Grace refuses to let go of the birds. Two days after the hurricane makes landfall, rejiggering the Jersey coastline, my stubborn sister continues to obsess over them.
“Why doesn’t he ask where the birds have gone?” Grace complains to the television from her recliner. There is continuous coverage of the hurricane’s aftermath. In this segment, a reporter quizzes an environmentalist about the storm’s impact. The pair converse on a dune under a cloudless sky, a harsh contrast to the tempest’s black clouds and screaming winds. Crime scene tape frames their patch of beach like a sandy boxing ring.
“Thousands of people have lost their homes, and you’re worried about the birds?” I chide from the sofa.
“It’s their home, too. Somebody needs to think about them.” Unlike many coastal residents, the birds possessed the good sense to evacuate, thanks to innate radar that senses an approaching storm, Grace explains. “But with the dunes shifting and the marshes mostly underwater, they may not have homes to come back to.”
I respect Grace’s assessment. The retired midwife adores birds, and has crowded her backyard with birdhouses and birdbaths. But these days, she has weightier matters to ponder.
Turning back to coverage of the coastal disaster playing out a hundred miles away, I listen as dazed survivors recount the rivers of seawater that churned through their streets, heroic rescues by surfboard and Jet Ski. A house jutting out of the sea at a precarious angle, like a toy bobbing in a child’s bath, serves as the disconcerting backdrop for these accounts.
Grace eases her recliner upright. “I can’t watch any more of this,” she says, struggling to her feet. “We have to go. They need us.”
I fight the urge to assist her, knowing she hates being coddled. “Your cane, Grace?”
Snorting at the silver three-legged crutch beside her, she shuffles toward the kitchen unaided.
“So what’s this crazy talk?” I ask, tailing her.
“It’s not crazy, Merrill. I want to go.”
“Why? To help the birds?”
“Of course not the birds.” She turns to me and moistens her cracked lips. “To help those people. We can’t just stand here and do nothing.”
Standing being a relative term, I think, watching her. I don’t dare point out she can barely stand herself. My protests would be futile; from birth, Grace lacked the DNA to stand by and do nothing. To my shame, being the younger sister had never prevented Grace from rescuing me, whether from a schoolyard bully, an abusive husband, once even from financial ruin after an unwise investment.
But now, the sibling tides have turned. It now falls on my shoulders to liberate Grace, if only I possess the wingspan and can summon the courage.
“You’re always asking me what I want,” she continues. “Well, I want to help.” The ash spikes of hair that sprouted on her head after treatment quiver with determination, like the crest on a cockatoo.
I take Grace’s hand and massage a dollop of lotion into her papery skin, avoiding the violet stain of bruises inflicted by IVs. “But the storm hit a hundred miles away, and —”
“I don’t care.” Grace yanks her hand away, her steady cornflower gaze an ultimatum. “I’m playing the card. I want to go.”
I want to argue, but my sister possesses a powerful hand, one in which cancer trumps all.
“But Marjorie comes today.”
Grace dismisses her hospice nurse’s scheduled visit with a smirk and a wave. “Tell her to come tomorrow.”
“But she has other patients.”
“Fine. She can skip me, then. Now do me a favor and help me to the toilet.”
She rarely asks for help, so I offer my arm. Grace leans on me as far as the powder room, and then slips inside alone.
While I wait for her to finish, I watch another reporter interview teenage volunteers as they dispense meals on a makeshift food line, and cock my head. The task seems doable, and not too taxing. But should I take a terminally ill woman straight into the eye of the storm relief effort?
Torn, I call Grace’s husband to ask his opinion.
“It’s a long ride,” my brother-in-law Tom says in a tired voice. I picture him lifting his glasses to knead the bridge of his nose, as he often does these days. “You know how exhausted she gets.”
“Then I’ll take her wheelchair.”
“What if something happens?”
Would his “what-if” be any less devastating if it occurred a hundred miles away instead of here, I wonder. To Tom, I say, “If something happens, I’ll deal with it.”
He expels a resigned sigh. “It’s up to you, Merrill.”
I hang up, my decision made. The clock is ticking, my opportunities to revise our story and square things with my sister dwindling.
I pound on the bathroom door. “Hurry up, Grace. We’re going.”
Energized by her appreciative whoop, I load her wheelchair, cane, and a tank of compressed oxygen into my trunk. Back in the kitchen, I sweep Grace’s pill bottles into my purse.
