Today is a day to celebrate one of the most special, strongest and most loved people I know for it is my sister Mandi’s birthday. Birthdays are big deals around here. Growing up, our mother taught us that birthdays are days to rejoice because this world would not be the same without you in it. My world would definitely not be the same without my sister. I can’t imagine a universe in which she wasn’t around for me to laugh with, or go white-water rafting. I can’t imagine not having her to play with as children, I remember playing in the ditch behind my grandparents’ house with her and Barbie dolls when we were younger. I remember being so proud of her, for she stood up for herself—even when she had to do that against our dad. Mandi doesn’t just care about the people in her life, she takes care of them. She loves them, whole-heartedly and without condition. Mandi can talk me into doing almost anything because she knows that, deep down, past all my reservations, I’ve got more adventure in me than I like to admit. Going shopping and then out to eat with her is always a fun thing to do because we laugh a lot. Currently, she works 45 hours as a Salon Director of a tanning salon, managing multiple employees and midnight-hour calls, while simultaneously going full time through Nursing School. Her days run from 6:30am to 11:30pm. But she doesn’t complain. She’s got her eye on a goal and it is precious to me to be able to watch her achieve something she’s wanted to do since were little kids. Her unquenchable zest for life and energy is beautiful. She’s a butterfly and she’s my best friend. For those reasons, even though I wrote the following piece last year, it is important that I re-post it today, to let her know how much I love her and how monumentally important she is—-not only to my life but to this world. Happy birthday, Mandi!

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The newest epiphany motherhood has taught me concerns cars.

This morning, my girls and I got up, ate a leisurely breakfast and then jumped in the car and, just like that, headed off to Chattanooga. There is a special exhibit at the Creative Discovery Museum based off of the popular children’s book series, The Magic Treehouse. Now, my girls just aren’t that into Jack and Annie. My chapter-reader, Breathe, prefers more realistic adventures than time-travel fantasy-type stories. But they are both into “olden days,” particularly Breathe. That child was supposed to have been born in the eighteen-hundreds. We play “Old Time” regularly. For Christmas, she wanted an “Old Time” dress, wash-board and rag doll. She loves it when I take cotton balls, put them strategically in bushes because then she gets to get a bucket and go “pick cotton.” They both love having me string a line between two chairs so they can wash and hang out to dry baby doll clothes. Truly, the kid’s got Old Time in her blood. So I knew she had to see this exhibit. And my youngest daughter, Alight, would go to the gas station every day if it was the only place she could go. Alight is a go-go-go type girl. She was particularly excited.

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So off we go.

I should mention, we are in the car a lot. We drive like crazy, to Spring Hill, to Murfreesboro, to downtown—I’m not afraid of logging some miles if it means time spent actively engaged with each other. So my girls are used to hanging out in the back seat. They color, play the DSes and we sing. Pretty much, that is how we usually pass the time in the car. But today, they brought along Hunter and Hayden, a few of their most beloved baby dolls. Almost from the moment we took off to the time we landed in Chattanooga, they giggled hysterically and got lost in pretend play with each other and the dolls. I was left to sing by myself. Except for when we passed semi-trucks. Every time we approached one, they would screech and say, “slow down, Mama! Get ready , here we go!” So I would slow down and try to stay abreast the semi-truck while the three of us took our bent-at-the-elbow arms and pulled them up and down. Some of the boring truckers ignored us. But about half of them would smile and oblige, pulling on the horn and eliciting great shrieks of delight from the girls. Trying to get the truckers to honk at you…. it is such a simple game… and yet… today, it birthed great tenderness in my heart. You see, it brought forth a collage of memories involving two different little girls riding in the back seat down a seemingly endless highway.

My sister’s name is Mandi. At least, that’s what her name is if you meet me before you meet her. Technically, her legal name is Stephini Amanda. But Mama decided to get creative and call her Mandi, a diminutive from Amanda. So, until she entered school, she was known universally as Mandi. But my sister is fiercely independent. And she decided, upon entering school, that she would prefer to be called Stephini. So, everyone who did not know our family, called her Stephini. The older we got, the more hilarious the consequences became. The phone would ring at the house (this was pre-cell phone days). I’d answer it and the friend on the other end would ask for “Stephini.” I’d lay the phone down and holler “Mandi!” not thinking twice about the clueless person on the phone who could hear me. When Mandi would pick up the phone, the friend would say, “Who is Mandi?” Then, at night, when we were supposed to be sleeping, we would giggle about it.

