This story was written in September 2004 when my younger sister, who was also mentally retarded, was fighting a rare form of blood cancer. It is a story of faith, admiration and how someone with more life issues than we can imagine taught me about the real spirit of Christmas. I cry every time I re-read it.
Not many of us these days are fortunate enough to know a hero first hand. But I am. My younger sister, Vicky, who some might initially think the most unlikely candidate, is my hero.
Vicky just turned 40. Both kidneys are failing, but she’s not a candidate for a transplant because of her blood cancer. And she’s mentally only about 10-14 years old.
And she is my hero.
I am the oldest of 6 siblings. Vicky came along in slot #4, part of the middle children, always identified as “one of the middle two”.
As we were growing up, we always knew that Vicky was different, but it never mattered to us. Vicky was still our sister and our playmate. We teased and fought with her like we did with our other sisters and brother (yes, only one boy out of the six of us!) and she teased us and fought back. Our mom never allowed Vicky to be called “retarded”. While that term is politically incorrect today, back then it was the name attached to those with mental limitations. But we weren’t allowed to use it.
Vicky went to the regular school, and she worked hard in her Special Ed classes. She loved gym and sports and participated regularly in track meets and competitions.
We didn’t realize the full extend of her limitations until she was in her 20’s. Our sister, C.J., helped Vicky get enrolled in a school for the handicap for job training. After completing the training, Vicky spent the next few years living independently in her own apartment (and eventually rented a house) with a full time job and no government subsidy assistance. She was on a traveling volleyball team and went all over the country playing volleyball.
I remember her telling me a story about one of her trips. They were spending the night in a college sorority. When they arrived the sorority sisters lined up in the hall and cheered and applauded the team as they came in. To Vicky, that was the greatest thrill of her life, to have college girls applauding HER!
I was already proud of Vicky’s accomplishments. I remember we were at a baby shower and someone shared a funny story about Vicky. Vicky laughed along with the rest of us and said, “Oh, that’s ‘ole stupid me!” I stopped her and said, “Don’t say that so seriously! Vicky, do you know how to ride a city bus?” She looked at me like I was an alien and said, “Well, of course! I ride them all the time!”
I then said to Vicky, “Well, I’ve never ridden a city bus and I wouldn’t have the slightest idea on how to get somewhere on a city bus. So I guess that makes you smarter than me! So don’t you EVER say you’re stupid again, OK?”
Vicky got the biggest grin on her face and said, “OK, I won’t!”
Then a couple of years ago, Vicky went to the emergency room with a severe backache. The hospital began running test after test and finally came back with the news that Vicky’s kidneys had shut down to 10% of their capacity. More tests and still more tests were run and we were told Vicky had Multiple Myeloma, one of the rarest forms of blood cancer known. No known cause….no known cure.
Over the next year or so, we watched, waited and prayed as Vicky went through her chemotherapy. We teased her about her thinning hair and she teased us right back with things like, “At least the cost of my shampoo is down!” We watched, waited and prayed as she underwent bone marrow transplant procedures. We cried outside of her room as we realized she couldn’t quite grasp what was happening to her when she told a friend, “I’ve got a little cancer in my kidney, but it’ll be alright” with the optimism that only a 10-year old mentality could have in such a situation. We cried with appreciation when her volleyball team, who had just won a championship tourney, arrived at the hospital to give Vicky the team trophy. We cried with her as the pain got almost too much to bear and she cried out, “Just let me die, please!”
I knew Vicky was a true hero to me last Christmas. My daughter (who is a married working mom of a two year old) and I were trying to figure out how we were going to get all of our shopping done and lamenting over how much we hated the crowds and wondering why we always wait until the last minute and gosh, WHY did the holidays have to be so darn stressful?
The next day, I get an email from my sister, C.J. Vicky was in the hospital and they weren’t sure she would see Christmas at all. C.J. asked if we could come to see Vicky (we lived about 75 miles away) because Vicky had done her Christmas shopping and wanted to give us our gifts.
I instantly felt a blanket of shame rush over me. With her chemotherapy, and her medications, and her kidney dialysis to go through, Vicky still found the time and energy to do Christmas shopping for her family. She still found the energy to put the spirit of Christmas and thoughts of her family first in her mind. She wasn’t complaining about the crowds and the stress, and if anyone had a right to complain, it was Vicky.
After asking God to forgive me for forgetting the true meaning of Christmas and for focusing on my own selfishness, I immediately called my daughter and all of us made plans to see Vicky that weekend. Her hospital room was overflowing as our two families crowded in with gifts for Vicky.
It was the best Christmas I ever had.
Vicky made it through that Christmas. Her cancer is currently in remission and she is doing things she enjoys, which is mostly fishing with her friends.
Vicky will always be my hero for showing me that nothing is impossible, no matter what kind of limitations you may have. Vicky will always be my hero for reminding me that Christmas is about love and family, and about the limited time we have with them. Vicky will always be my hero for showing me how strong the human spirit is and that there is always a light at the end of the dark tunnel.
Vicky will always be my hero just because she’s my sister.
A footnote to this story. Vicky died on March 6, 2007. As we were cleaning out the room in the nursing home that had been her home for the last few months, I came across a large recipe box. My sister C.J. told me that Vicky was putting it together for me, since I was a caterer and liked to cook. C.J. told me, “Vicky would be so happy to know that you took that home with you.” I packed it up, crying with the idea that with everything Vicky was going thru in the last few months of her life, this little girl (and even though she was physically over 40 years old, she was eternally and forever a 10-year old little girl) was working on putting together a collection of recipes for her big sister, the caterer.
Vicky may be gone, but I still think of her often. And she’s still my hero.
A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles. -----Christopher Reeve