A sister’s loss, and the things she keeps

    Perfect weather for a road trip. Early fall; a drive from Spokane, Wash., to Butte, Mt.

    Big sky, blue skies as we climb up the mountain passes of northern Idaho, then down onto Montana’s high plains. My sister and I have been in the rental car for three hours, our only detour for a kitschy Western gift shop featuring slot machines and an alarming number of saber-like knives.

    “I love,” she says, eyeing the gorgeous view out the window. “Tell me your name.”

    I turn slightly so she can watch me form the word she so desperately wants to remember. I open my mouth, make the “Ka” sound, then place my tongue between my front teeth and draw the syllable out: “Ka-thy.”

    I repeat my name a few more times, like this is a perfectly normal thing we are doing.

    “Ka-thy, Ka-thy, Kathy,” she says, as if she has just solved a difficult algebraic equation.

    “Yes,” I crow. “That’s great!” I wait a minute, then sounding even to myself like a kindergarten teacher, ask her again. “What’s my name?”

    Silence. “Calm,” she says, as she fans herself with her hand like she has become overheated. “Calm” is what she says when she gets upset because the words aren’t there.

    A fall, and a huge change

    My sister, at 55, is 13 months younger than I am. (I’m the oldest of six girls.) Four months before our road trip she fell down a flight of concrete stairs and fractured her skull. Her surgeon had performed surgery to reduce pressure in her injured brain. This was the left side of her brain, where speech and memory reside.

    Now I am here to help her move her things out of her house in Butte. She has to sell the house and spend an unknown stretch of time in the care of others recovering from her injury.

    I may have harbored hope that the little house that she had been rehabbing before the accident was going to be an historic charmer just needing a little TLC. A little elbow grease and we could put it on the market and get her some much-needed cash to pay her mounting bills.

    Her house is near the top of the steepest road I have ever seen. The yawning scar of Butte’s silver mine is visible a half mile north. I creep up the hill in the rental car, nearly perpendicular, and she directs me to park at a certain angle to prevent the car from flipping over on its side and rolling to the bottom of the hill.

    I try to keep my expression neutral as I assess the place. And as soon as we step in the front door, I learn something new about her. Like our mother, she is a hoarder.

    With my mother, we have had to be vigilant over the years, my sisters sneaking into her apartment occasionally and weeding things out. No one has done this for my sister.

    On either side of the narrow path that leads from the front door to the kitchen to her bedroom are boxes crammed full of dusty objects, more stuff piled on the floor. I see at least four broken movie projectors, boxes of old filmstrips, a collection of at least 50 china cups with Irish sayings, hundreds of molding record albums, countless stacks of old magazines and books, a tall figurine of a teenage mutant ninja turtle, a faded Japanese geisha figure, a tall bongo drum, several bulky computer components, heaps of old clothes and shoes. The clutter is waist-high.

    To me, a thrower-away of the first degree, this is dismaying. The brain injury I can handle. This is something else.

    Hoarding memories

    Beyond the clutter, the house is a mess. Wires dangle from odd places, cracked windows are covered with duct tape; the linoleum in the tiny kitchen curls up and whacks you in the shins. In the middle of the kitchen sits, inexplicably, a large gray-metal water fountain, like you would see in a school, in the middle of the kitchen, not hooked up to anything.

    My sister is so happy though. Calm, I say to myself. I have brought a box of extra large garbage bags with me, and we get started. We will have a system, I tell her. She has to decide what she absolutely cannot leave behind, but it will all have to fit in the rental car. Whatever else she can’t bear to part with, we will stack in one room, to be retrieved later. The rest has to go in the trash.

    I start with the bongo drum – a grubby thing with sad tassels hanging from its sides. I laugh out loud, “Surely this can go out!” And, with some ferocity, my sister grabs it from me. “No,” she says. “No, this is me. This is me.”

    And I realize I’m not in the perfectly constructed world of my own making any more. I am in my sister’s world. In her life. These things that seem to me to be junk mean everything to her. They are her past. Each item has a story, which, because of her brain injury, she is unable to share with me now. She scoots around the falling-down house, patting things with great affection.

    “This is me,” she keeps saying, hand over her heart, holding up yet another peculiar but cherished item for me to admire. “This is me. Your name again?”

    Kathy Stevenson’s work has appeared in many major newspapers and magazines.  Her historical novel The Lake Poet was published in 2001 and she has published two essay collections.  In 2010, her short story collection Death, Divorce, and Other Tales of Women’s Liberation was published as an e-book on Amazon’s Kindle.  She received an M.F.A. in creative writing from Bennington College in Vermont.

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