I’m not what you’d call a nature girl. While I appreciate the beauty of the natural world, I feel no need to camp out in it or get parts of it directly on me. A “back-to-nature” retreat to me means having fresh-cut flowers on the table beside my soaking tub. My older sister, while quite the accomplished soaker herself, was also comfortably at home in the wild. She was the child who lay in the grass and talked to the ants as they crawled up her arm, the one who gently carried every daddy long legs from the high-traffic porch steps to the safety of the back yard.

As an adult, she regularly invited a possum into her kitchen to dine with her cats and allowed a squirrel to give birth in the hole for her dryer vent, giving the squirrel family unrestricted access to her entire house. Boy, did the realtor earn his money the day Mrs. Squirrel casually sauntered down the stairs while he was showing the place to potential buyers.

By contrast, I once paid $2,000 to evict a band of free-loading squirrels from my attic where they’d chomped their way through ten inches of insulation to lay in a supply of acorns and assorted other nuts between my rafters. It was like a Golden Corral buffet for tree rodents up there and they weren’t paying me one single cent in rent.

Unlike my sister’s, my encounters with undomesticated animals have traditionally not gone well. Over the years, I’ve been stalked by a possum, intimidated by a raccoon and head-pecked by a deranged blackbird. Back in my teenage days, the creatures that terrified me most were owls, with their weirdly human-like eyes that seemed to stare right through you. I found them so creepy I wouldn’t even eat Wise potato chips. My sister, of course, thought owls fascinating, weird eyeballs and all. (But, seriously, how could I not fear something capable of spinning its head around almost 360 degrees? At 16, the only other living thing I’d seen do that was Linda Blair and we all know what was going on there!)

To my sister’s great amusement, she was able to witness my fear of owls literally reach new heights one summer night when my boyfriend dropped me off from a date. She was watching from the side patio as I ran to the front door, accidentally brushing against a low-lying tree branch on my way. Instantly, a shrill, hideous screech of “hooooooooooo!” pierced the still night air, launching me several feet into that same air and causing me to let out a pretty hideous screech of my own.

It’s hard to say which reaction was strongest, my panic, the owl’s annoyance or my sister’s delight. This incident gave my sister even more ammunition for teasing “scaredy cat” me.  From that point on, she missed no opportunity to sneak up on me and “hoot” and was particularly fond of doing this in darkened rooms or when I was in the shower. All these years later my left shin still bears a small scar from a hoot-induced leg-shaving mishap. As I pressed a wad of tissues against my razor cut that night, I could never have imagined the bittersweet significance a hoot would ultimately hold in my life.

At the much too young age of 43, my sister received the devastating diagnosis of early onset Parkinson’s disease. For the next 22 years, she faced her diagnosis as she did everything in life, fearlessly and with great humor. She had several good years, and with a few concessions to her illness here and there we continued to have wonderful adventures together. Eventually, however, positive affirmations and a sassy attitude were no match for her cruel and merciless enemy. The last year of her life was a series of medical crises, each leaving her increasingly fragile and largely unable to move or communicate.

Early one morning last October, a strange noise invaded my sound sleep and wakened me at precisely 5:30 in the morning. It was an eerie sound, one I couldn’t quite place. I listened for a few moments, but hearing nothing more, decided I must have either imagined or dreamed it. I was about to fall back asleep when a clear and mournful “hoooooo”outside my window broke the predawn quiet.  In nine years of living in my house I had never once heard an owl hoot. I would not only have remembered if I had, I would have probably packed my bags on the spot. With a mounting sense of dread, I sat up in bed and stared at the phone, certain the call I’d feared for the past year would come any minute. I stared at the phone for two hours until it was time to get ready for work.

In the bright light of day, my notion that the “hoot” had been a message from my sister seemed almost silly. I was chiding myself for my superstitions when the phone rang at 8:15 with the news that my sister had suffered another stroke, this one even more severe than the last, and that any minute might well be her last. Just before I hung up the phone, I asked when the stroke had occurred. 5:30 a.m. was the answer.

Stubborn to the very end, insistent on meeting death on her own terms, my sister defied her doctors’ pronouncements and held on for another week, long enough for us to share a last goodbye and even a final weak smile at an old joke. And then, with barely a whimper, she was gone, taking with her a large piece of my heart.

The first night after she was gone, my sense of loss was so profound, my grief so crushing, I could do little more than crawl into bed, face unwashed, teeth unbrushed. I lay in the dark, pillow clutched to my chest, and cried for hours. Mercifully, exhaustion at last took over and I felt my eyelids getting heavy. And just as I was drifting off, I heard it. Soft at first and then strong and clear, an unmistakable series of hoots outside my bedroom window. I sat up and listened intently for the next several minutes, but only silence followed. I lay back down and closed my eyes.  Despite my sadness, despite the tears rolling down my cheeks, I couldn’t help but smile. Fly high and free, my dear sister, far from the pain and limitations of this earthly realm. And thank you for giving a hoot one last time.

It’s been one year since my sister passed away and I have never heard a single hoot since. Have you ever received what you thought was a message from someone who had passed on?

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