Whenever I see a drawing of a bird, I think of my sister. Cherie had a fascination with birds and an encyclopedic knowledge of every species. She worked at a wildlife center and fostered the injured birds, but she had a particular fondness for the birds of prey. She took beautiful photographs of hawks, eagles and owls, and sketched them every chance that she had. Her artistic skills were impressive, and whenever I studied her drawings, I felt more than her admiration for these birds; I saw a desire to share their fierceness, beauty, strength and freedom.
Like a phantom limb, I still feel her presence here and an ache deep in my soul, hollowing me from the inside out. When I close my eyes, I see her standing at the top of Beartooth Pass in Montana. She waits beside a meadow patchy with snow, a camera dangling from her hand as she gazes up at a cloudless sky in search of eagles. She turns to me, grins and aims the camera. I try to smile but my eyes burn from the snow's glare. The light is blinding. My breath is shallow in the thin air, as if I am breathing in broken glass.
Her ashes now drift across that meadow. I remember smoothing the white hospital sheets that covered her still form and thinking of that snow.
I see her now in the hazy dreams of midnight where hundreds of photographs fan across the years, breathing life into memories of her that still linger here: horseback riding through the rugged mountains of Wyoming; tears shimmering in her eyes at the Wagner Opera; laughing with the sweet juice of Bing Cherries on our lips at the Pike's Place Public Market in Seattle; her radiant grin the first time I saw her holding her newborn son; the quiet reverence we shared in the butterfly garden when hummingbirds hovered above us; jumping in puddles up to our knees and knowing how silly we looked---two young women dancing in muddy water while a storm raged around us. So many nights when I was young, she'd steal me from sleep for a drive along the beach. I curled beside her and watched the stars race past our window like silver glitter scattering across a black velvet sky. I had always thought she was racing against the moon. And I never knew why.
My sister had an eating disorder. She was killing herself slowly, and I didn't know how to stop her. No one did. She wore her loneliness and disappointment like a heavy winter cloak, and I stood by helpless as the light in her bright hazel eyes dimmed to gray. A storm was raging inside, but she was no longer dancing in its rain. Something had broken, leaving her heart cracked in too many places. She became like the wounded birds she once cared for.
When the call came, I raced down darkened streets, saw the moon spin past my windshield and wondered if she remembered its pale, yellow face peering above the ocean's rim so long ago.
Cherie was already in the deep sleep of a coma when I arrived at the hospital. I touched her cool hand and felt her standing at the foot of the mountain. Monitors then screamed their flatline goodbye and I knew she had already taken flight like the eagles.
I drifted for hours, suspended between anger and guilt. The tiles on the hospital floor were cold against my cheek like snow; like the brisk air that had stung my face on the top of Beartooth Pass where I knew she had gone.
I never said I was sorry. I stood at her funeral and delivered a eulogy to a crowd that needed to hear that she lived a beautiful and graceful life. And I was a hypocrite because I knew far better than that. She had been dying inside for years, and no one could save her.
An autopsy report claimed that my sister died from pneumonia with a heart three times its normal size. Obesity does that. I prefer to think her heart was large because she loved so much.
What I never said, never shared, was that morning after she died, a Red-Tailed hawk circled my yard and settled in the pine branches above me. I looked into his dark, unwavering gaze and saw my sister watching over me.
Her ashes, now swirling over a snowy mountain top in Montana, will never settle. They'll twist inside my grieving heart until I feel the last breath of winter.
-Marcia kester Doyle
Marcia Kester Doyle is the author of the humor book, “Who Stole My Spandex? Life In The Hot Flash Lane” and the voice behind the popular midlife blog, “Menopausal Mother.” Her work has been featured on numerous sites, including The Washington Post, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, The Huffington Post, Woman's Day, Country Living, House Beautiful, and Scary Mommy, among others.