I punch about 47 numbers into my landline phone to connect Madison, Wisconsin to Bondoukou, Cote d’ivoire. I have no more than four minutes to talk to my big sister, currently in her eighth month as a member of the Peace Corps. Up to this point, our conversations have been exchanges via a 1980s dictaphone capturing the trials and tribulations of my sophomore year of college. I carry her with me everywhere. Transcribing the details of my lunch, whispering through a lecture on African studies, painstaking over my outfit selections. I eagerly await her responses. Descriptions of the workshops she would lead in French, the new food she was trying, and her pet chicken (who eventually became one of those foods).
So, to be without the guidance of my sister was truly unfamiliar. Her companionship was the constant comfort of my childhood, holding back my arms when we walked around stores so I wouldn’t destroy everything. Sharing her room when it was too hot for me to sleep without an air conditioner. Always saying hi to me on the bus – even when she sat with the big kids. We are talking really important stuff here.
When I finally heard her voice, I didn’t want to tell her anything from the list of events I had planned. I only wanted to hear what she was experiencing. Nothing I was doing could have been as important as her meaningful work educating others about the HIV virus and cultivating an entire village with knowledge to keep them safe and healthy. Our hometown had spread the rumor she had rescued burning children from a fire. My upcoming midterm or what was for dinner in the dorm seemed truly inconsequential. But my wise sister took three of those precious minutes to remind me it was all relative. What was happening in my world was just as important to me as what was happening in her world. We handle what is in front of us. Just because my smaller tidbits didn’t seem quite so substantial to me, to her, they were valuable. She would again return home and want to know everything she had missed along the way and because she was invested in me, she was invested in my trivial stories. So, she got one remaining minute of we need to memorize all of the countries in Africa for the test and I think I’ll have popcorn chicken and a side salad tonight. I was hoping there would be fries.
And now sixteen years later, I often think of this moment as a special needs mom. It helps me to remember to cultivate the relationship I have with the people who are invested in my life, to my team on the sidelines. It acts as a reminder for both parties to handle what is front of us.
At first, I didn’t have much space for anyone else. The appointments, scheduling, and paperwork became a succubus. I was more likely to know about the holiday plans of Susan, my insurance company representative, than my friends. Even trying to find time to connect to my sister seemed impossible. If she had in fact saved someone from a burning building, I probably would have asked about a tax ID number that was associated it. I was in a vortex of [dun dun dun] special needs parent mode.
Because this was really apparent, people began to unofficially follow the “How I Met Your Mother Rule”, only share stories that are an 8 or higher. And looking back, out of sensitivity and kindness to us, a lot of our friends self prescribed their stories as a seven or below. People did not want to bother us. It was the kindest gesture anyone could have given us. Space to not have to worry about what was happening in their lives. It was all about us.
Yet, there comes a time when you need laughter. You need silly. You need simplicity. You need the team on the sidelines to barge their way back in. For each day my sister was working to annihilate the AIDS epidemic of Western Africa, I was working towards getting the boy in my lit class to talk to me. For each day I am studying the best treatment plan for seizures, I need to know who is folding their shirts using the konmarie method. It’s a balance.
If you are on the serious side of the spectrum, currently juggling the unimaginable, when you are ready, remind your loved ones you will again return and want to know everything you have missed along the way.
If you are the teammate, supporting this family on the sidelines, it is okay if all you want to talk about is the popcorn chicken. But be sure to really describe the type of curly fries they are serving with it tonight. The details matter.