From Chicken Soup for the Sister's Soul


Both within the family and without, our sisters hold up mirrors. Our images of who we are and of who we can dare to become.

Elizabeth Fischal

Four out of my parents’ five children were afflicted from birth with a rare genetic disorder called osteogenesis imperfecta (OI), otherwise known as “brittle bones.” As a result of multiple fractures, OI in its extreme form causes dwarfism, severe deformity to the victim’s limbs and even death. But our family is among the fortunate few as we have a very mild form of the disease. My brother only had about four fractures as a result of OI, while my next oldest sister and myself each had approximately thirty fractures. Our eldest sister, however, suffered over one hundred fractures in her legs during a sixteen-year period as well as a dozen or so fractures to her arms and shoulders. Her legs were so fragile that once, standing up at the sink to brush her teeth ended in a fracture. Consequently Debbie was confined to a wheelchair for the majority of her childhood.

Debbie is ten years my senior; being the youngest in the family, I never knew her outside of her wheelchair as I was growing up. Her chair seemed to me to be a natural extension of her, and I loved that she would give me rides around our patio while I carefully sat on her lap. Debbie’s cheery disposition and her ever-present smile that stretched from ear to ear were her trademarks, and they helped us learn at a very young age to ignore the stares that we inevitably got whenever we went anywhere with Debbie. I remember hearing comments like, “That poor little girl,” or “Oh, how sad!” from well-meaning onlookers, and I would think, Debbie’s not poor, and look at her smiling face—she’s not sad. I guess I was confused because we all learned to look beyond the chair to see Debbie our sister, who was usually happy and funny and nice and who could even play mean little tricks on us—like all good sisters do.

Thinking back today, we all laugh about the time Debbie and her wheelchair got stuck in the checkout line at our neighborhood grocery store. (Those were the days before many places were wheelchair-accessible.) The manager had to lift her out of the chair, place her on the counter, and then fold her chair to get it through the aisle, while all the curious shoppers stared and whispered. Debbie was naturally horrified over her predicament, but true to herself she just smiled right through it. Perhaps deep down that experience made her even more determined to walk so she would never have to suffer that kind of embarrassment again.

Defying doctors, Debbie set herself a goal before she graduated high school. She was determined to walk again. Through strength, hard work, patience and sheer will, Debbie worked toward that goal. Finally, her strength and courage paid off. The day she graduated high school, she led her senior class down the length of the War Memorial Arena walking every step of the way with a walker.

From the bleachers we watched through tear-rimmed eyes as her determined four-foot two-inch frame took step after step after step, in time with the music.

I remember my parents beaming with pride as they watched their eldest daughter walking again for the first time since she was six years old.

Then suddenly, a woman sitting directly in front of me in a white, cotton dress leaned over to her husband and whispered loudly, “They have to go extra slow because that crippled girl is leading them.”

I don’t know exactly what went through my eight-year-old mind at that point, but all at once my left leg straightened at the knee and my foot tapped that woman on the back of the dress. She turned around, and I jumped up hoping no one saw what a horrible thing I had just done. The woman smiled and sweetly said, “Did you want something little girl?”

My usually shy, guarded self replied without hesitation and loud enough for our whole section to hear, “That’s my sister, and she’s not crippled! She can walk now!” I don’t know who was more horrified, that woman or my parents sitting three seats to my right. The woman quickly tried to apologize for her remark; she of course “meant nothing by it,” and thankfully my mother had the grace to accept her apology.

Then, as I stood looking at this woman and wondering how she could have said something so mean, I noticed the entire audience rising to their feet and applauding. Through cheers of “Yeah Deb!” and “Way to go!” and “You did it!” we realized that Debbie had indeed met her goal. She walked before she graduated, and her entire class and all the teachers and the whole assembly of family members gave her a standing ovation when she reached her seat. Even the woman in the white dress stood up and clapped, looking back on us and smiling as if to say, “See, I’m a nice person, really I am.” But I got the last word, so to speak, because when the woman turned around, she had the distinct, dirty imprint of a little girl’s size-twelve shoe plainly visible on the back of her white cotton dress.

My shoe print, I’m sure, came out in the wash, but I think the imprint that Debbie and I left on that woman’s soul lasted a lot longer. I know the sight of my big sister walking on her own is forever etched on mine.

Jodi Severson

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