81: Tough Yet Tender

81: Tough Yet Tender

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People

Tough Yet Tender

We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey.

~Kenji Miyazawa

She was just a baby when the first illness attacked. My sister, Kris, spent that Christmas in the hospital with some kind of viral infection. I was only five, but I remember the harried look on my mother’s face—worry turned outward.

Kris made it through that illness and grew up. But she was always smaller than I and fighting some sort of problem. Sometime before puberty, she lost the sense of smell, which actually became a family advantage. Whenever any of us had the flu, we called Kris. She couldn’t smell the vomit and cheerfully cleaned up the mess.

During college, Kris had to drop out for a year. Migraines sent her to the toilet to throw up in the middle of the day. Doctors couldn’t explain the severe headaches, and Kris endured tests that made her head pound. Finally, an X-ray revealed a hidden tooth under her jaw. After the extraction, the headaches eased.

In spite of frequent illnesses, Kris maintained a weird yet delightful sense of humor. If my brother or I bothered her, she retorted, “Make like a tree and leave.” She often reversed words in phrases, such as, “I want a fudge hot sundae” or “Call the vet and get that medicine some cat.” One Saturday afternoon, as we watched Bonanza, Little Joe helped Hoss get up after a saloon fight. Kris laughed and quipped, “He’s not my brother. He’s heavy.”

Always surrounded by friends, Kris became the encourager of the neighborhood and the family—the person who sent funny cards and always had a joke to share. She returned to college and finished her physical therapy degree.

We missed her when she moved to Africa. This young woman who knew pain helped make prosthetics at a mission school and taught handicapped children how to walk. We met Kris in Europe one summer and laughed our way through eleven countries. Kris led the way through the Palace of Versailles and climbed up to Crazy Ludwig’s castle—ignoring the pain in her weakened knees. Her spirit never wavered, and she returned to Africa for another mission term.

But even in the middle of her important work, her body betrayed her. She contracted hepatitis and then TB. Treatment was mandatory, as Kris worried she might infect some of her patients. She left her beloved Africa and returned to the U.S.

We were glad to have her home, but watched her grieve the loss of her calling. She soon rebounded and found places to help. She became an animal PT and helped disabled dogs walk again.

Endometriosis caused an early hysterectomy, followed by months of shingles that were painfully persistent. Yet Kris attended family ballgames, graduations, and band concerts. She never complained about her illnesses and quickly earned the title imprinted on her T-shirt, “Our Favorite Aunt.”

Later, after we both reached fifty, a degenerative disc gave Kris a painful limp. I watched my sister begin to age, but marveled that she still found joy in the simple things of life: feeding birds, reading mysteries, and cheering for her sports teams. Kris fought morning fatigue, daily pain, and the persistent torture of those shingles.

Rheumatoid arthritis is the latest challenge, and Kris takes chemo to fight its progression. It bothers me to see her limp, but I marvel at her strength. She still manages to drive to New Mexico every summer for our family vacation. She walks along mountain trails and beats us at Uno games, laughing the entire time.

I wish I could take away my sister’s pain, but the challenges have strengthened her and helped her empathize with others. Her tender heart cries for the children she rehabilitates through Home Health, while every suffering animal finds food in Kris’s barn. She makes a good living, but a great portion of it goes back to Africa as Christmas gifts and monthly support. Her empathetic spirit comes through her voice. Whenever I call her, I hear the warmth of a woman with a pure heart.

Strangers might look at the curved spine and the limp, wondering what is wrong. But so much is right with Kris that the illnesses seem just a minor hindrance. She’s much more than the sum of her defective parts. She’s my sister—my hero.

~Rebecca Jay

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