My Sister Is a Gift

I’ve written about my sister before, but there’s a special milestone in her life happening right around now and even though I won’t say specifically what it is, I thought it would be appropriate to remind her that I think she’s awesome. It may be her birthday, but she’s the gift.

(And I’m NOT going to say WHICH birthday this is, but the original title of this post was “FIFTY Things I Learned From My Sister.” But discretion.)

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Woke up like this.

When I was little, I admired my sister because she is beautiful. I remember very clearly one afternoon when I was about 11. Gay and Joe and I were walking down the dirt road from the bus stop to our house. I looked over at the sister I had seen every day of my life and saw just how beautiful she is–blue black hair shining in the sun, a quick smile, sparkly eyes. She wore a green striped shirt that day, a shirt she had bought with her own money from her first job. I thought she had to be the most beautiful girl ever.

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She’s the one in the flowery hat.

As I grew older, I learned to admire my sister because she is smart. Wicked smart. She made being smart and being proud of being smart look fun and easy to me. So I grew up thinking it was normal to be curious and confident about the way the world works. She sailed through college with a double major in Chemistry/Biology. Went straight to medical school with a full scholarship. I remember talking to her one night when she was studying for a Pharmacology final. She said she had 800 pages of notes to cover. I couldn’t believe it when she said, “I just want to pass.” I laughed like that was out of the question and said something like, “Yeah, right, you’ve probably got a 96.” She said, “Nope. I’ve got a 68 going into the final….but that’s the second highest grade in the class!”

When we grew into adults, I realized that my sister–who once beat the crap out of me for using her hair brush–is exceedingly kind. Not the namby pamby kind of kind. She’ll yank your pancreas out in 30 seconds flat if that’s what needs to happen, but she’ll also squeeze your hand later and tell you you’re going to be OK. When everyone started watching “E.R.” on NBC, I asked her which of the doctors on the show was most like what she did every day. She said, “I’m the tall black guy, only not an asshole.” Ah. I asked her one time if she faces sexism as a female surgeon and she answered, “Oh, I’ve walked into patient rooms and had them ask me to fetch them coffee.” How did she handle that? “I got them coffee then introduced myself as Dr. Garrett.” When I started working in healthcare, we talked about how doctors learn the human side of doctoring. She told me her secret to communicating with patients. “I pretend I’m talking to Grandmama Eunice. She’s someone I love and respect, who’s plenty smart, but doesn’t speak medical jargon. Plus I know she would jerk a knot in me if I got on my high horse about being The Doctor.”

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She’s so generous, and I’m not just talking about money. She gives her time and her talents. Over the last few years, Gay has started doing medical mission trips to South America. She pays her own way, uses her own vacation time, and carries bags and bags of donated supplies to countries that need more surgical hands. She’ll do 40 cases in a week in a mountainside hospital in Bolivia and those patients get the same level of care her patients back home do. She’s taught Bolivian doctors to perform minimally invasive procedures so that patients who support an entire family through subsistence farming have much shorter recovery times. Hell, she even got a hospital up here to donate an entire surgical suite that was being replaced but still in perfect working order! When she met a Wesleyan student who wanted to become a surgeon, Gay brought her up over spring break to shadow her then took her on the next medical mission, too.

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Helping out a Wesleyan sister.


I used to admire my sister because she was brave–windsurfing, snowboarding, mountain climbing, scuba diving, kind of brave. Now that the need for adrenaline is tapering off…I realize that she’s strong. She’s not stupid fearless–she still screams at spiders–but she’s steely. If she decides it’s worth the risk, she’s in 100%. And I’m not talking about sports. I’m talking about those days when Richard was dying and she was right there beside us the whole way. She was in the room when the doctors told him to go home. A month after he died, Gay and I were at the site of the World Trade Center and I mentioned that day in the hospital room. She confided that that had been one of the hardest days of her life–being the loving family member in the room, getting the bad news, instead of the doctor giving it. But I never would have guessed at the time. She doesn’t flinch.

My sister is loving. She and her husband are absolutely devoted to each other, even to the point of using ridiculous nicknames that I won’t publish here. Some things SHOULD be kept off the internet. These goofballs have been together for…jeez is it almost 20 years?…and they are smitten kittens.

Scarlett and Rhett, in the flesh.

Scarlett and Rhett, in the flesh.

She loves the nieces and the nephews and makes sure they get an adventure here and there. Even before I knew I was pregnant with Vivi, Gay and I went on an adventure to the zoo in Chicago. A woman in the big cats house noticed that we were repeat visitors and told us to hang around until just before the park closes. We did, and were rewarded with the thrill of hearing lions and tigers roar for their dinner. I will never forget the way my body quivered as their calls bounced off the walls. The air shook. Gay and I turned to each other in silence with delighted grins on our faces. To think, the tiny beginning of Vivi, my lioness, was there somewhere. Since then, Aunt Gay has taken her to see sea lions, snow leopards, orangutans, penguins, and even Nana’s chickens down in the garden.

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I could tell 50 more stories just like these, but they all are simply my way of saying “Happy Birthday” to my sister. I love you.

9 thoughts on “My Sister Is a Gift

  1. Linda

    Beautiful and well deserved tribute to your beautiful sister. Gay, aka Dr. Garrett, has always been one of the nicest and smartest women I’ve had the privilege of knowing. I know she is just as proud of you as you are of her. Keep up the great work, Ashley, I love all of your stories and the memories they bring back.


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