The Lifelong Gift of Siblings

They inspire me every day. Are you grateful for your family?

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God chose a special “team” for me, and what a great team it was when I was younger and still is to this day.

I thank God every day for my family, in a special way for my mom and dad — but also for my two older brothers and my older sister. They have been a wonderful and lifelong gift to me.

Of the four of us, I am the youngest. My sister, Deb, is 11 years older, my brother, Tom, is 7 years older, and my brother Jim is 6 years older.

Each one had something special to offer, and they impacted me in so many positive ways and still do.

My sister contracted rheumatoid arthritis when she was 5 years old. She spent a good part of her childhood in and out of hospitals, and continues to be in physical pain every day of her life. But as her “baby brother,” I can only remember her contagious smile, her great sense of humor and her capacity to break up the tension that often occurred between my two older brothers.

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She would crinkle up her nose when she laughed, and once she got going, the whole room was soon joining her. Deb never felt sorry for herself. She went to school every day in her electric wheelchair, and even learned how to type with her arthritic fingers (they would often get black and blue when she typed too much).

I looked forward to when Deb and her best friend, Martha, would babysit for me. They would take me out for a burger and fries and even play board games with me at night. She graduated from Oakland University, and after a brief stint of teaching at my Catholic grade school, she was hired by the federal government, in the Social Security Administration.

Her rise to the top was steady and sure, and she eventually became the regional director for two Social Security offices and won the “Disabled Employee of the Year” for all governmental agencies. She adopted two children and has been happily married for over 35 years to her incredible husband, Steve.

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She taught religious education at her Catholic parish for many years and is always thinking and worrying about how to help others. How can I ever “feel sorry for myself” with a  big sister like Deb?

My older brother, Jim, was probably the closest to me during my younger years. I looked forward to walking to school with Jim and his friends in grade school, to playing ice hockey in the winter at a nearby pond and even playing basketball with his college buddies when I was just starting high school.

He was never embarrassed or bothered to include me, and for a little guy, nothing is more cool and fun than playing with your older brother and his friends. Jim spent a lot of time teaching me how to play every sport. We played golf with plastic golf balls in the backyard, he taught me how to throw a football with a perfect spiral, he would hit baseballs to me to improve my fielding skills, and he taught me his famous turn-around jump shot in basketball, which became my “go to” shot later on.

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I really looked forward to my birthdays because he would set up a treasure hunt of clues all over our yard until I eventually found my birthday present buried near the mailbox, wedged into the gutter on the roof, or nestled deep within one of our pine trees. He showed me how to cook an omelet and fry a burger, and occasionally he would pull me aside to give me tips on how to deal with mom and dad, or even make some suggestions on relating to high school girls!

The Sliney siblings; the author, the youngest, is in front. (Photo courtesy Fr. Michael Sliney)

He played pingpong with me in the basement just about every night during his high school days, and although I rarely won, he definitely improved my game with his tips and his competitive spirit. Jim had a big heart, and I could tell he really cared about me in a special way.

My older brother, Tom, was probably the most gifted of our family. His only “B” was in high school band. He was the valedictorian of Brother Rice High School, and he had a grit and determination about him that is off the charts.

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He had to endure tutoring me on several occasions in math and science, and I definitely pushed his patience to the brink. Tom gave me valuable advice when I was really struggling at Michigan State University. Only 30 percent of the pre-engineering majors were accepted into the engineering school after two years and I was feeling tremendous pressure and anxiety over making the cut.

I called Tom and after a lot of motivation and kindness on the phone, he encouraged me to reach out to my mom and dad, who drove up the next day to reassure me that even if I did not make the cut, they still loved me and would be supportive of me. The monkey was now off my back and I did get in!

I have grown to really appreciate my brother Tom’s faith and real generosity over the years. His first child was born with Down syndrome, his last child has autism and with three other kids in between, he and his wife had a handful of challenges. But he has joyfully persevered in his marriage and last October, he was ordained a deacon in the Catholic Church for the Archdiocese of Detroit.

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He currently oversees the 15-seater van for General Motors, and both he and his wife are huge leaders in their community on many levels.

There are dozens more anecdotes and little stories of virtue and self-giving from my childhood days that could easily fill a book, but this briefly shows how a younger brother benefits and continues to be grateful for his wonderful brothers and sister.

A shout out to Deb, Tom, and Jim and a special word of gratitude to our parents, for their perseverance in their marriage and for their openness to life and God’s plan.

Fr. Michael Sliney, LC, is a Catholic priest who is the New York chaplain of the Lumen Institute, an association of business and cultural leaders. 

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