I believe that we all have the ability to be great.
My sister, Michelle, died this year. She was born in 1964 with spina bifida, a neural tube defect where the spine doesn’t close properly during pregnancy. Her case was severe. At the time, doctors could offer no hope. They told my parents, “Take her home and enjoy her. She won’t live long.”
She survived, but the effects of spina bifida were burdensome: paralysis in her lower extremities, a scrunched torso and curvature of her spine, a lifetime of kidney stones and urinary tract infections, a diminished lung capacity, and other ailments too complicated to explain.
I was Michelle’s baby brother, two years younger. Sometimes when I was a kid pushing her wheelchair in a crowd, people would stare at her as if she were a freak. I would get so angry that I would try to ram the footrests of the wheelchair into their shins. Years later I noticed that when people stared at her, she simply smiled and said hello. She had an unmatched love of life and people.
Michelle became a celebrity in our community. It’s easy to understand why if you ever met her. She had a way of making a friendship at a moment’s glance. Her outgoing nature, her cheerfulness, her easy smile, it was all contagious. She was a pioneer in the school mainstreaming movement, attending the same public schools that I attended.
In her mid-twenties, she moved away from home for the big city life and a career at the CIA. Her petite body was stiff and awkward. Every physical task was a challenge, from taking a bath to getting dressed. Commuting to work was probably the most difficult part of her day. She relied on public transportation. Buses with wheelchair lifts weren’t always available, so she often had to depend on bystanders for assistance. She would literally ask strangers if they would mind lifting her onto the bus. She was completely at ease with her condition and had an unrelenting trust in the goodness of humankind.
When I think about her life, I know I couldn’t have done what she did, and it brings me great shame to admit it because Michelle proved to me, with her unwavering courage, that the mere act of living is wonderful despite the obstacles that seem to be in our way.
Sometimes I’d beg her to tell me what she did at the CIA, and she always told me the same thing, “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.” I still don’t know much about her career, but I know she smiled every day and was an inspiration to everyone she worked with.
By living her life to the fullest, my sister achieved a kind of greatness. Unlike so many of us, she was able to be herself, to become herself. Because of her, I have hope for all humanity. I believe that we all have the power to achieve greatness.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.