Things My Sister Taught Me

Guest Author: Susanne Skinner

My sister Angela is 51. She is an accomplished artist, fabric designer and video producer. She sews, weaves, dances, and writes poetry. She built a motorcycle from scrap lumber and metal from the dump and her paintings are for sale in local art galleries. She is a student of Shotokan Karate, plays on local soccer and basketball teams and loves to shop. She also has Down Syndrome.

sistersGrowing up in a family of five, she was different but never treated differently. My parents had the same expectations for all of us – that we would live into our potential as adults and contribute something to this world. In that respect, she is the most successful of all of us. She shows me what is important in life and teaches me what should be valued. Angela makes the most of each day, from beginning to end. She looks back with fondness – never regret. She is an optimist and mirrors the success each of us would aspire to if only we could see it through her eyes.

A Different Time

My mother did not know Angela had Down Syndrome until after she was born. It was the Sixties and such things were dealt with differently and without much information. The doctor suggested that three other children at home would make things too difficult and recommended they explore “all other options available to them.” This is where Angela’s story begins. My parents brought her home.

She was raised with the same values and discipline the rest of us knew, and was mainstreamed into classes in our school. My parents had one more child after Angela and together they learned to walk and talk, tie shoes, wear big girl panties and read. She grew up believing she could do things because nobody told her she couldn’t. My parents encouraged her to do everything the rest of us did. We often joke that she does things “her way”—a prologue to the creativity and artistic imagination that followed. She is not afraid to see things differently. Her mind and heart are open. It is one of the most profound lessons she has taught me.

When I am with her, I realize she is a step ahead of those who wake up with a great attitude. She actually goes to bed and anticipates the wonderful day she is going to have! Each day has joy woven into it because she plans it that way. She is fearless in her approach to life – she wants to experience everything. She has never wished anyone ill or allowed herself to be upset by the insignificant things that prey on all of us. She teaches me to focus on what is real and deserving of my attention, not what is petty or material.

The Spindleworks Community

Angela belongs to a community of adult artists with disabilities called Spindleworks. She is appreciated for her artistic interpretations in an environment dedicated to breaking down stereotypes and promoting the uniqueness of each person there. She has good friends and strong mentors who encourage her to express herself through media and materials that bring her art to life. She creates something every day that is beautiful, colorful and completely her own. I am trying to be more like her.

My sister loves to paint the famous and the infamous! From Michael Jackson to Adam and Eve, she has put them on canvas. Her paintings capture something a mainstream artist might not see. I like that. How often to do we look at someone or something and find exactly what we expected? When I look at her paintings I immediately see she has found something unique about the person she has painted. She inspires me to look for the unexpected.

Angela likes everybody and always has a smile on her face. When I jokingly ask if she loves me the best she responds with great seriousness that she loves us all the same. She is persistent – those of us that know her well can attest to her determination and fortitude! She never gives up – she simply chooses a new direction. Where we see obstacles she sees adventure and opportunity. She competes in the Special Olympics and her walls are filled with medals and ribbons. Unlike regular competitions, these games reward everyone for their skill, courage, sharing and joy. I think they’re on to something.

sistersAs we age together I know there are life experiences and levels of maturity she will not attain. She will not hold a full time job, have a driver’s license or children of her own – but these were never her goals. She has a sense of completeness in her life that I envy, and the simplicity that eludes many of us is present in each of her days.

Angela introduces me to things in ways only she can. I have much more to learn from her than she does from me. I am blessed to call her my sister and my friend.