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;
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 inside her, leaving her heart cracked in too many places. She became like the wounded birds she once cared for.
Photo courtesy of: Jon Whiting
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.
Photo courtesy of: Jon Whiting
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.
In Memory of Cheryl Sue Kester: February 7, 1953 --- October 31, 2009
*Portions of Soaring With Eagles have appeared on my guest post for mjrockbottom.blogspot.com under the title, "Flying With Eagles."