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Big Sister Steph

Me, Steph, and Allison

I've written nothing here in 2+ years and here I am, coming in hot with words I spoke at the service for Big Sister Steph. She escaped her earthly self on February 17th and I've been considering how I feel about that ever since. I started with this.


There’s a tale in our family, told so many times and for so many years, it’s impossible to know its truth. Of course I mean “truth” in the sense of whether or not it actually happened. I’m certain of its truth as a pillar of our Stephanie story.

In the early 80s, we were three small sisters in Raytown. Mom & Dad would let Steph take Allison and me for rides in our red wagon. If you grew up before the 90s, you know wagons weren’t always made of cushy canvas. They used to be made of shrapnel and bolts, with optional rust from being left in the rain. And Steph’s unique driving style led to many trips, with turned wagon wheels, over the hump of the curb. This trip has one guaranteed result: full passenger ejection. Elbows and knees on hot pavement. Fingers in death grip, smashed between rusty shrapnel and road.

As Allison and I remember, Mom and Dad found this endlessly entertaining. Stephanie, too. If you believe as I do, that sense of humor is a sign of intelligence, Steph ranked higher than MANY folks I know.

I’m the last person on this little blue earth to pretend to have answers; especially on days like today. Mostly because I find human-sized answers to universe-sized questions infinitely boring. The questions, on the other hand, are my favorite.

And when I consider my questions surrounding the story of Steph, I find they’re rarely about Stephanie at all. They’re mostly about us. And not in the sense of her being sent to teach life lessons. That’s a level of self-centered cruelty I’m unwilling to approach. It’s more a searching struggle to understand what reality she reveals - about us.

As you can imagine, individual human responses to Steph were always quite varied. I’ll admit, young Ashley used this as a friendship filter and later as a litmus test when dating. Fair or unfair, if you didn’t know what to do with Big Sister Steph, I didn’t know what to do with you either.

It’s easy to explain away the stares she received or the awkward interactions as discomfort with the unfamiliar. But the sociologist in me has spent countless hours pondering why sister Steph (and those like her) make us so uncomfortable.

Is it because she brought us face-to-face with our embarrassing lack of gratitude for a healthy, working, mostly “normal” body and brain?

Is it because she exposed how shamefully we take for granted the fifty billion tiny, successful sequences that made us...and the fifty billion tiny, successful sequences that sustain us?

Is it because she was a not-so-subtle reminder that our lives and bodies and existence are freakishly fragile and pretty darn precarious?

Or is it simply because she wasn’t privy to our silly social cues? Sister Steph did not know about or care about cute clothes, great hair, our warrior workouts, bank accounts, impressive job titles, or even volunteer hours and fancy theology. How would she know how important and valuable I am?

What Steph did know was the worst and best of life. The pain she experienced was unimaginable. Just have Dad tell you about the time she fell and bit nearly all the way through her tongue. And the doctors had to stitch it back together.

But more so, Steph knew delight. And her delight was perfection. Simple and pure. And found in all the best and most obvious, easy places.

The girl could freaking float happily in her inner tube for hours. Better if it was in the wave pool. Happy music. People dancing. Hilarious and absurd puppets. A dog licking her fingers clean. Boat rides. A drink spilled at the dinner table & the cursing that usually followed. Pushing every button she could find from the passenger seat. Her nephews’ WWE matches & TikTok antics. Fireworks. The front row of the tallest roller coaster. Having her hair washed. Sweet potatoes and chicken pot pie. All the endless gifts and incalculable magic that don’t compress easily into words.

A family like ours with a member like Steph may tempt some towards feelings of pity. But in many ways, I almost feel sorry for folks without a Steph. Because from those earliest rides she captained in our red wagon, she quite literally threw us directly into the chaotic and confusing beautiful wholeness of life. Every part of it. Where pain and delight coexist inside a giant picture and just one missing piece would make the puzzle unsatisfying and incomplete.

I know my human mind is a miraculous mystery. And it does a great job protecting me from actual danger. But it also wants to avert my heart and my life away from the unfamiliar, the uncomfortable. It wants to categorize and rank and grade and judge. To value or discount. It desperately wants to know where I stand and how I earn more.

But then I hear Steph’s wise heart say I’m trying to separate colors that want to blend. I’m trying to paint solid black lines that will keep me safe. That will keep the scary dark of the painful and the unknown away from the beautiful warmth of the light I love. But I learned from Steph that my heart is big enough and smart enough and complex enough to stay close to both. I don’t have to run from one to fully feel the other.

Because it's all HERE. And it’s all GRACE. And there’s nothing unsafe about it. In fact, it’s best enjoyed from the front row, with all the breathtaking drops in full view. And with an open and trusting heart like Steph’s, she never even felt the need to hang on. I want THAT faith.


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