I was sitting in my dorm room, blasting music and laughing with friends, when I got a phone call every family dreads. I heard an unfamiliar voice on the other end of the line say, “I’m with the police. There’s been an accident involving your sister.”
My mind went numb.
Up until that moment, I’d enjoyed the perfect life, with supportive parents who’d always encouraged me and my two younger sisters to pursue our dreams, despite any obstacles in our way.
My sister, Jen, who was an amazing athlete, took their advice to heart. She threw herself into every sport she tried—ice skating, track and field, soccer. In fact, when she got to high school and found there was no girls’ soccer team, she didn’t let that stop her—she simply joined the boys’ team. I always admired her determination and grit.
Now, looking back, it’s clear that God blessed her with those qualities for good reason.
The weekend of the phone call, I had spent an amazing day with my parents and 12-year-old sister, Megan. They’d come to campus for the day. Jen, who was 17 at the time, stayed home to attend a youth event at our church.
She was on her way there when she came around a bend on a back road and a deer jumped in front of her car. Instinctively, she slammed on her brakes, but her tires hit a patch of ice, sending her car sailing straight toward a telephone pole. Tires screeched as the car smashed into the wooden pole, instantly crushing it like a flimsy accordion. Glass shattered and sprayed across the roadway like shiny, sharp icicles.
When all was still, an eerie silence filled the frigid nighttime air as Jen clung to life through shallow breaths and gripping faith.
I paced my dorm room floor, anxious to receive an update on my sister’s condition. When I finally got it, there was good news mixed with bad.
“She’s alive,” Mom said. “But she’s in a coma. We have no idea how long it will last.”
Days, then weeks, passed.
My parents, who always wanted the best for their children, encouraged me to return to campus and proceed with my life. I did, but I felt guilty taking classes, living life, knowing that my sister was lying motionless in a hospital room.
Six months later, our family witnessed a miracle. Jen emerged from her coma. But the celebration was short-lived when we learned that she was paralyzed.
My fists clenched in frustration as I recalled the conversation I’d had with Jen a few weeks before the accident about the newfound freedom that came with her driver’s licence. That sweet freedom did not last long, however, and now she couldn’t even bathe herself or brush her teeth without assistance.
Following Their Lead
I fought back tears as I thought about how gut-wrenchingly unfair the whole situation seemed.
“Help me fix my family, Lord!” I cried out in despair.
As the oldest child of the family, I felt it was my duty to step up. But my parents had a different vision.
“You need to live your own life—both you and Megan,” Mom gently told me. “Your lives shouldn’t stop because of this accident.”
But I didn’t feel as if I should have the luxury of making friends, earning a degree and building a life for myself while Jen was having to re-learn simple survival skills such as how to eat, dress and communicate.
As for Mom and Dad, clearly their lives were forever changed. Mom spent her days battling insurance company representatives while Dad worked overtime to pay the mounting medical bills. But they didn’t seem to mind.
“We’re a family,” Dad said. “We support one another through every tragedy and every celebration. One day, you’ll understand that taking care of your family is a privilege, not a burden.”
“We love all three of you,” Mom piped in. “We’ll always find a way to do what’s best for each of you—whatever that may be.”
“But what can I do?” I pleaded.
“Always show others compassion,” Mom whispered softly. “Offer compassion to your sisters, your classmates, professors, neighbours, friends—even strangers. That’s how you can help.”
At that moment, something clicked in my soul. Mom and Dad were demonstrating, in its truest form, the concept of family. My parents were living and breathing God’s Word. The least I could do was follow their lead.
The Meaning of Family
Family life was never the same for us after Jen’s accident, but we didn’t retreat to a dark place of sorrow and self-pity. Instead, we gained a heightened sense of humanity. We also learned to genuinely care more for others—to recognize when someone had a need and pitch in to help.
If there was one thing that got us through our ordeal, it was my parents’ love toward each other and for their children. Yes, our family suffered a trauma, but we also recognized that we were still immensely blessed.
Everyone experiences hardship. Maybe it’s a fight with cancer, depression or addiction. Whatever it is doesn’t matter; it’s how we handle the hardship.
We can turn to God and to others to help shoulder our burdens. But we have to be willing to share a bit of the pain that’s inside of us in order to start the healing.
There’s one other thing of which I am certain. God has power and strength in store for us at times when we need it the most. My family is living proof of God’s strength and His great sense of compassion.
As told to Christy Heitger-Ewing, a freelance writer, columnist and author of Cabin Glory: Amusing Tales of Time Spent at the Family Retreat