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My sister: A New Year’s meditation

I am a professional nice person.

I have the great privilege of getting paid well to do good in the world. I am able to relieve suffering, help people navigate the difficulties of their lives and sometimes even cure diseases. I take pride in doing it well. I take on patients who are marginalized and I think I go the extra mile for them. I also get a lot of public recognition and praise for what I do. 

My sister, Sandy, on the other hand, is simply and quietly, a good person. When her children were growing up, her home, much like our parents’, was a refuge for kids who needed help. More than one teenager facing difficult circumstances, which might have landed them in the foster care system, lived for a time in her basement, where they were supported and encouraged and helped to stay in school.

Accompanying her son during his Bar Mitzvah project of volunteering at a homeless shelter morphed into a fifteen-year commitment of weekly visits, where she welcomed the “guests,” served meals, and sorted and handed out clothing. She developed a more than nodding acquaintance with the regulars and had a sympathetic relationship with some, having insight into their struggles, including poverty, homelessness and sometimes mental illness.

One of her regulars once brought her an article he had ripped out of a magazine. “I thought this would interest you,” he said. “So I stole it for you.” Nowadays she has shifted her volunteer work to being a literacy coach for a girl in grade school, helping her with English and instilling in her a love of reading. As an exercise she had her tutee write a story which became a series of stories, and then used her own considerable artistic talents to create a book with her. 

In her work as a web designer, there was a point where she had to make a choice. She could either do more websites for artists and photographers or choose to segue into her newer interest, making websites that are accessible for people with disabilities. Now she is an expert on web accessibility. While Sandy would say this work was more interesting and challenging, I can’t help but notice that she picked a more compassionate focus for her career.

I was talking to my sister’s friend, Joel, about her. He was excited to discuss the role Sandy has played and continues to play in his life and in his family. He was her neighbour across the street. His home life was chaotic, with a mother with undiagnosed and unacknowledged mental illness. She was locked in an endless, bitter battle with his father, bringing him to court over and over again. As a result, the dad had more or less removed himself from his sons’ lives hoping to avoid more conflict. Joel and his brother did not go to school, were not allowed to participate in sports or clubs, and were never taken to see any health professionals but were inflicted, in Joel’s words, with “crazy, invasive, and crackpot treatments by every quack my mother could find.”

He met Sandy at a kids’ drop-in gym when he was twelve and her daughter was a toddler. Impressed with his gentle attentiveness, Sandy paid him to come over and watch her child while she took care of her newborn. This morphed into actual babysitting as he grew older. Sandy’s house became a haven for Joel, a place he could go when things got too weird. Somewhere where there was food, logic and a sense of order. Sandy’s husband Bob also provided a role model for those masculine virtues of good fathering, loyalty, steadfastness and supportiveness. 

At some point she gave him a key. She encouraged him to use the house whenever he needed to.  When he developed thyroiditis at fifteen and began to lose weight rapidly it was Sandy who called Joel’s father and told him what was going on, pressuring him to intervene. He then moved out of his mother’s place and back in with his father and, while that had its own challenges, at least he got medical treatment. 

Perhaps most importantly, when he was miserably trying to do High School at the age of eighteen, completely discouraged at the prospect of struggling through four more years of what seemed like meaningless drudgery, Sandy just happened to invite him to dinner. At this dinner was a cousin of ours who worked at the Ministry of Education. She just happened to mention that, while he couldn’t fast track through high school, he could probably get into college as a mature student. He did this and as a result became a Paramedic. He married and had children, to whom my sister is their beloved Grandy. He is a loving husband and father, and with therapy is able to overcome many of the wounds of his childhood. I don’t think it is a coincidence that he saves lives for a living. 

So why am I writing about this? At this time of year, during the High Holidays, we are encouraged to think about “Tikkun Olam,” the healing of the world. It is the responsibility of every human to make the world a better place. When I think about my sister Sandy, I see someone who has woven Tikkun Olam into the very fabric of her life. I want to notice that. I want to honour that. When I sent this essay to her she wrote back to say that she found it a bit creepy, like reading her own eulogy. I told her to “Eff off” and take the compliment for once! After all, what are big sisters for?