In September my sister and I boarded the Holland America Westerdam in Seattle and we spent a week cruising Alaska’s inside passage. This is something she’s wanted to do for a long time and even though I’ve made the same journey several times, I never get tired of it.
I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate our fall birthdays.
We were born 14 months apart and another 14 months later our brother came along. My sister has no concept of a life without me in it—I was here first after all—but even as a child I must have kept some deep memory of her infancy. She was a sickly baby and I suppose I sensed my parents’ worry. As girls we shared not only a room, but a double bed, and all throughout my childhood I remember waking up in the middle of the night, groggily aware that I was listening for the sound of her breathing, the sharp pounding of my heart only softening when I heard it.
Then I went away to school at 17 and she married young. We each moved far away from our home town, worked, raised families and although we call and message frequently, now, as grandmothers, we don’t see one another as often as we’d like.
I wondered how we would do, sharing a room again after all these years. But it was as though we boarded the ship and sailed back in time, quickly settling into an easy routine. We took the stairs slowly because she favors her knees and I have a hip that gives me trouble, but at heart we were girls again. We stood out on the veranda in our pajamas and scanned the sky for the Northern Lights. We ate ice cream after breakfast and sometimes slipped back upstairs for a late snack, not worrying about diets and waistlines. She had a steak every night and I stuffed myself on crab and shrimp and lobster.
We made up for lost time and as the whales prepared for their migration to Hawaii, we got to know one another again. I stole glances at her as she put the binoculars to her eyes to scan the surface of the sea. I saw later that she’d taken photos of me when I wasn’t aware.
The highlight of the cruise was spending an entire day in Glacier Bay, surrounded by jagged, snowy mountain peaks and the eerie beauty of blue glaciers. The printed map of the bay clearly marked the retreat of the ice fields. This is undeniable. But standing at the rail beside my sister, looking out at a landscape carved by ice and eons, I realized that eventually we all find ourselves in a place where we can clearly see the traces of our own history; the scars, cliffs and valleys, and rubble that mark where we have been and the sometimes sharp edges of where we are at the moment.
That evening my sister asked an older couple standing near us if they’d enjoyed the day. They answered that they were disappointed. The Margerie Glacier, they told us, had definitely been much larger when they saw it a decade ago.
All I could think was, isn’t that exactly the point? Isn’t that why we are all here? Time runs out. There are precious things—and people—in this world who aren’t going to be around forever. Shouldn’t we be grateful for any chance to be with them?
My sister and I walked on, shaking our heads, leaving the couple to their bitter dissatisfaction. Such a shame.
Then we looked at each other and as sisters have a tendency to do, we got the giggles. We were girls again, laughing at the things grumpy grownups say.
It was time for another ice cream cone.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap's audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of "Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons" and can be reached at email@example.com