The Haze Hours Were Full of Her
The week before, the sun had shone with such saturated light it felt like a boast. Look how beautiful I can make this land, it taunted after an 8-month stint of snowdrifts and frostbite. We'd been waiting for a day like this, and we set off on a bike ride—Aleisha and I. Peddling down our road we talked about doing the Trek Across Maine, a 3-day ride that would begin in less than a month.
"Maybe we can do it together every year," Al said. "Even after we both move away, we can come back and do the race together. It's on Father's Day, so maybe we could convince Dad to do it too."
I smiled. "Good luck with that. But I'll be there."
We rode toward to the place our grandma called "Double Bubble" when we were small, since the current rushes in both directions under the bridge creating a pool of saltwater foam. Then we turned left, rode past Lucia Beach, and headed back to Mom's house. The day was bright and hot, and we were happy.
The cars snapped around those bends without warning, so every fifty feet or so I’d look back to make sure she was still behind me peddling furiously.
“You alright, Al?" I’d holler into the wind.
“Yep!” she’d pipe back, working to keep her wide mountain bike tires moving as fast as my road bike. As we passed the path to the beach she yelled, “Chels!” with such panic that I spun around searching for her helmet as she crested the hill.
“What’s up, Al?”
“Slow down and ride with me! I want to talk to you. It's lonely back here.”
Dad and Nancy took me home with them. I walked straight to her bedroom when we arrived, climbed into her massive bed, and buried my face in her flannel duvet. There was no one to see me—no reason to maintain any pretense of composure. Piece by piece, I let myself fall apart and lay gasping for air, exhausted and trembling.
It was rounding on 3 am. The night lightened to a dusty grey. I could almost make out the trees behind Dad's house and the mountain in the distance. Can't you just stay dark? I pleaded to a world that slows for no one.
I'd never lain in this bed before. When we spent time together it was most often at our mom's house, but this room at Dad's was where she'd spent her school weeks the past year, while I was at college. On the nightstand sat Wicked, her current obsession. Her bookmark poked out halfway through.
I rolled off the bed and curled into a ball on the floor as the muscles in my stomach seized. Laying my cheek on the scratchy fibers of her carpet, I heard the door click as Dad and Nancy left for the hospital. I think they'd asked if I wanted to go, but I'd refused. It already didn’t matter. Her body was at the funeral home.
Dad asked the funeral director, Walker, to promise that she wouldn’t be alone for a second. Walker said the funeral home was attached to his house, and his family would be there with Al all night long. They wouldn’t leave her alone.
Going to the hospital then was just a way to keep moving, a way to avoid stasis. The hospital is where the hopeful families go, the thankful families, as they sit beside the person they love and croon to her, stroking wisps of hair from her face: Oh, I love you so. What would I have done without you? I am so glad you're okay, my darling.
But we didn’t get to stroke Al’s cheeks. Or coax her groggy eyes back to us. We didn’t get to press kisses into her warm skin and tell her how much we loved her. Her body was already tucked beneath cold white linen, or at least that’s how I pictured her—in a removed room in the hospital, perhaps the basement, far away from the hum of life, so no one would accidentally stumble in and see her graceful, strong, young—oh, so young, far too young— body laying mangled on a metal table.
But she’s not mangled in my imagination. She lay there in a kind of stupor, like in the first moments after you fall asleep, when your lips are still turned up in a smile because you drifted off while you were thinking of something beautiful. In my mind she is lying there in her Sleeping Beauty stillness as Dad and Nancy trudge out of our muted house and head to the hospital.
My dad, you see, isn’t the kind of man who curls up and lets the world shake him. He couldn’t sit down. Crawling into the fetal position was not an option yet, though soon he’d have no choice. But right then he still needed to keep moving. He needed to be near his baby, his precious cargo, the same little girl who’d held his hand and sang duets of "You Are My Sunshine" over and over again on the drive to preschool. He needed to pick up her abandoned car from the corner of the hospital parking lot, where her friend had left it. He needed to collect the pieces of her that lay scattered in the world and bring them back home to us.
The click of the latch meant I was alone. But I hardly noticed; I felt so full of ache and so full of her. I lay sprawled on her bedroom floor, not thinking about what I was doing, and I began talking to her.
"Come on, Al. Fuck. You know better, don’t you? He’s an idiot. You know he’d try to impress you. So why would you do that? Why would you ride with him? Jesus, that was dumb."
I immediately felt guilty for telling her she'd been dumb, but she had, had she not? And as her older sister it had always been my place to tell her such things.
"I don’t know how to do this without you," I pleaded. "You have to come back, Al."
Somehow it didn't feel as though I was asking for the impossible.
"We're supposed to go on family vacations together when we’re grown and celebrate Christmas with our kids. And I learned to ski so I wouldn't have to sit alone in the lodge, remember?" I rolled onto my back and stared at her ceiling. "And God knows I don’t even like skiing that much..."
"I need you to be here. How am I supposed to handle Mom and Dad by myself? Come on Al. Just come home. I need you…." I curled into a ball, cradling my knees. "I love you, Al. You know that, right? You can feel that, right?—how much I love you?" I climbed back into her bed and pulled the duvet over me.
An hour later I woke to the bright sun, and this time I could feel it in my heart, and I knew it in my head. When I woke this time she was gone. She was actually gone. My body knew she wasn't on the Earth any longer.