Just over a year ago, I got an e-mail from my sister, Sue, who lives 1,300 miles away in Seattle, asking me to join her in her first triathlon. We were used to trading frequent e-mails, but this brief one carried close to a decade's worth of emotion and had been a long time coming.
Six years older, Sue had always been there for me while we were growing up in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her infectious live-in-the-moment attitude was my inspiration, and her passion for windsurfing, swimming, cycling-you name it-fueled my enthusiasm for outdoor sports. Sue was also my biggest fan. She encouraged me to go away to school and to pursue my dream of writing instead of something more "practical." I leaned on her for so many things, and it never crossed my mind that she might not always be there for me. But everything changed when her health started to decline after a series of miscarriages and then, finally, the birth of her second child.
During a 10-year period, my sister went from being active, fit, and positive about life to being sluggish, almost 30 pounds overweight, and depressed. As she encountered one problem after another-she developed sleep apnea and started taking medicine to control her asthma, which had worsened-I offered healthy-eating and workout advice, but she'd shut me down. Our formerly laughter-filled phone conversations became less frequent. The person I'd once been closest to was turning into someone I didn't recognize.
It was July 2004 when I got the phone call everyone dreads: Sue had suffered a heart attack-albeit a minor one-at the age of 42. She was terrified but okay. The doctors gave her drugs to control an irregular heartbeat, but she spent the next year feeling paralyzed, as if the simplest activities might cause another heart attack. Finally, she'd had enough-and decided to take control of her health through diet and exercise. First she revamped her eating habits, cutting back on sugar and high-fat dairy. Then Sue tackled working out. She also started taking my advice and support, and slowly we rebuilt our relationship. We began e-mailing regularly-me with workout suggestions ("It's okay to do just 20 minutes if that's all you have time for," I'd say), she with updates and thanks. After a little more than a year on her new regimen, she decided to do a triathlon as a way of both motivating and testing herself. I told her I'd be with her every step of the way.
Almost two years after her heart attack, Sue and I finished the triathlon, with her husband and daughters, our mother, and my kids cheering us on. We high-fived, celebrating not just the race, but also Sue being healthy again.
A week afterward, I received a note from my sister thanking me for being her role model. After so many years of looking up to her, it seemed odd for Sue to be calling me her inspiration. I guess she didn't realize that through her many struggles over the last several years, she was still showing me how to fully live life.