Loving the Unlovely

My sister, Janice, is turning 65 this month.  I really don’t talk about her much.  Maybe because it’s just hard to do so.  And truthfully perhaps I’m ashamed of her.  I like to think I’m not embarrassed by her like I was when I was a kid. But maybe I still am.   I find it hard at times to love the unlovely… especially when it’s my own flesh and blood.  It’s a bit easier to show kindness and patience to an unlovely person I’m not closely related to or grew up with.  There exists a natural emotional distance or detachment.   But the fact is Janice is my older sister and we’re born of the same parents.

In my childhood I enjoyed playing with my twin brother and other kids.  But Janice was older and different. And I didn’t enjoy playing with her. Actually I really don’t remember playing with her at all. She liked dolls and I didn’t, and she would easily get angry and she wasn’t too smart.  My brother and I would create stories with our toys and let our imagination go wild.  Janice couldn’t even remember the rules of a simple board game.    She was often teased and bullied and would get angry and upset, and she didn’t seem to have many playmates.

Janice was born with a collapsed lung so her oxygen starved brain was damaged.  As she grew older she lagged behind her peers and was placed in “special ed” classes during high school. She never graduated.  In those days the word “retarded” was use.  And she was considered “mildly retarded.”  Now one uses the term special needs or speaks of disabilities whether they be physical or mental or even emotional.  Our parents took her to various specialists and my mother spent hours doing therapy with her.  As she entered adulthood,  Janice lived at different homes and “experimented” with various living and working situations. At one time the social workers even tried getting her to live on her own. It didn’t work.  Not too many things really worked.  In the late 1980’s after my parents’ divorce, Janice finally moved in with my mother and stayed with her until my mother was no longer able to take care of her every day.  Again for various reasons Janice moved from one home to another until the present place where she probably will live until the end of her years here on earth.

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However, not until a few years ago did I realize Janice also suffers with borderline personality disorder that affects her relationships with people more than anything else.  She wants the attention of everyone– especially significant people in her life and if she doesn’t get that undivided attention, she’ll lash out at those who are getting it.  Or she’ll break something or hurt herself to receive the attention she desperately wants.  She has made suicidal threats and ended up in the hospital for observation.  She also has received fines from police who came after she hit other residents who pressed charges. This past year her cognitive abilities have declined and she may even have early onset Alzheimer’s.  A year ago she stopped walking on her own when she saw how comfortable it was to be pushed around in a wheel chair.  And after observing others being fed and getting attention that way,  she also stopped feeding herself for a time.  But thankfully she is eating on her own once again and can move around in the wheelchair using her feet.

I try to visit her once a week yet it’s hard for me to go see her.  Her room is in the dementia area and I see a number of residents that are in much worse shape than she is.  Some are twisted in chairs.  Others are yelling.  The halls are crowded at times.   I struggle with guilt and wonder if she could be in a better place.  But she is under the state now after receiving disability all her adult life.  And no other home wants her.  I know I am unable to take care of her 24/7 and I know she is getting the care she needs.  But I still feel sad. Yet I am thankful she is nearby and I can see her. And she actually seems okay there, except for the few residents who always irritate her.

When I was a kid I thought my family would be perfect without my sister.  How little did I know how dysfunctional my family was at that time and far from ever being perfect!  But now I see that Janice has been a very special part of my family and my life,  and I have and am still learning from her.

Because of Janice…

  • I have vivid memories of my mom’s sacrificial love and devotion as she took care of my needy sister
  • I am reminded constantly that every person is treasured and loved, created uniquely by God
  • I have good memories of  Janice:  playing the piano, feeding her guinea pig, walking home from the bus stop, watching the fireworks and Make-A-Wish Truck Caravan with our mother at her home, eating out with me and chatting to strangers, and  going with me  to our niece’s wedding.
  • I have met many who care for special needs children and adults and who sincerely love them and make them laugh.

But most of all I am reminded that Jesus would love Janice and others like her.  He would visit her and care about her and be patient with her and understand her needs.  When He was on this earth he touched the sick and unclean.  He cared for the widow and prostitute.  He cared for those others would labeled as unlovely and unpopular and not cool at all, social misfits and outcasts.

As His follower I want to do the same.  And with His strength and compassion I want to see and accept my sister as lovely and loved.

2 thoughts on “Loving the Unlovely

  1. Thank you for sharing your heart like this. Many of us have family members with special needs and this is a good reminder of why we should be patient with them. Somehow it’s easier to love and be patient with those who have physical disabilities than those with seemingly mild but just as debilitating mental disabilities. My husband’s sister sounds like a twin to yours. Sometimes she’s loving, caring, and fun for our children to be around. Other times she’s paranoid, unreasonable, and threatening. It takes prayer & empathy to be around her when she’s being unlovely. Thank you again for being real, Joyce!

    • And Kris, thanks for sharing YOUR story too! Yes, many of us do have family (and friends) who have special needs. Yet they are so much a part of our lives –for the good and for the bad, for the joy and for the sadness. Thanks!

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