Then, having settled my sister in the passenger seat with a cotton blanket, I drive while Grace catnaps. I sneak a peek at her: her fuchsia baseball cap tames her spikes, a half-smile plays on her lips. Sleep is Grace’s escape, diminishing her discomfort to about a Level 3, the equivalent of the frowning face on Marjorie’s pain chart that is labeled Hurts Even More. Too often lately, Grace’s suffering veers toward Level 5’s tearful scowl, Don’t Have to Be Crying to Feel This Much Pain.
Ironically, the thought of the chart makes me smile. One day not long ago, having tired of Marjorie’s ministrations, Grace grabbed the pain chart behind the nurse’s back and scribbled moustaches and devil horns on each face in the ranking, holding the paper up to me gleefully.
During this silent drive, however, there is little elation. Instead, worry nips at me. My sister’s illness has forced her to relinquish control and rely on the sibling she has always defended. I pray I am up to the task, this final chance for a slacker older sibling to shine.
Twenty miles later, Grace stirs and consults the GPS on her phone. “We’re close. Less than ten miles.” Her voice sounds stronger than it has in days. Damn Tom and his doubts. She stretches, and then squares herself to face me. “So: why are we here, exactly?”
I frown, blaming Grace’s meds for this memory lapse. “Back at the house, remember?” I prompt. “Helping? The birds?”
“Not ‘here’ in this car. Here.” Grace’s outstretched arms encompass years. “Together. You and me.”
Feeling cornered, I train my eyes on the road. “It’s simple. You’re my sister. You needed my help. So I came.”
“I know Tom put you up to it, but much as I hate to admit it, I do need help. But what about your job?”
“I told you. I’m, um, managing things remotely. You know, living the laptop lifestyle.” Hadn’t I perpetuated this ruse daily since my arrival weeks ago, dutifully departing Grace’s house, laptop tucked under my arm, and taking refuge in a nearby coffee shop?
“You’re managing things, all right. You don’t think Tom and I know you’re faking?”
My cheeks flame. “It’s called networking.”
“Come on, Merrill.”
“Well! I guess you two are having a good laugh over me.”
“We’re not laughing, honey. We’re worried.”
“Could you possibly let me worry for once?” I ask, pounding the steering wheel. “Although clearly, I can’t even do that right.” Chewing my lower lip, I busy myself adjusting the radio. “I should have told you,” I admit eventually. “I’m sorry.”
Grace stares out at traffic pooling around us on the drawbridge and crosses her arms. “Yes, you should have. But apology accepted. And now, just drive, please.”
“Right. Drive. Are you suggesting I just crash through them, then?” I gesture to the cause of the traffic jam: broad wooden barricades stretching across the highway a quarter mile ahead.
“I … I don’t know. There must be a way around them. Keep going.” She types furiously on her phone, presumably for alternate directions.
Trapped in traffic, I do as she asks, but after crawling a few car lengths, we spot a phalanx of soldiers surrounding the blockade, reinforcing it.
“That’s it, Grace. I’m not about to argue with them.” Ignoring the horns of exasperated drivers surrounding us, I lurch into the right lane, negotiating the last U-turn before the barrier. The jug handle exit winds us past a wasteland of storm-ravaged properties — bungalows buried in sand, a decapitated garden center whose sheared-off shingled roof rests beside it — before depositing us back on the bridge, headed in the opposite direction, toward home. I sag in my seat, despondent. This isn’t your fault, I tell myself. You tried.
Grace drops her phone onto the seat and stares at me. “You mean to tell me you’re giving up after we drove all this way?”
“What other choice do I have? Barrel through the barrier?” I mime a phone at my ear. “‘Hey there, Tom, would you mind popping down to the shore and bailing your wife and me out of jail?’ Nooo thanks.” As we backtrack over the bridge, I glimpse a flotilla of unmoored boats bobbing like bumper cars in the marina below.
“For God’s sake, Merrill,” my sister retorts. “Would it kill you to just once take a risk?”
“Thanks a ton, Grace.” My core thrums with indignation, but in my heart I know she is right. I have lived my entire life as a rules follower, fearful of coloring outside the lines. But today should count for something, shouldn’t it? I have risked everything — Grace’s health, Tom’s wrath — by the mere act of loading my frail sister into the car.
Even so, Grace demands more of me, and I want to give it to her.
“You want me take a risk?” I counter. “Okay. We’ll drive. Just tell me where.”
A smug Grace directs me toward the next exit. As we approach, we see that the authorities have blocked that ramp, as well as the following two.
“Take the next open exit,” Grace orders, undeterred. “We’ll find our way back.”
