My carefree sister

She’s gone now, but can I, the cautious one, catch a bit of her happy-go-lucky spirit?

Illustration by Gracia Lam

A DREARY RAINY DAY finally cleared a bit at last, so I went to the dam to see the sun set over the Upper Mystic Lake. The lake was teeming with herring come from the ocean to spawn. Seagulls, black-crowned night herons, Canada geese were all finishing up for the day. Just a few people were about.

 A woman with dark blue eyes and dark blond hair came to talk to me, startling me just by looking so much like my sister, dead five years now, from Alzheimer’s. We agreed the evening was a fine one. I didn’t know what to say to her, about my sister, so I didn’t say anything. It hurt and pleased me at the same time, to have her standing talking to me. Boo and I were “Irish twins,” and she would have loved the lake, the dam, the birds, the herring. We had traveled together to the Caribbean, to Utah, canoed the Green River for four days with her husband and friends. 

 The woman left with her friends. I settled into drawing the birds, my sketch pad resting on the dam’s iron railing. Four Canada geese families, about 40 in all, traveled from the grassy bank below the dam, down to the water, past the dam, and around the boats moored on the other side, then continued on to their resting place. Night was very slowly coming on. The vision of Boo was still with me.


 After a while I was interrupted by a man who turned out to be a regular fisherman on the lake. We were the only ones left at the dam now. We shook hands, introduced ourselves, and talked. I showed him the sketches I had made. He recognized a boathouse I had drawn one day but hadn’t labeled and couldn’t remember. He was waiting for friends to join him at dusk. As we talked, he would bump into me sometimes or touch my shoulder, but he didn’t seem drunk, just a little off kilter. 

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

 I’ve been feeling off kilter, too, newly retired and trying to figure out how to do it — be retired. I’ve lost my work companions but haven’t found replacements. I liked talking with him, but after a while, a little uncomfortable alone with a stranger in the near dark, I told him I had to go. I left him waiting for his friends.

 I know my sister would have stayed to talk, maybe kept him company till his friends came. We were different that way. She wouldn’t have thought of being hassled, or even mugged. She lived in a world where people could be like puppies, tumbling about and bumping and nipping and frolicking together. She had many friends. Our mother said she was like a warm fire in the fireplace.

 I follow the rules I made a long time ago, about being careful not to get hurt and watching out for the edge you might drop off of. Really, though, there’s not so much to risk, since I’ve lived most of my life already. I imagine being like Boo, smiling and laughing and jumping into life. Just shed my old skin like the snakes we collected as kids. Sprout new legs the way our polliwogs did, transforming from water to land animals. Swimming upstream against my cautious nature, who knows what might happen.

 Herring eggs hatch in the Upper Mystic, later swim to the ocean, come back to spawn each spring for a few years, going back to the ocean each year, until their time is done. The dam has a fish ladder to help them over it. Maybe I can construct a ladder of many small steps up and over. Maybe I just have to figure out the steps.

Johanna Hamill is a writer in West Medford. Send comments to YOUR STORY. E-mail your 650-word essay on a relationship to Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.