Melissa Blake

Melissa Blake

Disabled and Thriving

Does a Disability Make A Sibling Relationship Stronger? (Part I)

How a child's disability affects the sibling relationship.

Posted Oct 13, 2009

Editor's note: My sister and I have always been close. And I can't help but wonder: Does my disability have something to do with it? Check back here for Part II tomorrow, along with some expert insight.

My younger sister, Janelle, and I are twins, despite our four-year age gap. We talk alike- we've been known to spontaneously burst into a British accent, riddled with "bloody" this and "cheeky" that. We think alike - my aunt once commented that we seem to have our own "sister language" because we could finish each other's sentences and know instinctively what the other was thinking long before a single syllable ever escaped from our lips. And my mother used to say that we both share the same hurried gate, a mixture of frenzy and determined energy - though I bustled around in my wheelchair while Janelle laced up her slick white Nike's and set off to pound the pavement.

Until my father's death in 2003, I never understood the deep bonds of sisterhood. But our lives changed and our paths began to diverge on the metaphorical trail that has become our shared existence. And all the while, I'm not so sure if I'm ready to swiftly wave goodbye to our shared history and enter the "real world" without my partner in crime. After all, it had always been us against the world. Would the solo woman I became vastly differ from the little girl who wrapped her gangly arms around her little sister in a childlike bear hug?

Janelle was born when I was a four-year-old little redhead. There was some concern that my physical disability was genetic, so my parents did their homework: They visited three geneticists, one of whom said my Freeman Sheldon Syndrome may have come from my mother's side, and then, ever the thinkers, my parents contemplated, discussed and contemplated again. Apparently, they thought a sibling would be good for me, so on a chilly fall day in October, with the colorful leaves falling from the trees, we welcomed the newest member to our family. As the story goes, I was as proud as if my new baby sister was my own daughter as my father lifted me high up so I could peek through the glass walls of the tiny incubator to get my first glimpse of her big bald head and shiny blue eyes. I was the first one to see her, even before my mother, and in my child mind, that somehow gave us an extra special bond. To this day, my mother even has pictures to prove my euphoric glee, which I've learned is rather rare after watching hours of "A Baby Story" on The Learning Channel.

Plastered in one of our photo albums is a picture of my mom and me having our stork dinner, the family dinner given to new mothers and their families. The only thing in the picture bigger than the oversize chair that could swallow me alive was the giant smile and glimmer in my eyes. A few pages later is a picture of me holding her after we've come home from the hospital. Having taken a sibling class at the hospital with my father and carried around a small Cabbage Patch doll, Emma was her name, for at least two years, I knew I had it all figured out. Heck, I was a pro at four, and the picture reflected that look of sheer pride that stretched across my face. I had a new role to fill: big sister. I was determined to do my job.

I quickly learned that siblings serve a very unique and distinct role at each stage of life. As youngsters, brothers and sisters serve as built-in playmates or the target of the frequent bickering match, whatever the case may be. Your relationship is almost like a fresh, clean slate that hasn't collected even the slightest bit of dirt or mud, even though the two of you spend hours running up and down the gigantic dirt hill in the backyard, or gather sand in the sole of your shoes after building an intricate sandcastle. When you're young, life is simple like your relationship. You may stomp off to your room because she stole your hairbrush, but before long, you're using said hairbrush to give each other new, hip hairstyles.

Janelle and I passed hours and hours in each other's innocent company. When our parents bought us our first Nintendo, we became glued to the bright flashing television screen as we tried to save the princess in Super Mario Brothers - for the record, I seem to remember I guided Mario past that dragon's fire and saved that princess in the pink dress first. Other times, our girlie sides came out as we pulled out our box of Barbies from deep inside the closet, lining each of them up for a chic fashion show, complete with full hair and flowing, glittering evening gowns. And every Saturday morning like clockwork, we woke up early with my father and watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as we sat with giant bowls of Frosted Flakes on our laps.

But as we got older, I worried our bond would change, and in my mind, change wasn't something I wanted. Not with the person whom I'd come to consider my best friend in every way.