I live where the river meets the sea.
I live where the waters of the Hudson end their cold journey to the Atlantic. My windows open to the East, the direction Native Americans believe one must face to ask blessings for a new beginning. The morning sun glances off the water strongly enough to blind you. Late afternoon turns the entire West side of Manhattan to flame. At night the rising moon hangs above the jeweled horizon like the Eye of God. The river flows by me, and flows through me. Memory flows through me.
I live where the river meets the sea, where push comes to shove, where love and anguish, blame and forgiveness, laughter and sorrow converge on the way to understanding.
Labor Day Weekend 1980
My sister tries to breathe. Her lungs make crackling sounds as she takes quick, shallow gasps, her chest heaving in short bursts followed by long drawn out moments of utter stillness, each one longer than the last. My heart jumps before she breathes again. Her lips are blue. They flutter almost imperceptibly beneath the plastic of her oxygen mask. Her eyes are closed.
My own breath comes hard against the pain of losing her. I hold her hand, sitting next to her bed in the room where she once dreamed her teenage dreams. Gray light bleeds through curtains drawn against a late summer storm. We are cocooned by death and the sound of heavy rain.
As children, we loved to watch it storm - the wind flailing the trees, the lightning stabbing the sky, the rain thrashing its way toward earth. We stood together in the open doorway breathing in the dank sweet air, squealing, clutching each other with fear and glee at every clap of thunder. The mixing bowls, pots and pans we placed in the driveway spilled over with soft rainwater. After the storm died, we stood together at the kitchen sink using the rain we'd saved to wash each other's hair.
But that was long ago, when rain was clean and hope was still a blessing.
She stirs, yanking the mask from her face, slowly focusing her eyes.
"Making tea. I'll get her."
We three are alone in the house. My brothers and sister-in-law have not arrived yet. My father is out at the pharmacy picking up morphine to mix with Pam's favorite peach brandy. "Bromptman's Cocktail" it is called, a drink prescribed for death, to ease the pain.
Quickly I fetch my mother from the kitchen, but linger in the hallway while she ministers to Pam. Our baby pictures hang along the wall. There I am, the proud big sister, not quite three, with Pam nestled up beside me, almost a year old. She has just learned to sit. There we are again, our infant brother Gregg propped between us, leaning on my sheltering arm. I am six and Pam is four. She grins triumphantly, having just pulled a bow from her hair. I remember her annoyance at that bow the moment before the shot was taken. I remember her chesty cough, and the way she matter-of-factly explained it to the photographer. “I have Sixtyfive Roses.” She couldn’t pronounce the name of her disease. Cystic Fibrosis.
"Heather," my mother whispers behind me, "Pam wants to see you."
I go in and stand at the foot of her bed. My stomach lurches as I realize that when she speaks, her words will be the last we share. She sits upright, propped by pillows, her fragile arms stretched forward up and over a hospital table to create more space for air in lungs filling relentlessly with blood and mucus, lungs punctured and scarred, frothing, folding in on themselves like wet plastic bags.
She wheezes, the humidity of August a granite slab weighing on her chest. Her words come hard, slowly, one by one, punctuated by long, trembling, tortuous breaths that she draws from the center of the earth. Her hazel eyes bore into me. Her bony fingers, clubbed and purple at the tips, clench the sides of the table as she struggles to speak.
Write…our…story,” she commands.
My sister’s voice is not her own.
“Tell…what we…lived through…together.”
A great energy washes through the room, as if a veil between worlds has been lifted. My skin prickles with the sensation.
She releases her grip and falls back. A soft roar fills my ears; the hiss of the rain, maybe, the whirr of my own blood racing, the cold hush of swift black water as my sister begins to drown and I am swept alone downstream.