I obey. A mile or so later, an exit ramp opens up. In the unfamiliar coastal town, we maneuver around downed trees, utility trucks, a displaced boat tilting drunkenly on a curb. As we approach ground zero of the storm, our GPS hiccups, and then fails; our cell service dwindles to a single bar. And still, I drive. My sister shouts that she has spotted a church spire, and I home in on the steeple dissecting a cloud as though it were the North Star. We wend our way toward the spire; after several wrong turns and a dead end, we finally park beneath it.
As I start to help Grace out of the car, she rejects her wheelchair, but miraculously accepts her cane. I follow, dragging her oxygen cart, and we head inside. Immediately, a dark-haired woman approaches us.
“Welcome,” she says, smiling broadly. “If you need housing, we’ve started a list over there.” She points to a corkboard spackled with hand-lettered index cards.
“Thank you, Joanna,” I reply, reading her name tag, “But we’ve come to help.”
“Wonderful. You’re in the right place.”
Joanna leads us to a card table, where she hands us a sheet of adhesive labels and some felt-tipped pens. We write our names on the badges, then follow her into the church kitchen, past industrial stoves and a wall of refrigerators to a counter piled with sacks of assorted breads. “Our immediate need is sandwiches,” Joanna says. “Loads of them. All we have at the moment is peanut butter and jelly, but it will have to do.” She pulls spreads from a pantry; in no time, we forge an assembly line, stacking sandwiches in disposable aluminum pans that Joanna periodically retrieves.
While we work, volunteers come and go, sharing accounts of the storm damage they have witnessed: splintered boardwalks, power outages, the National Guard restoring order at the beachfront after reports of looting.
As the enormity of the disaster sets in, the few hundred sandwiches we have made seem a paltry offering, a grain of sand in the dunes of recovery. Nevertheless, we persevere. And as we labor in that church kitchen, Grace comes alive. As if by some magic of fluorescent lighting, my sister glows.
“It feels so good to be doing something,” she says. As Joanna retrieves another pan of sandwiches and then departs, Grace waves her spreader at me: “Hey, Merrill. Does Tom know we’re here?”
I wait before replying, carefully thinning the jelly on my slice to reach every corner of the bread. “Um, not exactly.”
“Ha!” Grace grins like a child who has pulled something over on a parent. “Wait till I tell him.”
As I turn away so she can’t see my eyes fill, Joanna rushes into the kitchen.
“Does anybody have a car?” she asks. A local restaurant wants to donate its freezer of food before everything spoils, and Joanna needs someone to retrieve it.
“My sister does,” answers Grace. “She’ll go.”
“I don’t really know my way around.” I widen my eyes at Grace in protest. We’re already doing enough.
As usual, Grace ignores me. “This is a small town, right? How far could it be?”
“Not far at all,” says Joanna, hugging my sister. “That would be such a huge help.”
Reluctantly, I agree to go, but only after equipping Joanna with my cell number and a hasty lesson in the operation of Grace’s oxygen tank. In turn, Joanna sketches the route to the restaurant on a napkin. As I leave the kitchen, my sister and Joanna begin to debate the migratory patterns of seagulls.
Let them go, Grace.
On my way out, I pass folding tables accumulating a small mountain of lost and found items: trophies, bedroom slippers, a plastic bin of crayons. Someone has set a few dozen damp photos on a ‘Greetings from Asbury Park’ beach towel to dry, and I stop to examine them. One snapshot in particular catches my eye: two young girls dressed alike, very likely sisters, sharing the lap of a shopping mall Santa. Their plaid skirts, snowy blouses, red tights, and patent leather Mary Janes recall the holiday uniform of our youth.
I pick up the photo and run my finger over it, finding it rough. The saltwater journey has exfoliated its surface, blurring the girls’ faces. And yet, something in the arrangement of the siblings’ limbs speaks to me. The way the older girl has thrown her arm around the younger one’s neck, whether in camaraderie or aggression, I can’t discern, due to their unreadable expressions. Grace and I had posed similarly over the years, those Christmas moments preserved and dry in a family album somewhere. Perhaps I had protected Grace in the past, I think.
As I set the photo down, I ponder the infinite number of memories such as this Yuletide reminder that the hurricane has wrenched from their owners, and wonder how long it will take to reunite them.
After following Joanna’s directions to the restaurant, I console the dazed proprietor, who presses dozens of sweating plastic food containers upon me. It takes multiple trips and probably 45 minutes to fill my car; when I finally check my phone before heading back to the church, I discover several missed calls and a terse text from Joanna that makes my gut clench: “Please hurry. Grace is ill.”
I cup my hand over my mouth, recalling Grace’s pain meds inside my purse, which sits on the passenger seat beside me.
