Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 - Advanced)
Topic: Sibling(s) (05/01/08)
TITLE: Crippled Heart
By Emily Gibson
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I was assigned to be a “big sister” to Michael. I was not happy about it. It was impossible to be popular when your constant companion was a spindly boy with cerebral palsy and hearing aids, thick glasses hooked with a wide band around the back of his head, and spastic muscles that never seemed to go where he wanted them to go. He walked independently with some difficulty, mostly on his tiptoes because of his shortened leg muscles, falling when he got going too quickly due to his thick orthopedic shoes with braces. His hands were intermittently in a crab-like grip of contracted muscles, and his face always contorting and grimacing. He drooled continuously so always carried a Kleenex in his hand to catch the drips of spit that ran out of his mouth and dropped on his desk, threatening to spoil his coloring and writing papers.
His speech consisted of all vowels, as his tongue couldn’t quite connect with his teeth or palate to sound out the consonants, so it took some time and patience to understand what he said. He could write with great effort, gripping the pencil awkwardly in his tight palm and found he could communicate better at times on paper than by talking. I made sure he had help to finish assignments if his muscles were too tight to write, and I learned his language so I could interpret for the teacher. He was brave and bright, with a finer mind than most of the kids in our class and I was impressed at how he expressed himself and how little bitterness he had about the tough road that had been dealt him. He was the most articulate inarticulate person I knew.
There were many times I resented being Michael’s “sister”, emotionally crippled as I was in my own prepubertal need to be acceptable to my peers. I didn’t want to be constantly responsible for him and my friends naturally teased me about him being my boyfriend. Even Michael hoped he could be my boyfriend, more than just a “brother”, and blushed bright red as he made flowery valentines meant for only my eyes.
I never ended up ditching him even though I often wanted to. Every day when he’d arrive at school he’d call out my name in his loud indecipherable voice, as if I was a lifesaver that had been thrown to him as he struggled to stay afloat in the sea of playground hostility. I couldn't turn away from that call. He depended on me to be his only friend, willing to defend him if someone called him a cruel name. Despite all he endured, I never saw Michael cry, not even once.
After two years, the school segregated the disabled kids back to special therapeutic classrooms and though I never saw Michael again, I heard him on the radio six years later, reading an essay he'd written for the local Voice of Democracy contest on what it meant for him to be a free citizen. His speech was one of the top three award winners that year. I was so proud of him and how articulate his speaking voice had become.
I’ve thought of him frequently over the years as I went on to become a health care provider, realizing my initial training in compassionate care came as I sat by his side, learning to understand his voice and his heart. I didn’t appreciate it then as I do now: he taught me far more than I ever taught him. It has made me question which of us was indeed more capable.
Michael had loved his reluctant and crippled “sister” unconditionally. Now, 40 years later, I understand how that love still heals me when I’m broken and inspires me to love the many people I care for daily in my work.
After all, that is what a real brother is all about.
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