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Minute by minute, week by week, the September days are growing shorter as the late afternoon sun creeps a little earlier below the mountain ridges to the west. We are left in a pool of cool blue, the temperatures dipping quickly, reminding us that even though the tomatoes on the vine are still warm by day, there’s no denying fall is upon us.
Everyone is relieved by this circumstance, after a particularly hard summer of extreme heat and fire. “Don’t you love this time of year?” they say and you agree, these are the best possible days.
No matter that this is the season of disappearance and out here in the middle distance, things disappearing become warning signs of our own vanishing point.
The keys, the phone, a pen, a familiar word. Lost in senior moments. I’m rushing around the house looking for a sweater, and discover it’s tied around my waist. I’m looking for glasses that are propped atop my head. The other night I discovered my electric toothbrush missing from the bathroom, then found it the next morning in the garden where I’d left it.
Welcome to the season of disappearing.
Orange and black displays in the grocery store, loaded pumpkin vines snaking through the neighbor’s fence. Just a little over a month till Halloween and this glorious, evanescent season will be over. It comes late and leaves early.
My sister disappeared for good four years ago, a woman who’d remained youthful into her 50s, partly a consequence of having Down Syndrome and partly a result of healthy living. Watching Alzheimer’s age her, swiftly and irretrievably, was like watching a time-lapse film rush through a season that had no name. Her smooth skin withered and sagged. Her bright eyes went flat. She slept earlier and longer, ate less, and lost interest in her sports teams, music, needlework, and crafts, all the activities that had kept her busy and engaged throughout her adult life.
She was one year older than me, and never stopped reminding me of that until she could no longer remember it.
We knew her disappearance was inevitable but we hoped she wouldn’t go too fast. One day I took her to the grocery store, and without warning, right next to the magazine rack, her knees buckled and she went down, forgetting in a flash how to stay upright. From that day forward, when we went somewhere we moved more slowly and with more tedious instruction. Getting out of the car or any transition became a near impossibility for her.
At home, my mother replaced the needle and thread with which she had made exquisite embroidery with a cup of water and a paintbrush. My sister lifted the wet brush and swished it across a blank page treated with chemicals to bloom into color upon contact — soft faded pinks, yellows and blues. These were her last creations, made before she dissolved, except in memory.
Every now and then, I come across a piece of her hand-writing, a painting she made for me, a pillowcase she stitched, and I picture her before her twilight, vigorous and sunny. It is insufficient to say I miss her, like saying I miss oxygen or daylight.
Halloween was her season. When we were kids she always dressed as a male hero, an athlete, a swashbuckler. I think of her as Zorro in a dashing black cape, sword raised, a thin black eye mask, a painted moustache. She plays the role with gusto.
We set out from our house to trick-or-treat just after the sun goes down, when the light is thin and waning. From behind my mask — Casper the Friendly Ghost, Wilma Flintstone, Yogi Bear — I can see swarms of other masked kids rushing down the darkened sidewalk, racing to a lighted front porch and holding out their buckets for handfuls of candy. My sister never breaks character and I never even try to embody whatever cartoon being I am supposed to be.
From behind the eye holes of the suffocating plastic mask, I harbor a Halloween fear far scarier than any witch or zombie. I’m afraid that because no one can see me behind the mask, I have disappeared. Every now and then, I lift the mask and gulp some air. My sister, meanwhile, parries and lunges, parries and lunges, Zorro to the nth of her being.
The October sky grows dark and we head home to count our candy. I throw off the sweaty mask. She trades all her Butterfingers for my Three Musketeers. Tomorrow it will be November, the end of the season of disappearing.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.