Life Lessons from Brittany - Introduction
In my youth, I dreaded attending my church's fast and testimony meeting. Not because I disliked fasting, or even bearing my testimony on select occasions, but rather because these meetings beckoned my sister Brittany to share hers.
A fast and testimony meeting is a time where there are no predetermined speakers. Instead, any member of the congregation can voluntarily come to the pulpit and share their testimony of gospel truths. And Brittany had deep yearnings to share what was deep in her heart—which due to her special needs—served as an ongoing challenge for our family.
Since Brittany is three-years older than me, I don’t remember exactly when this testimony challenge began, only that my parents never found a solid solution. Rather they, and all of us, just tried our best to find the balance between Brittany’s needs and how they could fit when placed against the rest of the world.
In the fall of 1990, when my oldest sister, Amber, headed off to Brigham Young University, I shouldered more of the responsibility of helping the family find that balance for Brittany. One Fast Sunday, while our family of eight, minus Amber, sat in the folding chairs of the chapel’s overflow section, I sensed it was going to be one of those meetings. Sitting between Brittany and my dad, I was the first to notice her stirring as we listened to others’ testimonies, the truths they cherished, being shared from the pulpit of our meetinghouse in San Pedro, California.
First, it was the looks. Brittany would try to look past me to get my dad’s attention. But when I would catch her eye instead, she would nervously tilt her head away. I knew the tilt well. It was a cross between embarrassment and an eagerness to go forward, even with all of us trying to rein in her desires. Still, her blue eyes shone brightly, unwilling to be deterred by my interference.
Next, she would lift her hand up, as if trying to summon the courage to reach across me. Only to draw her hand back, as she was still working through her own internal debate, knowing that her question would be answered with some type of restriction if not a rejection.
Meanwhile, I tried to avoid eye contact, not wanting to speed up the process, not wanting to aid her in getting my dad’s attention. Instead, I looked down at her fancy blue-and-white formal dress with its puffy sleeves, lacy bodice, and long skirt. She had worn months earlier to our church-sponsored debutante ball, and she looked like a dark-haired princess, despite her extreme curved vertebrae and her short 4’11” frame.
My mom had worked hard to prepare for that annual youth ball, giving my sister an experience that matched any other seventeen-year-old girl. Brittany even had a handsome escort, a boy named David, with his own special needs. He was an absolute gentleman, offering Brittany the chance, amid her chaperoned date, to be like her sisters.
Since then, Brittany wanted to wear her princess-like dress to church. So my mom laid out some restrictions, namely that Brittany could wear it “every once in a while.” This Sunday was one of those “whiles.”
So when the puffy sleeve crossed over me, I turned to face her, noting her beautiful face all lit up as she tapped my dad’s arm and asked, “Can I go up?”
Her wide eyes pleaded, and against their anxiousness, anticipation, and longing, I turned to see my dad pausing, debating his own options.
His eyes the same blue as Brittany’s, his hair dark like hers, his face, similar in roundness, now filled with compassion and understanding, with his continuous love for her yet his struggle to consent.
“Please,” she begged.
I heard his sigh. Months earlier, when faced with this request, he’d asked her to share her testimony instead in our Family Home Evening, which she did. Other times, he’d been able to delay her request by suggesting she practice what she’d say throughout the month, in preparation for the following Fast Sunday. So, given what he’d told her in recent months, I knew what would happen next. My dad, a man of great integrity, would have to support her now. He gave her the desired approval, only to add, “But remember, keep it short.”
Before she stood, I caught her eyes sparkling. Her smile overtaking the scarred lip, a wound left over from one of her reoccurring grand mal seizures.
In that split moment, she pulled together her courage. Then she stood, and despite the groan inside me, I couldn’t help but feel the contagiousness of her happiness. Holding my own smile, I watched her dark curls bounce along as she held her head up high. Daringly, she headed down the aisle, while the lustrous gloss of her powder-blue satin dress swayed past the congregation until she reached the stand.
Once she faced us from the pulpit, my smile faded, and my own prayers began.
Please, God, help her to keep it short. Please, God, help her to be able to speak quickly through her words. Please, God, let the seizures pause while she’s up there.
Of course, my prayers were never answered in the ways I wanted, but they were answered, even if it took years before I understood.
As her joyous eyes looked out over the group and her hand brought down the mike for the entire congregation to clearly hear her say “I’d like to bear my testimony,” my entire family held our breaths. Because not too far into her expressing the eagerness found in her heart, the truths that she so deeply understood, her brain intervened, short-circuiting her words.
“I know that Jesus—” The blinking began, displaying the interrupting brain waves inside. She started her sentence over. “I know that—” Again, she was interrupted. Sentence after sentence, she struggled, stammering over her words, like trying to work past a stuck cog.
Through each new attempt, her frustration grew; her brain rebooting; the clock ticking; her testimony hardly progressing.
Meanwhile, my silent prayer continuing, it’s focus shifting.
Please, God, don’t let me be the one who has to help her.
Yet since Amber was away at school, and my parents had done their own fair share of juggling this weight, I was next in line.
When my dad whispered to me, “Would you go up and help her?” I consented.
My walk to the stand was completely the opposite of Brittany’s. Head down, I approached the podium and tried not to look too closely at the congregation while I placed my arm around my sister.
In the best of circumstances, my arm was a comforting touch, enough to calm her into finishing her struggling sentence and then adequately close her testimony. But this rarely happened precisely as I hoped.
Today, my presence brought embarrassment, a further frustration, a signal that I was there to stop what she had to share.
So instead of speeding things up, she tilted and rolled her shoulder away from my touch. I stood there for a moment, lost as to what to do next, letting the seconds tick by. I reached for her hand.
Again, this fueled her frustration. The words coming out were more frantic now, the sentences continuing to start and stop. With no end in sight, I tugged on her hand, indicating she needed to wrap it up now.
Instead, she pulled her hand away from mine, and with her mouth still close to the mic, said, “Just a second.”
The scene I’d been tasked to minimize was escalating in its frustrations and complexities.
I stood there. Side by side next to Brittany as she worked hard to get the words out.
Eventually, I put my arm around her again. This time she consented. For her, she now had been able to share enough. She found a spot in her sentence where she could end, and then clearly finished with, “In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.”
Together we walked back—me in humiliation, her with satisfaction—to our seats.
Still, no matter the obstacles, Brittany’s desire to share her testimony never dimmed. Set against a life full of “can’ts” and trapped in a body at war with itself, Brittany carried on. Even when words refused to come clearly, she lived a life where her heart radiated the truths she knew.
A few years later, after my family had moved to Lake Arrowhead, California, an atheist neighbor told my mom, “When others speak of God, I don’t understand. But when Brittany speaks of God, I understand.”
Although she was three-years my older sister in birth, before I was the age of five, she became my younger sister in development. As I continued to grow, I thought I was caring for Brittany. Only to discover, in my adulthood, that in the eternal realm it actually was Brittany who had been caring for me. Her testimony would be the foundation that would later buoy me up through some of my own darkest days.
Recently, while reading Galatians 5:22-23, I recognized her in these verses and saw the lessons I’d learned growing up alongside her.
But the fruit of the Spirit is: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.
This was Brittany! She lived a life that radiated her testimony of truth.
Now, in my humble attempt, I share some of these reflections, these fruits of the Spirits, my life lessons learned from Brittany.
Brittany dancing with our dad at her debutante ball