My grandparents used to have a beach house on Oak Island, a finger of land at the southern tip of North Carolina. Nearly every summer, we spent the Fourth of July week on the island; on the Fourth, we packed a huge picnic, piled into cars, drove across the Intracoastal Waterway and into Southport, a charming town raised where the Cape Fear River meets the Atlantic Ocean.
Before reaching the waterfront park, as if we didn’t already have enough food, we stopped at Hardee’s for a southern feast of fried chicken and biscuits and mashed potatoes and gravy and sugary sweet tea.
At the water’s edge, we spread our blankets on the short-clipped grass and stretched out to fill our bellies under a hazy blue sky while the boats drifted by. As the evening wore on, the lawn filled. My brother and I danced through the blankets and chairs clutching soft dollar bills from my Grandma Kathryn. We bought snow cones and glow-necklaces at the pier before the summer sun disappeared and the fireworks lit up the sky.
Time changes us all.
My grandparents had to sell the beach house around the time Taylor was born; it’s been many years since I last saw the Cape Fear River sky lit up by sparkling streaks of red, blue, green, purple, orange, yellow, silver and gold. My grandmother fought a brave battle against Lewy body dementia, but Lewy body dementia always wins; we said goodbye to her on Christmas Day 2012. And my sister, whose bright eyes used to drink in the world and all its beauty, lives in a world of darkness.
This Fourth of July, John and I invited family and friends to our house to eat burgers and brats and watch the World Cup. Toward the end of the afternoon, my parents and Taylor appeared at the door. My sister has, thankfully, gained weight since her scary stint in the hospital. She looked pretty in her cotton dress, perfect for a summer cookout. She couldn’t eat with us.
After everyone left and the kitchen was clean, John and I piled into the back of my parents’ car and went uptown with them to find a parking lot where we could watch the fireworks shot off from the minor league baseball stadium. The home team’s pitching staff isn’t very good, and the game ran late. We sat in our folding chairs for a long while and talked while we waited for the show. It was unseasonably cool and felt nice, but I missed the salt breeze on my face and the aroma of my Papa Jerry’s bucket of fried chicken, even though I never ate it.
Finally, the fireworks began. I watched in silence next to my sister’s wheelchair. I remembered our own private fireworks show in Mom and Dad’s driveway just two years earlier. That night, Taylor sat in a golf chair and clapped each time Dad shot a Roman candle or bottle rocket into the night. As they exploded over the front yard, I called out the colors, one by one, to my blind sister.
Taylor didn’t clap for the fireworks this time. Instead, I held her hand in its soft purple brace. As the show ended, I savored the warmth of her touch, and I watched the dying of the light.