My little sister inspires me to be stronger, better, kinder

Makayla (9), who has Down syndrome, works hard to achieve what most of us take for granted. Faced with daily struggles, she throws her head back and laughs

Rebecca Bradley (18) with her sister Makayla at home in Dublin. Photograph: David Sleator

Rebecca Bradley (18) with her sister Makayla at home in Dublin. Photograph: David Sleator


Her story is not flashy, or headline-worthy. Her name will not be in any history books. If she walked past you on the street, you wouldn’t notice her any more than other passers-by.

But, I can assure you, that doesn’t mean she isn’t someone to be inspired by and admired. For beauty does not always lie in the obvious. When looking to be inspired, the answer will not always lie in the man with the cape fighting battles, or the famous saviour. Sometimes you have to look more closely, to stop and peer at what is all around you, and there you will find it – the awe-inspiring ordinary.

My sister was born on September 3rd, 2004, six weeks early. Red hair, like most of my family, pale skin and freckles that splatter over her nose. All similar traits to the rest of us, except for her eyes: striking blue, but slanted at the side. In her own words, Makayla was born with “a touch of Down syndrome”.

With her arrival, along with happiness, came fear born of uncertainty. What would she be like? Would she speak, or walk, or go to school? We were too young to notice any of it; my youngest sister, then three, explained patiently to her friend that Makayla was, of course, from China.

But the fears were unwarranted; she grew up along with the rest of us. Crawling turned to walking and soon she was chasing our dog around the kitchen. She speaks now (borderline incessantly) and, not to tell on her, but recently she has even begun adding a few more F-words to her vocabulary than my mother would like.

However, these successes did not develop by chance. Her life is jam-packed with speech therapy, physiotherapy, blood tests and more. Most girls her age go to school and do their homework, and that is all that is expected of them, but she must work much harder to achieve the same results.


A hard worker

Hours are spent after an already-long school day, in which she works harder than anyone else I know. From the time she was born, she has sat opposite various professionals and struggled through things she found difficult on an almost daily basis.

For her, summers are spent not just at the beach like other nine-year-olds, but in offices, repeating word exercises and with homework to be done afterwards.

In 18 years I haven’t done as much work as she has in nine. While most of us learned to ride a bicycle on our road with a parent holding on to our seat, Makayla spent weeks in a large hall learning with her teacher, falling down repeatedly but, more importantly, standing back up each time.

She is not oblivious to tiredness or pain, and often doesn’t want to face the workload again, but she does. It is in this strength that I often find inspiration for courage of my own. When things are difficult for her, she never allows them to slow her down.

Everyday battles that she faces go unnoticed by the untrained eye. People take for granted what is easy for them, but I watch closely as, in some everyday tasks, she looks up another mountain she must climb. Waiting to collect her from school, I watch as she walks with her friends. They talk animatedly, and she joins in, but I stand and stare as she attempts to say something but cannot form the words quickly enough. When her classmates loudly interrupt her fading stuttering voice, my heart breaks, and I want to run and demand they listen. But they are only children. I am easily knocked down by something so small.

But she is better than I. I stand and stare as she looks back up and breathes – in, out – and starts the sentence again. Young eyes slip back to her face and, this time, they nod in agreement before continuing.

She reaches me and I want to hug her, but she starts talking to me about her day and I know it’s nothing to her, nothing that she hasn’t faced a thousand times before.

When she encounters new people, they unknowingly become different. The moment they see her face, they change their stance, their tone, and she has lost something before she even opens her mouth.

Although she works tirelessly to achieve ordinary victories and to hold a conversation as well as anyone else her age, people overlook the person she is when they are faced with the appearances of her disability. It doesn’t faze her, however: she smiles and talks on, gently reassuring her listener that she can. Each time I am inspired by her resolutely kind nature.

As I grow older, I find myself looking at the world around me in a similar way, but what I find is not as inspiring. I watch others, and sometimes even myself, allow insignificant “hardships” to drag them down into the swirling darkness of unhappiness.

Money and power dictate our priorities and people seem more concerned with their outward appearance than their internal morality.

It seems nonsensical that we allow trivial aspects of our lives to upset or worry us, when we have so much greatness and so little standing in our way. We take for granted every task that isn’t a mountain for us to climb and every word that falls effortlessly from our lips.


Strength and courage

Makayla in most ways is a very ordinary person. She sleeps, eats and breathes like the rest of us. She stops talking to me when I annoy her and has an addiction to chocolate. But she continuously finds ways to be remarkable. She inspires me to be stronger and kinder and better, and in every struggle she faces in life, she showcases the very best of human nature.

Her life may not always be easy. The future holds uncertainty in how she will fare, when everything isn’t as easy as a bedtime story and picking her up when she is tired. But I know she will be okay, because her strength is undeniable and her courage very real.

Today, I watch as she stands in the sun outside, with grass beneath her bare feet, and with all that she has gone through, and continues to go through, she does the most phenomenal thing: she laughs. She throws her head back in the face of struggle, crinkles her eyes and laughs.

There’s a lesson there. In times of impending unhappiness or when faced with seemingly insurmountable problems, take a moment to stop and think. We can find plenty of inspiration in the struggles of others and in their small, quiet victories. I find it every day in the life of my little sister.

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