I hadn’t seen my little sister since before she left last fall for her first year of college. It was now early May, about a month after she had returned. We hadn’t talked much during that year. I was anxious. Everyone changes when they’ve spent a first year in college. A first year away from home. A first year away from their known conception of themselves.
I knew my little sister. She hadn’t been to crazy parties or done bad things with stupid boys. But things of her conscious and soul – the big stuff, the intrinsic stuff, the essence of a person – that had changed. There’s no way it wouldn’t. So who would she be? I pulled up to the frozen yogurt shop and felt the sinking in my stomach – nervous she didn’t want to see me as much as I wanted to see her. I saw her through the window as I approached the door, sitting by herself at a high table. Time stood still for a moment as I observed her quaint, quiet face, always adorable and inquisitive, patiently awaiting my arrival. I walked in and gave her the biggest hug ever as she so excitedly asked “how are you?” I let her go, told her I was well, and asked “and how are you?” “I’m good!” Two full thoughts she said, articulated with such precision. Pause. See, my little sister has been a stutterer her whole life – in speech therapy since second grade. She has improved immensely, don’t get me wrong. But stutterers will always have their victories and defeats in their constant battle and that’s just the nature of the hand they were dealt. And when you truly love someone (especially a kid), you have no problems with their difficulties socially and (again, especially with a kid) you celebrate every victory with them. Every single one. You must, parents, make them feel like they can take on the world. Just because they’re human and will fail, it doesn’t mean you ever stop your encouragement. If you don’t make them feel valued every single day…go to hell. Anyway…based on those two sentences she expressed, as we took our seats, I told her “you are speaking, wonderfully. You sound great!” Her face split into a gigantic smile as she tried to find words. I said “and now that I’ve said that I’ve made you self-conscious and ruined it and you’ll stutter.” It was true. Thanks to me, she stuttered her way through “thank yous”, her lovely little face split into a grin so joyous and genuine that I did not deserve to even be in the same room as it. This was the day I bought my little sister ice cream.
I love my little sister. We are about ten years apart and couldn’t be more different. But I’ve learned those things are trivial when you care about someone and connect with them and love spending time with them. And, moreso, when you trust them and know they trust you. That sensation, that love, is life’s one truth; the bombast, the spectacle, the vanity, the rich trivialities that life offers are of no comfort to me, real or numbing. I love nothing and am brought happiness by…nothing. Typical vices of adult life offer nothing. My list of what I love in this world…could be written on the back of a mouse’s business card. Ten times. In all caps. With one of those gigantic pencils you buy at theme parks. But I don’t feel that way when I talk to my little sister. At all.
We talked about college. We talked about hockey. I told her about ups and downs with the current batch of tenth graders that I was teaching. We talked about music. We talked about dating (and the boys and girls that just didn’t interest us). We talked about how loneliness is an enriching experience that can help shape you into a better person. This stemmed from her difficult first semester – eerily similar to my first year away from home, too. She found it difficult to make friends and spent most of her time in isolation, distracting herself with studies and bouts of introspection (hopefully far less depressing than mine usually were). I had no idea this was the case. I assumed she, despite her stutter, would never have trouble making friends everywhere she went in life. She exudes goodness and care, friendliness and accessibility. She loves to laugh. She’s generous. She finds common ground with all people. Her days of being made fun of by people in middle school were long over (fortunately for them, now that I own a car with a trunk big enough for several bodies). But she expressed a strong feeling that she had in fact been very alone. And she wasn’t opening up to those back home about it; she didn’t want to disappoint people. Why? Why her? Here I am finding this out long after, unable to process; I couldn’t fathom her feeling lonely and being away from home. But again…we agreed this can be a good thing. I knew it was for me. I just had to let go of the momentary paternalism and admit that it was good for her, too. But after hearing of these experiences, I now realize, that when I hurt on her behalf, I truly “feel”. And…feeling feelings itself feels foreign. This is someone that I get angry on behalf of, sad on behalf of. Like her heart is somehow connected with mine like we are twins or two people in a sci-fi movie with a shared brain! Weird! The idea that I can love something so, so, so much more than myself to the point that I would give my life for it makes me now realize the power of love. The idea that I would, with my bare hands, fight off an army of mean people that mistreat her makes me now realize that I stand for something. The idea that I would be devastated in ways I didn’t know possible if she were to pass away makes me now realize that I am a part of a feeling far bigger than me. The day I bought my little sister ice cream.
