The hummingbird feeder I pick out is made of yellow and green glass swirled together. It’s exactly the one my sister Nancy would like. I can imagine the look of joy on her face when she sees it.
The problem is, my sister is 400 miles away, dying, and will never see it. The cancer she’s battled for two years has started to win. Or, perhaps more precisely, Nancy has decided that fighting it is no longer the best use of her time and has chosen to go off on her next adventure. For almost a week she’s been in that twilight world of near-death. We’re just waiting for her to make the transition.
When I get home, I mix up a batch of sugar water and fill the feeder, then hang it in the backyard near the flower garden. Almost immediately, a ruby-throated hummingbird flies up and starts drinking from one of the tiny metal flowers. Another follows soon after, and the two begin a swooping, frenetic game of chase to determine whose territory the new feeder is. “You could share, you know,” I hear Nancy lecture them in her distinctive voice.
I leave them to it and go inside to check the group message going between myself, Nancy’s husband, and my other sister. I keep expecting to hear that Nancy has passed, but there is no update. I write to the others and tell them about the hummingbird feeder. I don’t know why, really, except that it feels better than talking about how sad we all are.
Reading back through the message thread, I notice that we’ve started to occasionally refer to Nancy in the past tense. “Nancy loved the garden,” one of us writes, an admission that she won’t be planting anything new in the one that, until a few days ago, she tended with enthusiasm. For a moment, it feels like a betrayal, as if we’ve stopped believing that she’s going to beat this, as she so often said she would.
But, of course, we’ve known the outcome since her diagnosis. We just didn’t know how long it could be held off. And now that it’s arrived, pretending that what’s happening isn’t happening is too exhausting.
Later, Cubby and I go to dinner with friends who have just returned from a week of camping. It’s a relief to listen to their stories about unexpected rainstorms, a recalcitrant canoe, and one of their dogs accidentally breaking the glass on the camper door and waking up the entire campground. It all feels very normal. A respite from constant worry. But when we get home, the news has come: “Nancy has crossed over.”
For some reason, I am suddenly terrified that I will forget what my sister looked like. I go to Nancy’s Facebook page and scroll through her photos. Going backwards in time, I see her cancer-thinned face become fuller, transforming back into the one most familiar to me.
Then I come across another photo, one Nancy scanned from a family photo album after our mother’s death a few years ago. Taken in 1970, it shows our family standing together. Nancy, 11, is in front of our father. Our sister Nina, 13, stands to the right of our mother, who is holding 2-year-old me in her arms. Nancy is wearing a brightly colored shirt patterned with tulips and beneath that a pair of clashing striped shorts. Her hair is barely contained by a single barrette on one side. She’s all hunched shoulders and nervous energy about to explode. It’s exactly how I picture her when I think of her.
Even though her death is only hours old, I can already tell that for me it is different from the deaths of our parents. It feels as if a part of my own life has vanished. My sisters are, of course, the only other people who experienced growing up in our family. Although we had distinctly different and often contradictory relationships with our parents, and with each other, there is still a shared history of 53 years. My last words to Nancy—which made her laugh despite the intense pain she was in—were, “What you need is a bowl of SpaghettiOs.” To anyone else, it seems nonsensical. To us, it summed up everything. And I will never get to say it to her again.
People die every minute of every day. But yesterday, during one of those minutes, it was my sister who died. I loved her very much, and I will miss her. ▼
[Editor’s note: Readers are invited to donate to the Delaware animal rescue non-profit, One Dog More, in memory of its founder, Nancy Barnard Muller.]
Michael Thomas Ford is a much-published Lambda Literary award-winning author. Visit Michael at michaelthomasford.com