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"We all know everything."

-- Ellen Gilchrist, "Memphis," Drunk With Love

We look into the faces of our elders and pretend that we will never age. We look at those in charge and refuse to notice their vulnerability, their weak defenses.

We say we want love when we really want solitude. We say we want solitude when we really want love.

We all know everything.

I've been wondering what my sister, Kim, whose mind is fading, knows. At 49, with Down syndrome and Alzheimer's disease, her face when she arrived for her annual summer visit was deeply lined. A woman just a year older than me with a child's sweet face, she looked old to me for the first time. Excitement still shone through her eyes, but it was tinged with panic -- or was that terror?

All her life she has made lists -- of baseball players' batting averages, the uniform numbers of professional football players, the birth dates of her favorite country music stars. Now she carries a small ringed binder and a pen and makes lists of the time.

She checks her watch: 3:05. She writes 3:05. She checks her watch: 3:10. She writes 3:10.

3:15.

3:30.

3:40.

"You got the same time. Three-thirty, three-forty. We got the same time," is her mantra, the only message she can communicate to me, to everyone.

She obsesses on how the day will pass: What time will I get home? What time will we eat? What time will she get up tomorrow morning?

"I will get up tomorrow morning at 10:05. Ten-oh-five I will get up," she says a hundred times, two hundred times as the day goes by.

We sit on the front porch and I read as she writes and chants the time.

"What time's Kyle got?" she asks; my brother, the one who taught her to keep lists, in Knoxville, eastern time, two hours later, a source of confusion. "What time's Katie got?" My daughter in California, an hour earlier. She wants to know where we all are in time. She holds us to her in her oddly ordered universe. If we have the same time, we're still there and so is she.

She flips through her souvenir Colorado Rockies book and fixates on random numbers. She points to a three.

"Three o'clock. They got the same time." She smiles with wild delight. Her mind has made a connection, she thinks. She places herself in a world that has become confusing and strange by sharing time. We all share time -- the Colorado Rockies, country music stars, our brother, my daughter, the radio clock in the car.

It's the same time. Here we are together.

In the afternoon, every day she asks, "What time will it get dark?"

"Eight-forty-five," I say.

"Eight-forty-five," she repeats. When dusk comes, she begins to watch the sky and checks her watch. She asks 10 more times. What time will it get dark?

A list on the kitchen table chronicles her day -- a long, orderly list of numbers, ticking away her day. She was here another day, recording her presence, checking in, conscious, still here.

I kiss her goodnight and tell her I am going to bed to read.

"You were right, though," she says. "I will get up at 10:05 tomorrow morning.

"Ten-oh-five, I will get up."

It is all she knows. She knows everything.

-- kathryn@csindy.com

  • Kathryn Eastburn on chronicling the passage of time

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