We finally got our ice cream. This is one of those modern, indoor, self-serve via machines yogurt joints that resembles the bizarrely austere playfulness of a spaceship’s love affair with a playground – colorful and roomy and yet with yogurt machines and high swiveling chairs that could’ve been in the Jetsons. We talked about the banality versus the creativity of different flavors. Oreo ice cream! And get this: you can, if you want, separate the Oreo cookie from the Oreo cream flavors and take them individually. What a time to be alive! I was bemused and enamored by the existence of pistachio flavored ice cream – fat free and ostensibly delicious. I tried it and couldn’t believe how much I liked its subtle sweetness and refreshingly smooth texture. I offered my sample cup to her – one of those little paper ones you use for ketchup at burger joints. She graciously accepted the little cup and tasted the treat. She made “a face.” Funny how any expression ever, any countenance ever, anything you ever do with your face is technically making “a face”, but when you say the words “she made a face”, anyone who understands American vernacular just knows that means one is displeased. And she was. A cute little blink of her eyes mixed with a wrinkle in her nose and an odd little frown. “I don’t know…”, she said. I love her more than words can say. This was the day I bought my little sister ice cream.
As we finished our ice cream, I remember the conversation very specifically turning to love. The nature of love, its variables, its highs and lows, our definitions of it. The particular context turned to romantic love. I told her I’ve never felt romantic love, I don’t even know what it is. I don’t realistically see myself feeling it for many years and I don’t understand people who so often mistake something far more anemic and sudden and unfulfilling for it. Or maybe it’s not that they mistake it…maybe it’s that they know damn well it’s not true love but just need to settle. Because we are social creatures, and, thus, lonely creatures. See, if we weren’t inherently lonely we’d have no need to be social and to have it be such an intrinsic part of who we are. We thrive off companionship and company (and their ugly spurious cousin, validation). I admittedly was leading slightly with thoughts on romance, trying to urge this sweet creature to wait as long as humanly possible to fall into this idea that a man could truly love you and would have the right intentions for you. Because men suck. And if you are one…you know women suck, too. Adults suck. People suck. Would her potential suitor’s love be strong enough to be there when she is at her worst? Would it remain if she was in a terrible accident and scarred up her pretty face? Would he be strong and mature enough to not cling to her and to recognize that the only way to truly love something is to not possess it? To be willing to hurt in occasional loneliness to let her have her happiness? This is rare, this is sacred, this eludes even me at 29. I mean, I want her to get hurt enough to learn from but I do not want some guy to ruin her (because I’ll kill him and go to prison and thus ruin myself).
I was trying to box the idea of love. And in describing the romantic love, I realize I was describing something universal, that perhaps is a part of all love – that love is about sacrifice and compromise and never, ever, ever putting yourself above the other person, and doing things for someone not because they may notice or appreciate, but simply because you love them. And those same traits in my brotherly love for her are perhaps way stronger than they would ever be in romantic love for someone else AND it’s the gift that keeps on giving. This love is wonderful and not filled with backstabbing and fighting. It’s wonderful. This is one, for once in my life, that ought not overthink (I do that with everything). My heart is full, what else should matter? Why do I attempt to articulate that which cannot be articulated because the human mind is too small? I love her far more than I love myself. And that’s…beautiful. All on its own.
Near the end, she asks me if I want to see her blog. “Your blog? Yes!” I ecstatically replied. She pulls her blog up on her phone and hands it to me. She predominantly posts about her faith, what she believes God has in store for her and is doing in her life and such. But her focus in showing me the blog was her recent post about surviving her first year of college. She detailed steps as to how it is done and what she learned, as a sort of guide for anyone who may need advice in the endeavor. Her steps of advice and her thoughts were as follows:
- I never thought losing the friends you had for 12+ years of your life would be this hard.
- You will learn a lot about yourself you never thought you would.
- You will miss it.
- It’s okay not to know what the heck you’re doing.
- You can make it, you’re not alone in this.
- Never be afraid to put yourself out there.
