It promises to be perfect weather for a road trip. Early fall; a drive from Spokane, Washington to Butte, Montana. 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 so far a kitschy Western gift shop featuring slot machines, art painted on tree stumps, an alarming number of saber-like knives, and a giant wooden Indian.
“I love,” she says, eyeing the gorgeous view out the window. “Tell me your name.”
I turn slightly toward her so she can watch me form the word she so desperately wants to remember. I open my mouth, emphasizing the vibration in my throat and make the “Ka” sound, then place my tongue between my front teeth and draw the syllable out, “thy.” “Kathy.” 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, after a few false starts, like 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.
My sister, at fifty-five, is thirteen months younger than I am. (I’m the oldest; she is second oldest of six girls in our family.) Four months before our road trip she fell down a flight of concrete stairs and landed on her head at the bottom, fracturing her skull. Not even sure she would live; 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. I live near Philadelphia, but when I got the news I made plans to fly to Spokane to see her in the ICU. She was there for three weeks, then moved to rehab for a few weeks, and then was released to the care of her boyfriend. I flew out a second time to help with that transition. 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 she was living in and rehabbing was going to be a charming historic home in need of some minor TLC. A little elbow grease and we could put it on the market and get her some much-needed cash to pay off her quickly mounting bills.
Her house is near the top of the steepest road I have ever seen. The enormous 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, one of my sisters sneaking into her apartment occasionally and weeding things out. Obviously, 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 fifty china cups with Irish sayings on them, hundreds of molding record albums, countless stacks of old magazines and books and travel brochures, a tall figurine of a teenage mutant ninja turtle, a large glass case with a jagged crack in it in which reclines a faded Japanese geisha figure, a tall bongo drum, several bulky computer components that look decades old, and heaps of old clothes and shoes. Just to mention a fraction of what is heaped waist-high and higher.
To me, a thrower-away of the first degree, this is more dismaying that anything I have seen so far. The brain injury I can handle. This is something else. Not to mention the condition of the house itself. Wires dangle from odd places, windows are cracked and the cracks covered with duct tape, the linoleum in the tiny kitchen curls up and whacks you in the shins. There is a tall ladder in the middle of one room, and an open paint can, with the paint now hardened sitting next to it. Inexplicably there is a large gray metal water fountain, like you would see in a school, in the middle of the kitchen, not hooked up to anything. Just sitting there taking up a lot of space.
My sister is so happy though. And this is what gets me focused. 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, molding 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. Tell me your name again?”