I was six-years-old and sleeping over at my aunt’s, but all I could think about was getting home to find out the news. The sleepover was rare one-on-one time with my aunt, complete with an exciting trip to the children’s museum, but I knew I’d been sent away so that my mom could have her ultrasound in peace.
I hurried through the exhibits that would normally thrill me, aching to find out if my newest sibling would be a boy or a girl.
“What would you choose, if you could?” My mom asked with a smile when I got home, and I leapt up and down knowing that, after two brothers, I finally had a sister on the way.
I was smitten with the baby when she arrived, and throughout our childhood, we were inseparable. She was annoying, as little sisters tend to be, yet eager to please; I pretended to keep a cool distance in front of my friends, but loved having my little shadow. For years, every single night she would ask, “can I sleep in your bed?” and I would pretend to protest. Yet on the rare nights that I didn’t have her warm body cuddled next to me, I slept fitfully alone.
But six years is a bit of a difference in a young life, and as my sister entered middle school I left for college. We slowly drifted apart, she falling into the drama of high school, while I worried about making grades and planning years abroad. I had my first baby one week before she graduated high school, and three months later she left for a year in Australia, following in my footsteps still, but also stepping further away.
I was thrilled when she returned to the U.S. a year later. I had recently moved to a new town, about two hours away from where we grew up, and my sister would be moving in with me, since our mother had moved to Dubai. I hadn’t met many people in my new home, so I was somewhat desperately looking forward to my sister’s friendship and envisioning a return to those childhood slumber parties. But despite my hopes, I quickly realized that living together was not going to fully bridge the differences in our lives. I was sad when, just a few days after her much-anticipated arrival, my sister left to visit her boyfriend in Canada. I was, once again, alone.
Yet when my sister returned to my house about three months later and settled into life in America, we began spending more time together and relying on each other more. As Christmas approached, we began to plan our gifts. Some were easy—my toddler daughter would be thrilled with anything Elmo. Others were much, much more difficult—our mother for example.
My siblings jokingly call our mom The Guru. She is able to look at any situation with distant but insightful perspective, and her spiritual journey has brought her to a place where she is completely detached from material goods. Of course, this makes it very hard to buy her a Christmas present.
My sister and I spent the weeks following Thanksgiving desperately trying to think of a gift that would bring our mother happiness and honor her beliefs. A few days before Christmas, it struck me. My mother got her greatest joy from giving to others. My sister and I could honor that by doing an act of kindness each day.
“Perfect,” my sister replied when I told her the idea.
Before my mother returned to the U.S. for her winter visit, we bought a blank journal to record the project in, and wrote a note explaining what we were doing. When our mother read the note on Christmas morning, she cried. My sister and I exchanged satisfied glances.
The day after New Years, my mom returned to her home in Dubai, and my sister and I were left with a blank notebook and a project that required us to work together every day.
“Did you do something kind today?” I would text her when we were apart. When we were together we would egg each other on, tucking a lucky two-dollar bill beneath someone’s windshield wipers, slipping a gift card through a cracked window, or paying for the car behind us in the drive-thru.
We bickered in the way only siblings can about what the rules of our project were. Shoveling the driveway didn’t count, but brushing someone else’s car did. “Today you can make me the target of your kindness,” one of us would say when she needed a favor. Once, my sister came home from a late night at work carrying two ice creams. Kindness indeed.
Quickly, the kindness project became more about the relationship between me and my sister than it was about our mom. Mom, after all, was thousands of miles away, while we were here, together. It didn’t matter that I was busy working and raising a toddler while she planned her solo trip through Asia. No matter where our separate lives were taking us, we watched with conspiratorial grins as people received the random acts of kindness that we did each day. While their smiles were great, the greatest gift was the glance exchanged between my sister and me, knowing that we had pulled off our project once again. That bond is something my mother would certainly be proud of.