“Halloween Celebrants” by Stan Payne, October 30, 1953. Courtesy of Special Collections, Pikes Peak Library District. Image Number: 004-10648.

The Middle Distance 9.21.12: The Season of Disappearing

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Photo by Sean Cayton

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.

 

15 Responses to The Middle Distance, 9/21/12: The Season of Disappearing

  1. Pat Musick says:

    thank you, Kathryn. beautiful, as always, thank you for embodying and sharing that love that’s even stronger than your good clear memories.

  2. Lori says:

    beautiful Kathryn. thank you!

  3. Polly says:

    Stunning! I took one of your essays to a church retreat last weekend as my symbol of transition. This one would have been even better.

  4. Paula says:

    The question begs to be asked,,, what in the heck are you doing with your toothbrush in the garden, cleaning the leaves??? Silly Girl

    • kathryn says:

      The truth: I get bored doing the electric brush routine, and often wander outside while brushing, to check on the tomatoes, pick nasturtiums, etc. Obviously that day I got distracted.

  5. Ginny says:

    Thank you! thank you! thank you! Your beautiful and timely essay brought tears to my eyes. This past spring my father-in-law told us that watching his wife of 60+ years succumb to Alzheimer’s is like seeing “death in slow motion.” And now my mother is at the cusp of that slope as well. This one’s a keeper.

  6. Cate Boddington says:

    I too wondered about the toothbrush in the garden- Kathryn at our age we shouldn’t be multitasking! That said…what a lovely, wonderful piece that brings your sister alive to us all,and is a great portrait of the sweet charm of a Down Syndrome child. You also evoked my memories of Halloween trick or treating- so similar to yours- and those uncomfortable masks which I remember forgetting what the outside even looked like so that I was often completely stumped by the old people’s question “And who are you, little girl?” Candy, being allowed to knock on people’s doors and being outside in the dark(!) was all that was on my mind! Thanks for this one!

  7. rose enyeart says:

    Small town Halloween meant me walking with the younger kids to guard their loot from the older boys, my brother being one of them. I think that is why I’ve never really liked the night. It meant standing down boys lots bigger, but no ornerier, than me so that some little kids could eat too much candy!

  8. Bill Howard says:

    You are really depressing! While it is my choice to listen to your on-air pieces, I have to say it is at my own peril. When I hear your voice and listen to the content of your musings I have the strange urge to put a gun to my head. The amount of resignation and hopelessness is asounding! While I know that you are not that much older than I am I get the impression that you are preparing to die ….. a long, suffering death. I am sorry for the loss of your sister to Alzheimer’s disease, and your requiem to her is touching, but as with many of the essays I have heard, but content seems to musings on the a long, slow preparation for the end of your own life. It would appear that you have done all of the living that you can, and that there is nothing new to experience. And, that is a sad impression.

    This my impression, my hope is that it is far from your experience.

    • kathryn says:

      Geez, Bill. I’m not hopeless and actually love living, am neither resigned nor hopeless. But as a family member of two loved ones who actually died of suicide via guns in the last five years, I must say I find the “urge to put a gun to my head” statement alarming. I sincerely hope you are speaking figuratively.

  9. I am moved by your essays, Kathryn, not depressed by them! Anyone who shares personal essays in a forum such as this is making themselves very vulnerable und must therefore also be very brave, as I’m sure you are! Anyone who’s lived long enough to have experienced deep personal losses is bound thereafter to see life through that filter, and to have a heightened awareness of the transience of things. And the knowledge that this includes one’s own eventual passing, that life is, in a way, a “long, slow preparation for the end”, like it or no, doesn’t mean that one is by any means”finished” with living!!! It can, as a matter of fact, actually heighten one’s zest for life.

  10. Sarah says:

    I’m a firm believer in the idea that in order to know where you are going, one ought to examine where one has been.

    So, when I hear a story about you and your sister going out on Halloween, first I relish in the snapshot of her character and your experience of her, then I’m transported 30 years to stormy wet nights as a guyser (named after Guy Fawks who’s burning comes up 5 nights later) tramping along the shore to any houses with their outside light on. The inhabitants let us in then guessed who we were. In order to earn our sweets, we would sing or tell a story, or bob for apples or eat treacle covered buns dangling off strings with our hands tied behind us – so messy, but such fun!

    I don’t know if this is done in my village anymore. I hope it is. I love taking my kids out for Halloween, it’s a different experience for them, since we don’t know many of our neighbours, but still a good one.

    Thank you, Kathryn.

  11. Jo Carol Ciborowski says:

    Thank you, Kathryn, for that loving portrait of your sister. I teach art to a Down Syndrome student to whom I’ve become very attached. She has taught me lessons that no one else possibly could. I find your writing to be so touching and enlightening, not depressing. I’m sorry you’ve had to endure so much tragedy in your life and it does color your writing–but in a somehow impossibly beautiful way.

    P.S. It was so good to meet you at the Modbo! I’ve admired your writing for years.

  12. Linda says:

    Thank you, Kathryn, a dear friend sent this to me. I too am a child of the 50′s I love the photo. I too walk around looking for things that aren’t really lost just hiding in the linen closet or in the car, or at the bottom of the hill, because they fell off the car, when I sat them on the hood and drove away. (my telephone, my coffee mug etc…) Most of all thank you for sharing your story about your sister. I have a brother who is still a child at age 59, he is funny and loving and his favorite holiday is Hall-o-ween. We are all so blessed that he is still with us.

  13. Nancy Wilsted says:

    Kathryn,
    Your sister sounds like a jubilant mixture of innocence, creativity, and braggadocio. Oh, to see her masked and black-caped self wielding that sword! You must miss her terribly.

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