I’ve spoken of my eldest sister here before, how when she came to visit me one time in Austin we found ourselves weeding out by the fence. She was gloveless and I tried to tell her something about fire ants. I like to feel what I’m doing, she said, and went on plunging her bare hands into the hardscrabble dirt.
My sister Judith Marion (her middle name my mother’s first name) loved lilies of all kinds, she couldn’t have enough of them. During the years when she lived in the woods and deer would come to eat them to the ground, she complained only mildly. Complaining wasn’t in her nature.
As a youngest child, I am profoundly self-referential, measuring everyone’s experiences against my own. It works when I’m being empathetic; less well when I’m refusing to see any point of view beyond my own. Once as we sat down to supper my sister Katherine became sick and I began to cry. I must have been quite small, because I remember being held in someone’s arms as people consoled me that she was all right, she would be fine.
NO! I remember thinking. I don’t want that to happen to me! Fortunately I was crying too hard to say it.
Years later when his poor brother Jessie fell from his bike into a prickly pear – easily one of the worst experiences of my life – his little brother Cooper responded with comfort and sympathy, then turned to me and said, I’m glad that didn’t happen to me! He must have known I would understand.
Many of the poets participating in the Five-Day Challenge on my Facebook feed seem to have experience with family members suffering from Alzheimer’s, and I am no exception. It took my sister Judy when she was far too young. Does every member of a family with Alzheimer’s wonder whether the dread syndrome will strike them too?
I wish my dear good sister could have lived long enough to know my granddaughter, Marion Judith.
For My Sister Judy
I count my own time back to the time
when you began to lose your mind
and go from doting grandma to the one
who forgot to pick up the kids
when school was done,
who couldn’t recall their favorite foods
but walked blankly around their rooms
with no idea what you were looking for
until their names were gone
and so was your own.
I phoned you when my first grandchild came
and remember my mute surprise
when all you could think to say was
how thrilled your youngest son had been
to be a father. I knew that.
What I didn’t know then was that
you couldn’t hold an afternoon in mind
once the sun had slipped
down behind marsh grass and mudflat
beyond the picture windows where you sat
when you could still be left alone
in a little house by the water, on your own.
I didn’t know they’d locked the stove.
I didn’t know you were already gone.
Twelve years later and I still tick off the strands
of our shared inheritance, needing to find
my own twisted ladder-rungs better designed
than yours, my world less troubled,
my memory equal to the tasks I ask of it
day after day – wanting time
to be different for me. Wanting time.