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My sister Kim always said yes.
Yes to a ride down the island to look at birds. Yes to a walk on the beach. Yes to a game of Uno. Yes to whatever was prepared for dinner. Yes to a movie. Yes to the dreaded question: Are you ready to go to work?
When I was born, she was 13 months old — an adorable blonde pixie with some of the apparent physical characteristics of Down Syndrome. It was the 1950s, and it was not uncommon for parents with kids like Kim to put them away at their doctors’ advice, for the good of the rest of the family. My mother knew better, and Kim became the treasured centerpiece of the Carpenter clan.
Last week, I slept in her room at my mother’s house in Texas, the same room where she died in March, 2008. She had lived a life of extraordinary good health, but died of complications of Alzheimer’s, still saying yes in her own way. She was 55 years old.
Sleeping in Kim’s room last week, I felt the quiet hush of her own sleep that I had watched so many times over the years. She slept flat on her back, face up, the handmade quilt that covered her bed pulled up to her chin. She never turned, never moved, and slept the exact same number of hours each night.
Her room remains largely unchanged since her death. An autographed black and white head shot of Loretta Lynn still hangs on the wall, alongside a picture of Kim striding across the finish line at the International Special Olympics in Baton Rouge, and another of her receiving her gold medal on the winners platform.
Here are photos of her holding her baby nephews; sitting across the table from her boyfriend, laughing; lighting the altar candles at her church; helping a young student across a balance beam in the special ed classroom where she worked as a teachers aid; potting delicate seedlings in the greenhouse where she worked later in her life.
As I waited for my Ambien to kick in, I observed the array of trophies atop her dresser: bowling trophies, track and field medals, community service honors, and a small medallion on a wooden pedestal with an engraved plaque that reads: Miss TC Cherry Park, 1962.
Kim was nine and I was eight. We spent our summer days on the school grounds across the street from our house in Bowling Green, Kentucky, at TC Cherry Park. Hundreds of kids played tetherball, kickball, softball, jump rope, and horseshoes there every day from early morning to mid-afternoon in a cloud of churning dust. This was my school but not Kim’s, as kids like her were not allowed a public education in those days.
But when the end of summer and the awards banquet came, and the king and queen were crowned, Kim was unanimously voted Miss TC Cherry Park. I coveted that trophy and that title. I knew that she deserved it.
When Kim’s Alzheimers began to advance aggressively, in the last year of her life, it was as if she skipped late middle age and became elderly overnight. Words and short term memory escaped her. Her hair and skin grew thin. Still, she got up every morning and dressed, with great difficulty, for a day at the Alzheimer’s day care center in a church up the street from my mother’s house, until just three weeks before she died.
She stopped eating. We called hospice. Her days grew shorter. She slept longer. She stopped drinking.
I remember calling my ex-husband, a physician who’d loved Kim for much of her life, and telling him about her decline during those last weeks. “You’re witnessing a miracle,” he said. “You’re seeing a human body die the way it’s supposed to.”
Finally, flat on her back, face up in her own bed, her mother and my daughter at her bedside, she took her last breath and died.
Since Kim died, my mother has fractured her sacrum, and has battled endometrial cancer. She’s in her early 80s now and undergoing chemotherapy for a recurring cancer. And Kim’s brother-in-law, the doctor, has died of suicide.
As I was packing my bag to return home last week, my mother slipped into Kim’s room. Silently, she picked up the Miss TC Cherry Park trophy and dropped it into my bag. I brought it home with me, across the patchwork plains, a reminder, in a world that often says no, of my sister’s eternal yes.
“The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.
Tagged with: The Middle Distance