“My sister is a bird of a different kind.”

This is how my sister describes me to her friends. I think it’s rather funny not only because it’s probably partially true but because it is SO true of her. Recently, I was able to spend several hours with her and as we did, I realized again just how much I not only love her, but like her as well. There are many funny stories to tell about Mandi, starting with her name. If you meet me first, you’ll know my sister as “Mandi.” If you meet my sister first, you’ll know her as “Stephini.” Her real name is Stephini Amanda–family has always called her Mandi, but she’s always liked Stephini better. As kids, it used to freak her friends out when they would call the house and ask for Stephini, then hear me call “Mandi!” They were thoroughly confused, and we thought it was really funny. I still think that Mandi really does suit her the best. Even though she’s two years younger than me, she has taught me way more than I have her about friendship and laughter and, most of all, loyalty and love.

We grew up in the vortex of a chaotic and unusual childhood. I wasn’t the only one who was consistently uprooted and forced to leave good friends, roots and stability. I wasn’t the only one who had a front row seat to violence, hypocrisy and other traits of a truly dysfunctional family. Even when we were young, we somehow knew that there were invisible bonds that had us tied together and that there was nothing on earth stronger than those bonds. Once, in school, we shared a class and, in this class, there were two boys who constantly bothered my sister. We ignored them for a long time. Until I realized one day that they genuinely upset her. It wasn’t just that they made her mad. That would have been one thing. It wasn’t just that they annoyed her. That would have been tolerable. No, they genuinely upset her, hurt her feelings. When I realized that, it suddenly became absolutely unacceptable. And this is me I’m talking about. I don’t deal well with confrontation and will go to extreme measures in order to prevent it. I will give in when I shouldn’t. I would rather keep my head low and listen to someone berate me constantly all day than risk a fight. Peace is my main objective now and, back then, it was, like, even a bigger deal. It was mandatory. But these idiots were bothering my sister. So I stayed late one day after class and told them to back off because, if they didn’t, I was going to get the teacher involved and everyone else I could think of too. Miraculously, it worked. They stopped bothering her.

We enjoyed different things—she likes roller coasters and going out dancing. I pretty much gick sick at just the thought of either of those things. She hated reading. All I did was read and write. No matter how different we were, though, we always knew that we were each other’s backup. There was a fierce loyalty that kept us connected—we didn’t intrude on each other’s lives, but we kept our eye on it. I used to watch her in awe. She climbed trees like it was nothing. She knew how to do a cartwheel, an activity which I never learned how to do. She has always been an absolute genius in math. We learned together how to do silly things like catch flies only to release them. When she was about two and I about four, there’s a picture of the two of us in which she’s on top of me. Apparently, I was chewing gum and she wanted it, so she simply pushed me over, climbed on top of me, stuck her hand in my mouth and got my gum: she’s always been the kind to actively pursue what she wants. She thinks deeply but she doesn’t let it get in the way of her enthusisam for life. She designs clothes, and knows how to sew them together. She’s a great artist. She’s fearless. She was strong and independent. She wasn’t afraid to speak up when something wasn’t right. Even when we were little girls, she’s always been her own person, something that I admired about her even then. Nothing is more important to her than family, although she does need space and room in which to fly free. She has a passion for the homeless and a respect for the human being that is amazing to witness. In short, she’s the person I have always wanted to be.

She’s also the only person on the planet with whom I can laugh uninhibitedly, the only person with whom I have started laughing and literally been able to unable to stop for a ridiculous amount of time, not even to breathe. You see, she’s quite possibly the funniest person I know.  Fairly recently, she and I were at the gas station, and I went into the station to pay for enough gas for each of our vehicles to fill up.  Instead of making two transactions like normal people,  I paid the full amount on one pump.  We parked one behind the other.  The ingenious plan was for her to fill her car up, then drive forward so that I could pull my car up to the pump and keep right on pumping gas (we’d paid for the gas—her car just wouldn’t hold 80 dollars worth!)  But, when she goes to drive forward, the pump is still in her gas tank, and she drives forward too far—the entire gas hose comes off the tank!!  Thankfully, there is an emergency shut off that made the pump automatically stop emitting the gas.  At the time, we were terribly embarrassed but now we laugh about it.  We somehow manage to get into “fiascos”  like this a lot.  Like I said, she’s very much fun—tomorrow night, we are going to see Keith Urban and friends at the All for the Hall concert, and I can’t wait, mainly because she’s the one who I’m going with!

