with them for as long as I needed to stay. And even as I judged myself for not being ‘strong enough’ to stay with my brother, they welcomed me and affirmed my gifts. (In fact, they still speak with awe about how I used to organize drawers and tidy rooms for fun.)

In all seriousness:  they were the hands that framed the risk of returning to my immediate family, and I can never thank them enough for that. That summer helped me gain perspective and begin to let go of being so afraid.

And against all odds, I returned home with love in my heart.


Who has offered you a safe haven? Join the conversation in the comments section!


*L’Arche is a faith-based, worldwide non-profit organization that creates homes where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together. I spent 5 years serving the DC community in various caregiving roles.

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  1. Gregory Lease October 8, 2012 at 8:20 PM - Reply

    Hi Caroline,

    Your sentence, “My family members taught me what I needed to know, just by being themselves,” struck a chord with me. I’m almost certain that you have said something very similar about your DC L’Arche family in one of your previous posts, or at least I have heard that in your writings. It’s amazing how God places us in just the places that we need to be to learn the lessons we require for healing and wholeness. Of course, we have to be in a receptive place as well, but I believe that there really is something to that old notion of Providence. We all get to play Jonah from time to time as we learn how to live this life, with all its ups and downs.

    Thank you once again for pulling back the curtains over your soul and letting us have a peek inside; it never fails to feed my heart.


    • Caroline McGraw October 8, 2012 at 10:24 PM - Reply

      Thank you, Greg! I’m so glad the post spoke out to you. It always feels a bit scary to share stories like this one, but as you say, in the end it’s a testament to “[being placed] in just the places that we need to be to learn the lessons we require for healing and wholeness.”

  2. Donna October 9, 2012 at 12:46 AM - Reply

    Hello Caroline!
    I am so glad that the summer away was helpful during the “crazy years” with Willie. So glad that your aunt and uncle have such open arms and hearts. So thankful that you bloomed in your replanted garden. It was the best decision at the time…the “door was open”, and I realized it too. And, thank you for sharing that story again…it shows the Creator’s care and concern.

    • Caroline McGraw October 10, 2012 at 1:35 PM - Reply

      Mom, thank you for that – it means so much to me. I love you!

  3. Brooke (Books Distilled) October 9, 2012 at 3:25 PM - Reply

    I remember this summer so well! And I didn’t fully understand why you made the choice you did…until now. I do remember that you had wine with breakfast on your birthday. And there was something about a turkey following your car. And the cash register at Children’s Place blew up. I think it was a summer of joy for you in many ways!

    • Caroline McGraw October 10, 2012 at 1:36 PM - Reply

      Yes! We had champagne! And oh my goodness, I’d forgotten the wild turkey that followed my car down the driveway. But I could never forget the register that blew up. 🙂 Thank you for being there for me, then and now!

  4. R October 9, 2012 at 5:36 PM - Reply


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