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We shared a lot.

We were both awakened in the middle of the night, put into a backseat layered with pillows and blankets, and driven away. We’d both wake up as dawn was breaking and be transferred to a bed in a hotel. We both pretended to sleep while our parents fought. Later, we would pile back into the car, lay the pillows over our laps to act as desks, and invent games to play while driving. We pulled our bent-at-the-elbow arms up and down at truckers too and squealed with delight when they obliged. I can’t even count the number of times we played card games like Rummy or Crazy Eight. We each had our own CD player and headphones but we enjoyed very different music. She’d pop in Backstreet Boys and I’d pop in Tanya Tucker and then we’d both sing out loud. We’d argue over whose turn it was to sit in the front seat. Eventually, my mother put an end to that argument by assigning each of us certain days of the week…. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I could sit up front. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, Mandi could. We would alternate Sundays. When we’d been driving for days and night began to fall, my mother would lay the seats down and pad the back with covers. We would lay down and stare out at the darkened sky, feeling the car vibrating beneath us, watching the stars race past us. Driving was part of our everyday life. At times, the car was our home. At times, we’d keep driving simply because we didn’t have anywhere else to go.

You’d think I’d hate the car after years of riding.

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Mandi

But I don’t.

And the reason I don’t is because of my sister. It was during car rides that we learned how the other thought and operated. It was during the car rides that we would whisper. It was during car rides that we’d make up games, like trying to guess what color the next car that passed us would be. By the time the car stopped and we were able to get out at some new house, a very special bond had already been formed. Mandi is my younger sister by two years. But I would watch her and try to figure out ways to be just like her. She’s got this energy about her, and this zest for life, that is awesome to watch. Year and years before I ever met Joey, Mandi was telling me how one day she would buy an apartment building and let the homeless stay in the apartments for free. While I was writing, Mandi was drawing and designing incredible fashions. While I was volunteering, Mandi was developing the work ethic of a CEO. Mandi has always been an essential part of our family, the glue that’s held us all together more than once.

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But she’s more than that.

She’s one of my best friends, and a woman I admire more than just about any other. I used to watch her in wonder. When our dad would make her mad, she’d say so. I remember listening to her tell him “no” like a normal pre-adolescent and thinking, “Good God, she is brave.” I remember telling myself at night to just do what she did, to just say no. No matter how hard I tried to find that courage, I couldn’t. Instead, I remember taking her by the arm and shaking my head, telling her to be quiet. I was scared that if she didn’t just back down, something terrible would happen that would break all that beautiful, healthy sass. But she wouldn’t listen and she plowed her way through impossible situations, keeping a tight reign on what was right and what was not.

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I remember being very, very young and sleeping in the same bed. She would ask me to tell her a story and so I would. I would make up fantastical stories and there we’d fall asleep, me being eight or nine and she being six or seven. Sometimes, when the fighting would turn horrific, she would courageously get up and walk to my room, just to make sure I was okay. I would tell her to go back to bed, terrified that, if she didn’t, there would even scarier consequences. I remember praying aching, haunting prayers, especially as an adolescent, for her safety and then feeling so grateful to God the next day when she would still be full of life and passion. She somehow managed to come out of an unstable, violent home with her head held high and with the ability to laugh.

Mandi, me and Jenny getting ready for Opryland's SkyCoaster on Mandi's 18th birthday

Mandi, me and Jenny getting ready for Opryland’s SkyCoaster on Mandi’s 18th birthday

All those car rides represent a time when we were pushed together. Unlike normal siblings who have the freedom to go to different classes, to have different friends, to separate more, we didn’t. We were together all the time. And it made us unbelievably close. It taught us that, no matter what happens, we have each other. I don’t have to have the words to explain what all that traveling was like because she already knows. I don’t have to have the words to explain what the fights were like, or the type of fear they inspired, because she already knows. She was with me the night we walked, as a thirteen and eleven year old, hugging each other close in the pitch black night, praying out loud, to my great-aunt’s house because my grandmother was violently attacking my mother. I don’t have to have the words to explain not knowing how to answer the question, “Where is your dad?” to our friends at school because she already knows the confusion and shame that question brought. I don’t have to have the words to explain all the ways our mother safeguarded our faith and taught us to believe in the good because Mandi already knows. Today, as adults, when we go white-water rafting or get together to shop or go to dinner, there’s a part of me that truly relaxes.

