Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Flying With Eagles

     Hospitals never frightened me. It's where my children were born. Happy memories. Now they remind me of people I've loved who are gone. Like a phantom limb,  I still feel their presence and an ache that chews at my soul a little bit each day, hollowing me from the inside out.  When I close my eyes, I see my older sister, hiking to the top of Bear's Tooth Pass in Montana. She stands beside a meadow still patchy with snow, a camera dangling from her hand as she gazes up at a cloudless, blue sky.  She turns to me, grins, and aims the camera. I try to smile but my eyes burn from the glare off the snow. The light is blinding and my breath is shallow in the thin air, my lungs feeling as if they are sucking in broken glass.
     Her ashes now drift across that meadow. I remember smoothing the white hospital sheets that covered her cold body and thinking of the snow.
     So many nights like this one when the moon was full, she'd steal me from sleep for a drive along the beach.  I curled beside her on the seat, my head on her shoulder, and watched the stars race past our window like silver glitter scattering across a black, velvet sky. I thought she was racing against the moon. And I never knew why.
     She escaped into a world of beauty and grace behind the lens of her camera----prisms of light dancing in a drop of water clinging to a rose petal; the gilded intricacy of a spider's web capturing the muted light of sunrise; a monarch butterfly dipping is black, curled tongue into the well of a flower.
     I see her now in the hazy dreams of midnight where hundreds of photographs fan across the years, capturing the memories that linger there: horseback riding on a rugged trail carved into the mountains of Wyoming; delicate orchids blooming in her garden; the night she squeezed my hand at the Wagner Opera, tears shimmering in her eyes; licking the sweet juice of bing cherries off our lips in the streets of Seattle; Andrea Bocelli's silky voice serenading us as we cooked pasta side by side in her tiny kitchen; jumping in puddles up to our knees and knowing how silly we looked---two, grown women dancing in muddy water, embracing the fury of a storm.
 And the birds---so many of them. She had an encyclopedic knowledge of every species. For years she healed the injured ones and fostered the larger birds of prey. The eagles and hawks were her favorites; she photographed them, sketched them...and I think, deep down, wanted to be like them---fierce, beautiful, strong and free.

     My sister had an eating disorder. She was killing herself slowly, and I didn't stop her. I didn't know how.  No one did. She wore her loneliness like a heavy, winter coat and I stood by helpless as those sparkling, green eyes dimmed to gray. A storm was raging, but she was no longer dancing in its rain. Something had broken insider her, leaving her heart cracked in too many places. She became like the wounded birds she once cared for.
     I never should have gone to see her the day I was sick. It
never occurred to me that the insidious germs I carried would attack her weakened immune system. She fell ill shortly after I saw her, but refused to go to the doctor. I should have pushed, begged, driven her there myself. But I did nothing.

     When the call came, I raced down darkened streets, saw the moon spin past my window shield and wondered if she remembered its pale, yellow face peering above the ocean's rim so long ago.
     She was already in the dark sleep of a coma when I arrived at
the hospital. I touched her cool hand, felt her standing at the foot of the mountain. Monitors screamed their flatline goodbye and I knew she had already taken flight with the eagles.
     A stained- glass Jesus mocked me from the window above her
hospital bed. I wanted to smash the glass and cut the world in two. Forgiveness was gone. I drifted there for hours, the white tiles of the hospital floor cold against my cheek like snow, like the brisk air stinging my face on top of Bear's Tooth Pass where I knew she had gone.
     I never said I was sorry. I stood at her funeral in front of a crowd and delivered her eulogy. I painted a false picture of her life so that everyone could leave the church with the satisfaction of knowing she died a blessed woman. And I was a hypocrite because I knew far better than that. She had been dying inside for years. And no one tried to save her. I hid the truth from myself because I was too cowardly to feel the depth of her pain.

     An autopsy report claimed she 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 the morning after she died, a Red-Tailed Hawk circled back through my yard and settled on the pine branches above me. I looked into his dark, unwavering gaze and saw my sister watching 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.