My sister is alive, healthy and normal.

Those who know my sister will be pleased to read that opening line. (If you are my sister, you will also be pleased to read that opening line, and you might be wondering what the heck you’re about to read.)

My sister has a family, job and a house. She makes a weekly calendar of dinners. She runs half marathons. She was and probably still is an exceptional rollerblader.

She’s not famous. Or a cannibal. She does not make her own pasta.

She’s just my sister, Kristin.

“Just” is a little word that carries a lot of weight. There are so many “just” people in our lives. The people who are always there, within reach. Perhaps not in proximity but…there. Around.

  • Just our parents, a phone call away—yet we don’t always find the time.
  • Just our spouse, who we lament to after a bad day—yet we fail to say “thanks for listening.”
  • Just an old friend, where the conversation is easy—yet they’re the first to get bumped from our schedules.
  • Just a cousin, a colleague, an old teammate.

We forget how lucky we are to have them. I realized something recently. These “just” people aren’t just people, they’re my people. Very important people who have influenced my life and shaped my interests, personality, beliefs, perspectives, passions and outlook.

They’ll always be there, right? They’ll always be around. (…Right?)

A few months ago, my sister and I went on a drive around our hometown. It was the first time we’d been alone in ages—no kids to manage or holiday logistics. No mission-oriented errands.

We drove down the roads of our youth, both literally and figuratively. We dropped by our old high school (which sadly hadn’t changed much) and cruised by the house we grew up in, noting all the things that had or hadn’t changed. “They took down the basketball goal! That mailbox is the exact same…what’s the lifespan of a mailbox? Oh look, that tree has gotten huge!”

I watched ghosts of our past selves play in the yard where we had Easter egg hunts. Where we played soccer and capture the flag. Barefoot and smelly.

We inched slowly through the neighborhood, pointing and talking with a strange mix of excitement, sweet affection, and melancholy.

It felt like there was a film over my eyes, and I was seeing the intimately familiar through a distorted filter. I suppose that’s the filter of time.

We drove past the spot where there was a tragic car accident when we were both teenagers. I was 13, Kristin a sophomore. She knew the kids involved. It took me 20 years to realize how much that event must’ve left an imprint on my sister’s life. Thinking back to that season of our youth, Kristin was one of my most loved friends but someone I didn’t often get along with. I regret not making more of an effort to reach out to her then. My favorite person was on the other side of my bedroom wall, up awake thinking, too.

That drive reminded me of how often we forget to look outward and make a concerted effort to empathize with others, especially those we care about most. We take advantage of their presence.

I’ve been stirred awake. I’m making a proactive attempt to be more grateful for all “my people.” They’re anything but “just people.”

I am who I am today because of them.

Today. Today is Kristin’s birthday.

Growing up, I was a typical little sister. I’d watch Kristin’s every move, go out of my way to annoy her, and, of course, copy her. Emulate her. Follow her.

Kristin started painting and making crafts in high school. I then started painting and got hooked on all aspects of art. With her encouragement, I’d rip out the cardboard of my 3-ring binders and paint them as gifts for friends. We’d shop at Michael’s together and make gifts for people. I became interested in art as a hobby and eventually got more serious, studying it in college. Today, I work in the design field.

In college, Kristin became active as a camp counselor at a non-profit that led community-based construction projects. She showed me what it meant to serve others and force yourself into unfamiliar/uncomfortable places, like visiting poverty-stricken homes deep in Appalachia. I joined the same non-profit a year later, where I also met my now-husband.

Kristin spent her first year out of college working with kids in Camden, New Jersey. I spent my first year out of college writing grants for a non-profit that served kids in Charlotte.

These are the most tangible examples of her influence, one that I’ve never mapped out on paper until now—such an obvious mirrored path that I can trace with my finger.

I’m grateful for many other memories and gifts my sister has given me.

  • The way she’d let me drag my twin mattress into her room to have “sleepovers.”
  • The fun we had creating a pulley system out of a basket and yarn to launch our dolls out of her second-story window.
  • How she writes such thoughtful cards, and the beautiful quilt she sewed for my daughter.
  • That time she drove 3 hours to see me in the hospital with my newborn, bravely toting her own two-week-old along for the trip.
  • The way she always encourages me to write and to draw.
  • Wine, martinis and honest talk about the challenges of motherhood, marriage, our genes and careers.
  • The way she tells me I’m a good mom, instinctively knowing I need to hear it.

My sister is the most thoughtful person I know. I’m very fortunate for all the opportunities I had to adopt her behavior. Case in point, this letter she wrote me on my 8th birthday:

I love you, sister. I hope you have “the best birthday ever!” I’m glad you are my sister.

Thanks for the drive.

Please note that my baby is holding onto your baby, and your baby is like, “STOP TOUCHING ME!”

Caitlin Vlastakis Smith

Written by

Listener, storyteller, advocate for human-centered design and sense-making. Imperfect writer, maker, and mother.

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