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The best relationships, or friendships, are formed when you truly have time to get to know each other. When you have time to see other at your best, at your worst, at your most vulnerable. Our connection is strong because we don’t only love one another, despite our flaws, but because we understand each other and because we sincerely like each other. My sister has a tattoo on her back. Although I don’t personally see the appeal of tattoos, it is pretty. It is made even more beautiful by what it is a picture: a butterfly. The butterfly, after all, starts out as a slow-moving caterpillar whose existence barely registers on most people. Until that same overlooked caterpillar turns upside down and, seemingly magically, surrounds itself inside a cocoon. Within the cocoon, a miraculous metamorphosis is taking place. The caterpillar is literally shedding its skin and sprouting wings. It is becoming greater than everything that unsuspecting others imagined it would ever amount to. It is taking the debris and using it to become… well…. beautiful. And then, one day, slowly, the butterfly hatches from its cocoon. Its wings are still wet and it cannot really fly still for a few hours. But it is changed. It is not the same mono-colored caterpillar it used to be. Soon, its wings will dry and find flight for the first time. Can you imagine what that would be like for the caterpillar who had previously spent its entire life unable even to stand upright to soar over the ground? At last, that caterpillar has become free. Free to fly. Free to become something so beautiful it takes others’ breaths away. Free to embrace a new life, with new sights and sounds and textures, unhindered by shame, guilt or sadness. People call my sister the Social Butterfly. She’s always made friends super easily. Even when we were in school, others wanted to be around her. She’s got this positive energy that is balanced with a self-confidence that, given her history, is truly awe-inspiring. Though she still has her own struggles, she has hatched from the cocoon and is free.

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When I had my first daughter, I immediately wanted another. Not only because I love children but also for Breathe. I wanted her to have the kind of friendship that is found only with siblings. I wanted her to giggle and play and protect and conspire. My girls definitely do all of that. They’ve deliberately flooded my bathroom three times and attempted to flush underwear down the potty. They’ve cut my hair with real, working scissors which, any woman will tell you, is a traumatic experience. They also made me a scrapbook with pictures that they colored for me. They’ve also sat in the back seat of the car, as they did today, and giggled, sang and imagined. They played some of the same car games Mandi and I played once upon a time. Sometimes they use baby doll blankets to wrap up toys that mean something to them and they take that wrapped “gift” and give it to the other sister. Recently, Breathe gave Alight one of her special dolls. Alight gave Breathe one of her squishies which shocked even me. And sometimes they will look at each other and, without saying a word, seem to know what the other is thinking. Truly, they love each other and are best friends. They don’t know it yet but it’s one of the greatest gifts God has given them: the relationship they have with each other. Sisters are one-of-a-kind, special and truly priceless treasures. There’s a tenderness to that friendship that never goes away, no matter how old you get. In fact, a picture circulated around Facebook recently of two old ladies in rocking chairs. The saying on the picture talked about how they were go glad they had grown old together. It made me get all sappy, thinking about how Mandi and I will be old together one day. How we’ve celebrated each others’ successes and held each other up through times of intense sorrow. Mandi was the first person I called when the doctor told me there was a hole in my heart that would require surgery. She was the one in the operating room with me when my youngest daughter was born. I was the one she called when she was robbed. I was the one who faced my deathly fear of roller coasters to ride the SkyCoaster at Opryland with her on her 18th birthday so that she wouldn’t have to do it alone. I will still tease her about how she has to organize food on her plate by color before she can eat. She will still be trying to pick my clothes for me. I will be there when she graduates from Nursing School. And, when we get old, we’ll still laugh about how we used to pretend we were practicing for the Olympics in hotel swimming pools and how what her name is depends on whether one meets her or me first. We’ll recall how we had crazy guides on the Ocoee every Summer when we went white-water rafting and how, after rafting, we always got lost in Chattanooga trying to find an O’Charleys’ to eat at. Truly, friends for life.

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My girls warmed my heart and made my day that much more better without even knowing it as they giggled in the car. I don’t mind the messes they create because it’s just proof that they are still children and sisters. When we got home and they finally went to sleep, I sat down at my desk and my head filled with visions of our Chattanooga trip. We had fun playing Clara Barton. We had fun pretending to be Mayflower pilgrims. We had fun digging in the soft sand, excavating dinosaur bones. We had fun playing school in the one-room schoolhouse, dressed in “old-time” costumes. But one of my favorite moments is when the truckers honked at them and they, in turn, squealed like Tiffini and Mandi used to.

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