Though I barely recall that drive back to the church, I will never forget the spectacle of my barely conscious sister reclining on a bed of blankets on the kitchen floor. I kneel beside her and tighten the strap that secures her oxygen mask. “I’m so sorry. I never should have left you here alone.”
Wincing, Grace shakes her head. She presses her hands into her belly, the epicenter of her pain. I do not need Marjorie’s pain scale to gauge her discomfort at this moment, which seems off the charts. Trembling, I scramble in my purse for a pill, but she waves it away.
“This was the last day,” she struggles to say through her mask.
Despite strenuous efforts to withhold them, tears spill down my cheeks. “No, Grace. It’s not your last day,” I say, slapping the yellowed linoleum. “Don’t you dare think that.” Though I can imagine few places more sacred to expire than a quaint seashore church, I cannot, will not let my sister spend her final moments on a kitchen floor, struggling to breathe.
I lie down beside her. “Please. Fight with me,” I murmur into her ear. “I know you can find your way back. Remember the birds.”
Grace claws at her oxygen mask, tugging it to one side. Even clouded with pain, her cornflower gaze rivals the sun-washed sky we glimpsed on television that morning. “Not ‘last day,’” she whispers hoarsely.
“Not what, Grace? I’m sorry. I can’t understand you.”
Even over the whine of the approaching ambulance, my sister’s next words are crystal clear: “This was the best day, Merrill.”
Despite the events in the church kitchen, I have zero regrets about driving Grace’s cancer getaway car that day. During that momentary calm following the medical storm, when Grace’s breathing steadied and my panic subsided, anything seemed possible. That moment, that memory, became the bow on the gift of our final days together.
I stay on at my sister’s house for a time after her memorial service, appropriating Grace’s backyard rituals: replenishing water, dabbing peanut butter onto feeders in her aviary refuge. One day, a package as light as air arrives, addressed to Grace, and I open it. Beneath a cloud of tissue rests a handmade birdhouse of balsa wood, painted cornflower blue, its door the same crimson as the tulips blooming in the painted emerald pot outside it. As I hold the birdhouse aloft, powdery sand dusts my cheeks, and a note flutters to the ground:
Dear Grace and Merrill,
I was so relieved to hear Grace’s condition had stabilized. She is in my prayers daily.
(The words on the page blur, and I blink to re-focus them.)
Our town cleanup continues, and the church lost and found overflows. We must make space. This item arrived several weeks ago. Since no one has claimed it, I thought of Grace. May it bring joy (and birds) to her garden.
Tears streaming by now, I carefully carry the birdhouse out back, setting it here and there, ultimately nestling it in the arms of a sturdy, mature maple. It calls to mind one of Grace’s last lucid days, when she summoned me to the television in the living room.
“Merrill, come look! It’s a miracle. The birds are back.”
I perch on the edge of her hospital bed to watch. It is a month after the storm, and the birds are back, although not necessarily to their native habitats, the reporter explains. In a bizarre twist of nature, a number of wayward species blown off course by the coastal storm are turning up like immigrants in the most unexpected places — gannets skimming the Hudson River, petrels poking around Massachusetts.
“Which makes their pilgrimages nothing short of amazing,” concludes the reporter.
A beaming Grace turns to me. “I knew they’d come back. It’s a sign, isn’t it?”
As someone suspicious of most signs, omens, or ‘God winks,’ I find myself a tiny bit jealous of my sister’s capacity for hope. “Yes, it is,” I say, to appease her.
“And remember.” Grace trains her cornflower gaze on me a final time. “Those very first birds passing through the eye of a storm are the most vulnerable ones.”
Yes, Grace, they might be, I think, walking back to the house after settling Joanna’s gift. But they are also capable of surviving, and flourishing.
As I admire Joanna’s birdhouse from my sister’s back steps, a fluttering in the maple catches my eye. To my surprise, a cocky Jersey Shore seagull, a hundred miles off course, has alighted on the newly installed birdhouse.
I approach, marveling at the path of this wayward bird that weeks ago perceived a subtle shift in the atmosphere and took flight. This creature has no more business poking around Grace’s Pennsylvania garden than I do.
And yet, here we are, unlikely comrades, thrown together by wind, currents, tides, instincts.
The seagull caws, unfazed by my proximity. Thinking he might be hungry, I scoop peanut butter from a nearby feeder with my finger and smear some on the perch of the birdhouse. My instincts are correct; he bends and consumes every scrap.
The peanut butter is all I have, but it will have to do for now. And while I can no more predict our futures than forecast the next hurricane, I somehow sense clearer, calmer skies ahead for us both.
Featured image: Shutterstock
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