First Things First
What my sister showed me about priorities

“Mooooooom, Rachel’s sleeping in a funny position!” I skipped down the stairs, my words tumbling out of my mouth as I urgently delivered this message of crucial importance.

My mom glanced at me quizzically. “What do you mean, honey?”

“She’s sleeping all funny—she’s bent over under the blankets and her face is all smushed into the pillow and”—I paused for dramatic effect—“she’s mumbling things to herself.” I scrambled into my chair and eagerly started scooping Mom’s proffered oatmeal onto my spoon. “She’s talking in her sleep,” I concluded authoritatively in between bites, very proud of my clever assertion.

Mom smiled. “She might be, but I think she’s probably just praying.”

I paused with my spoon halfway to my mouth. “Oh.” I immediately felt ashamed. As an eight-year-old who was being raised in God’s Church, I was familiar with the concept of praying every morning, but my prayers were usually pretty short and quite selfish. My mom or dad prayed with me each night before bed, but to be honest, I always thought their prayers were long and somewhat cumbersome.

I knew that people like Mom and Dad—the “adults”—prayed for an hour every day (practically an eternity in my mind), but up to this point, I hadn’t really thought of my sister as an “adult.” Sure, she had just graduated college, but she was my sister! She didn’t pray like Mom and Dad did. That was just what parents and all the other grown-up people did—not the little girls, or even the “big” girls.

Mom continued cleaning in the kitchen, while I sat at the table, troubled, and played with my oatmeal. I felt guilty for not recognizing the importance of prayer in my family’s life—it had never even occurred to me that my sister was praying rather than sleeping in (which was all I wanted to do on summer days).

My brooding was interrupted by my mom’s voice. “Will you be ready to go shopping in fifteen minutes?”

Momentarily shaken from my reverie, I nodded and hurriedly finished the rest of my oatmeal, doing my best imitation of a chipmunk storing acorns in its mouth. I ran upstairs to make my half of the bed—a task I detested greatly, because putting all the stuffed animals in place was far too time-consuming.

When I ran into the room, my sister was still…praying. Yep, that is what she’s doing. I tiptoed gingerly to my side of the bed, being as quiet as possible. As I impatiently flung the stuffed animals onto the mattress, my sister sat up and smiled at me. “Hey. Do you know what time Mom is leaving?”

Excited that my sister was done so I could talk to her again, I squealed, “In fifteen minutes! We’re going to buy clothes and shoes and jewelry and get food and sing in the car and—” I stopped, realizing she was not joining me in my enthusiasm. Rather, she seemed preoccupied.

My sister puckered her brow and frowned. “OK. Thanks.” She hopped out of bed and went downstairs. Haphazardly chucking my last stuffed bear onto the bed, I trotted down after her.

To my chagrin, when I reached the bottom of the steps, I heard my sister telling Mom she might not be able to go with us, because she hadn’t finished praying yet.

My jaw dropped in disbelief. But it’s SHOPPING. With US. I snorted incredulously. How can she pass up the opportunity to go shopping with her mom and her little sister that she hasn’t seen in two years?

Again, I felt a prick of shame at my indignation, but I shrugged off the feeling. It didn’t make sense to me. She can finish praying later, I reasoned. We have to leave NOW.

Meanwhile, Mom was checking her watch. “We can leave an hour later. I don’t mind.”

My sister gave our mom a hug. “Thanks! Sorry to make you late; I overslept.”

“That’s OK, honey. Just finish first things first, and then we’ll head out.”

I stared. Mom was not one to delay plans at the risk of getting caught in lunch hour traffic in downtown Toronto. What magical spell is this? I wondered, admiring my sister’s abilities. I determined that I, too, would one day learn how to bend my mother’s will according to my preferred schedule.

Lost in these scheming deliberations, I was startled when my sister brushed past me on her way back upstairs, giving me a quick smile and an affectionate squeeze.

I turned a dubious eye on my mother. I had heard the expression “first things first” before. For me, “first things first” included brushing my teeth, making my bed (the horror!), and other tedious, frustrating tasks that delayed the fun of life as an eight-year-old girl on summer break. Yet my sister did not seem to be dreading this as a chore—in fact, she was willing to pass up something she enjoyed for it.

I have never forgotten that morning, though it is now over a decade in the past. Seeing my sister and my mother both prioritize morning prayers as a “first things first” stirred within me a desire to be a part of something that was so important to them. As much as my sister and I quarreled, as sisters sometimes do, I looked up to her, and I wanted to be like her. If she did something, I wanted to do it too.

As I grew older, I began to realize what a good example my sister set for me that morning. Even on her summer break, she still put first things first. And if she had to, she would have stayed home while we went shopping without her—because prayer was the first priority on her list.

Now I am almost the age my sister was when she came to visit us that summer of 2008. On many mornings in the past 12 years, I have remembered her example. Anytime I am tempted to push aside or sleep through my morning prayers, I am reminded that she prioritized them, no matter what.

I was blessed growing up to have my family in the Church, and both my parents set a tremendous example for me in this area. But I will forever be thankful for that summer morning.

My sister may not know it, but I sneaked back upstairs that morning to look in on her after Mom delayed our departure time. As I poked my head inside our room, I saw her once again kneeling on the bed, the blue patchwork quilt wrapped around her, her tangled curls tumbling onto the pillow. I caught snatches here and there of whispering, and once I thought I even heard my name.

Smiling to myself, I gently closed the door behind me. Then I slid into my half of the bed, snuggled under the quilt, and tried to imitate my sister. Obviously, my prayers were still those of an eight-year-old girl—fairly brief and mostly selfish. But now it felt somehow like something I was sharing with my big sister.

I still try to imitate my sister, who continues to be a positive influence in my life. I have made countless memories and learned many lessons thanks to her. But one of my most cherished childhood memories will always be the one of her kneeling under our quilt on a summer morning, putting first things first.