She detailed every number with a few paragraphs and I devoured them, treating every word with the adoration they deserved. It hit me then how young she still is. That these were things that I learned so long ago. And if I, one year ago, had told her this all would happen, she wouldn’t understand. There is so much in life that simply must be learned on one’s own. And as I read them, out of nowhere, my throat suddenly, completely tightened. I felt the warmth of tears forming in my eyes. I felt a swollen sensation of pride in someone that was far more important to me than I would ever be, and the truest, sweetest, purest feeling I’d ever felt of love. Like I could use my own two hands to help elevate this child to a hard-to-reach level on the monkey bars, never be acknowledged for it, never be seen doing it, but do it because I felt her growth and happiness was paramount, that helping her succeed was enough to make me happy. That it wasn’t about my growth, it was about using my being to help her with hers.
I read about my little sister and how she was lonely and unsure of herself. About how she lost touch with all of her high school friends (which only exacerbated her lonely state). I learned about her confidence to surrender herself completely to fate and that she tried to learn from what life circumstances were given to her. I learned how despite all the adversity, she was already missing being there. That her seeds of the unknown had grown into a tree that she now felt pride enough in to not want to leave behind. Something she had formed on her own that came with pain but that she could call uniquely hers – a true sign of independence and growth that nobody else can touch. And that nobody can take. I learned how she got heat from people about not knowing where her life was supposed to go during this past year, about how she was berated for not instantly growing up at 18 years old. That kind of insecure projecting made her question her own self worth and that is unacceptable. She is the worthiest person of all, and those small enough to do that to her are not good enough to be the faintest smudge of dirt on her favorite Carrie Underwood t-shirt. Don’t ever let anyone put you down.
I learned how she, despite the loneliness, still saw it was her duty to spread joy to others. Despite her frustrations, it was her duty to continue to be kind and helpful to others. That her values and her endeavors to share them would not be compromised. I learned how she embraced the fact that she would have to venture outside of her comfort zone and do things that felt uncomfortable and throw herself into social situations that would give her anxiety. My God, she did it. She did it, and did it in spades. My little sister, my sweet stutterer, conquered.
I played no part in it. I don’t deserve to say “I’m proud” because saying “I’m proud” holds some implication that you played a role enough to influence the person’s progress. “Proud” is derived from “pride” and…that’s wrong. Taking “pride” in someone means you want to feel better about yourself, right? But she’s not some extension of me. She is not some trophy on my shelf to polish. But the feeling that we have arbitrarily connected to the words “I’m proud” feels so strong and so right that I just yielded to it. My eyes stinging, my throat so tight I could barely squeeze out the words, I looked up from her phone, looked her in the eye, and told her “I’m really proud of you.” Such simple words, and yet I’d never really said them to anyone. And I’m glad I waited for a time when I truly meant it. The day I bought my little sister ice cream.
We went into the parking lot and chatted for a few more minutes before we went to our separate vehicles. I said goodbye and gave her a giant hug, squeezing her little frame as if it would be the last hug I’d ever give. That sounds abhorrently dramatic. Nobody dies in this story. But that’s how I had to hug her. Because I reflected on the multiple little moments where she said something she felt was awkward and apologized several times and I told her there was no need; and the moment where I told her there was no way in hell she would EVER pay for ice cream when I was around (even when I’m dirt poor); and how I smiled reassuringly every single time she would stutter, even through those series of them that would last a solid thirty seconds; and how I simply felt what I felt in my heart and knew she was far more important to me than all else. I reflected and I realized through my little sister that I love. That I have a sweetness and a care in me that I didn’t think myself capable of. That I would sacrifice an entire night of sleep to be on the phone with her if some very stupid son of a bitch ever breaks her heart. That I would sacrifice yet another night to find a good place to bury said son of a bitch’s body (sorry, little sis, I know you don’t cuss). That anytime I am upset with my life I have someone far more important than me, and that loving them would just make my problems evaporate. Because she’s 100x better than I’ll ever be. Because hers is a heart that I can only wish I had. And having someone to love like that…makes it all worth it. I will never take that for granted.
Love isn’t about the immediate feeling of liking having someone around, it’s also acknowledging how much you don’t like it when they’re not around. Appreciation. Adoring the little idiosyncrasies. Adoring each moment. That day, in many ways, was the best day of my life. My little sister showed me the true meaning of love. She showed me myself. And she has no idea. She cannot fathom the impact she’s had on me just by being herself. Love, when it’s genuine, and, as important, when it’s appreciated and cared for, properly tended to and nurtured, is the most precious thing in the world. And I love my little sister. The day I bought my little sister ice cream.
Tony Blau Veldt, 06/04/2017