She has an innate desire to be fair — even to inanimate objects!! Recently, we were eating in a restaurant. When they served her dish, before she began eating it, she began sorting the food by color, without even realizing she was doing it. The green onions went in one pile, the red tomatoes went into other, you get the idea. When she takes a bite of food, if she uses the right side of her jaw to chew it then, on the next bite, she has to use the left jaw to chew that bite. Then the right. Then the left. She says she used to have to chew the same number of times per bite. “What’s fair is fair,” she explains. “If this side of my mouth gets to enjoy the food, then the other side of my mouth needs a chance to enjoy it too!” She’s fair to her food. True story.   Absolutely hilarious.

One of the many paintings my sister has done

She can shop longer than any other person on the planet. She outlasts me by, like, six hours. On Black Friday this year, she and I went shopping. I expected to be out late. I should have known better. We shopped for a –straight–, that would be —solid—, 32 hours without stopping. And the really funny part is that she can shop for 32 hours and buy hardly nothing. The point isn’t really to –buy– things, the point, in her mind, is the shopping itself, the browsing. To me, that’s called exhausting and ridiculous. Nonetheless, I tag along because it’s so much fun watching her have to physically touch half the items in every store she enters before she decides there’s nothing there.

The History Channel, the Titantic, archeology—these things interest her. But so do shows with strange titles like “The Idiot Abroad” and “Once Upon a Time.” She’s willing to give second chances, she’ll bend over backwards to help anyone she sees in need, all while staying true to herself. Her smile can truly brighten any darkened room, and her selfless devotion to those she loves is truly beautiful. I heard a quote one time that says that in a bowl of cookies, sisters are the chocolate chips. It is so true: without trying, she can help put things in perspective, she knows how to phrase things so as to avoid hurting or offending. She knows how to read people. She’s the one her friends and coworkers lean to when they need someone to talk to; she’s the worker who never takes a day of. Mostly, though, what I love most about her is that she isn’t just my sister, she’s also my best friend. When she’s hurt, I’m hurt. When she’s mad, I feel mad. When she’s happy, it makes me want to smile too. She’s the only one on the planet who needs only to see my face to know what I’m really thinking and feeling—I may be able to kid the world, but I can’t kid her. She’s the one who remembers me as a child; her soul holds the same childhood scents and sights as I do. We intrepreted things differently, we had different coping mechanisms, but we understand where the other has been. She was the one who came with me into the room for the birth of my youngest daughter. She’s seen me on days where the migraine is so intense it’s all I can do to keep my head up. She was the one I called first when the doctor told me that there was a hole in my heart that would need surgery. She’s the one who told me she knew even before it was released that “The Character” would be the book to catapult me into the place I am today. She’s been my support, she’s been my confidant, she’s been my friend.

A painting by my sister

She has a tattoo on her back of a butterfly. I’ve always thought this was such a good choice for her tattoo, as the butterfly is a symbol of beauty, grace and strength. It starts out as something small, something fragil, and yet something very strong. If you’ve ever watched a caterpillar hang upside down until it forms it’s cocoon, you know what I’m talking about. Imagine doing this on a tree that’s unprotected from rain, from other insects that might want to eat it, even from a nut falling and knocking it off the tree. It’s rather amazing, actually, that any caterpillar at all emerges successfully from its cocoon. Likewise, my sister’s childhood involved challenges at every turn, rain that fell in torrential downpours at every opportunity, family that criticized and failed to recognize what a shining gold treasure she’s always been and yet she crawled on, found herself a branch tucked away and quietly went about the business of becoming an extraordinary woman. She emerged from her cocoon into this person that is full of life and energy, who clings to hope and an optimistic outlook better than anyone I’ve ever known; when she falls down, she doesn’t shout it out to the world, instead she tucks it away and nurses herself back to health. She allows herself the freedom of flight—she grants herself permission to do and say and be herself—but never forgets the elephant grass she originally waded through. She’s the last to judge and the first to defend the underdog. She’s sharp as a tack but never uses her strong intelligence to belittle others. She won’t allow others to take advantage of her, but she doesn’t quit just because storms come along. She learns from her mistakes.

She brings out the best in me, probably because I trust her more than I trust any other person alive. She is one of my greatest strengths, without which I am unsure I’d have survived. She is one of my greatest blessings from God. She’s my sister, but she’s so much more than that, more than I can even convey with words. We finish each other’s thoughts and we can read the other’s minds simply by looking at each other’s faces. Other than my children, it is with her that I am most relaxed. Our biggest fight was over who got to sit in the front seat of the car as kids. When the two of us decide to do something together—nothing can stop us because, ultimately, we love each other, we trust each other, we understand each others’ strengths and weaknesses, our shared history gives us a unique place in the other’s heart and, ultimately, even if we fail at times to believe in ourselves, we always believe in each other.