Growing up, senior Melanie Vahle always knew she was different from her twin sister, junior Amanda. Melanie was in first grade while Amanda was in kindergarten. Amanda spoke a little different than Melanie. Melanie played basketball, while Amanda cheered her on from the sidelines in her bright yellow wheelchair. That’s just how life was for the Vahle twins.
Amanda has cerebral palsy, a neurological disease that results from bleeding in the brain during infancy. The disease caused the impairment of her motor skills, making her automated chair her “legs.” She can’t use “rightie,” her right hand, and her speech is slurred, making it difficult to communicate. Most people assume she can’t do things that “normal” people do, like play sports or go bowling, but Melanie knows that’s not the whole story.
Amanda has a yellow belt in karate and two trophies for dance achievements sitting on her desk. Ask her about her recent art projects and she can pull out notepads full of rainbow-colored sketches and drawings. Most people simply see her as the girl in the wheelchair; but not Melanie.
Melanie is one of the few people that really understands Amanda’s life. She is her twin sister, but first and foremost her best friend.
They’re not in the same social groups and they can’t bond over Psychology homework or tennis practice, but the two girls are never apart – and they’ve become closer sisters because of it.
Ever since their older sister Katie left for college, Melanie has taken on most of Katie’s “helper” duties. On a daily basis, Melanie helps Amanda eat, she drives her to and from school always double checking that her chair is safely secured to the floor of their white, wheelchair-accessible minivan, and sometimes she’ll help translate for Amanda when people can’t understand her. She will also occasionally help Amanda with texting, which she finds especially interesting when there is drama going down in the friend group. She’ll quickly type out whatever Amanda wants to say on her iPhone 5 then keeps her updated on incoming messages.
The twins choose to be together even outside of necessary “helping time,” finding ways to connect and spend time together.
They love to get out of the house and walk their Cairn terrier, Toto, and when they have free time after school or on weekends, they will pile into the minivan and go on adventures to Starbucks or Chick-fil-A. After a recommendation from one of her helpers Amanda has a newfound addiction: pumpkin spice frappuccinos. Saturday nights are dedicated to movie and popcorn night, sometimes spent at the theater or tucked under blankets in the living room. They almost always watch Amanda’s all time favorite movie, “Miracles from Heaven,” or their favorite TV show, “Grey’s Anatomy.”
Over the years, their relationship hasn’t always been this close.
In elementary school, both Melanie and her older sister Katie felt nervous about people knowing that Amanda had cerebral palsy. They never knew how people would react, or how they would see them after they knew. They feared that if people found out then they wouldn’t want to be friends with them.
“I always kind of hid it,” Katie said. “I would be like ‘that’s my sister’, but if people found out and they [reacted well] then I’d be like ‘Heck ya! She’s my little sister’ but if they weren’t into it I wouldn’t [tell them].”
It wasn’t until high school, when Melanie started spending more time with Amanda, that she started to understand her sister more and feel truly open and comfortable with her condition.
When Amanda and Melanie joined Young Life, a Christian youth group, their freshmen and sophomore years they went from occasionally hanging out to consistently doing activities together every week. After all of the years of living very separate lives, the two girls finally had a common ground. They had something to talk about and a new group of friends to hang out with, together. In fact, it was during a week at Young Life camp that Melanie first started learning how to take care of Amanda.
“Amanda’s always had helpers, but that was the first time Melanie had been on the side of the caregiver sister role rather than ‘I’m just your sister,’” Katie said.
From that point on, the girls have only grown closer. Over the years, Melanie feels she has learned from her sister and found a more complete understanding of the struggles people living with special needs go through.
She’s seen Amanda’s outbursts of frustration after people pass by her and simply don’t bother to open the door for her. She’s witnessed Amanda’s anger after people talk to her like she is a baby, when she’s 17 years old. She’s seen these struggles, because she’s the one helping her sister through them.
“I definitely get a different sense of people with special needs because I’m around her every single day,” Melanie said. “If I didn’t have a twin in a wheelchair I wouldn’t understand [everything they go though.]”
Next year, Melanie will be heading to Lawrence to study marketing or business at the University of Kansas while Amanda stays home to begin her senior year at East. Their daily conversations on Amanda’s new art projects or the latest Young Life meeting will turn into occasional FaceTime chats and texting. But the two girls believe their bond will survive while Melanie’s away at college. They’ll still be able to FaceTime every night to fangirl about Grey’s Anatomy, and Amanda can send Melanie pictures of their dog, Toto. Only a few day-to-day activities will be be different when they’re apart.
“Someone else will have to open doors for me,” Amanda said.