Is Anyone Home?

Strokes are meant for the elderly, or doled out as punishment for fat people who ate one too many Big Macs in their lifetime. Strokes are supposed to either kill you, or just scare you enough to become a spokesperson for Bayer – not maim you for life. I don’t know what kind of sick joke God was playing that day, but I’m not laughing. Neither is my sister.

I used to hate her. When mom told me I was going to be a big sister, I ran up to my room and cried for hours. When Kari was born, I refused to hold her, or even look at her. Her constant crying and cooing drove me insane. Now, I’d give anything to hear her make a sound besides that nauseating gurgle in the back of her throat. As I wipe the sticky spittle from the corners of her mouth, I can’t help but wonder if this is how she looked when she was spoon-fed the first time around.

Eventually, Kari grew on me. I thought her Disney princess diapers were funny, and laughed at the faces she made as she filled them with stink bombs especially for mom and dad. She would wink at me, as if to say, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this.” I couldn’t wait for her to grow up and be my best friend.

Her first word was “teh,” as in Teri, I think. I was tickling her soft, round belly when she reached for my face with her pudgy little hands and said “Tehteh” Kari was eight months old then. From that point on, she talked nonstop and devoured books the way an Ethiopian child scarfs down Peace Corp meals. Mom and Dad put her in one of those programs for freaky smart kids, and at the age of eight she was reading Tolstoy and reciting the Gettysburg address from the top of her head. My sister loved words. She loved to talk, and she did it well. By the time she delivered her valedictorian speech at graduation, she had three national oratory contests under her belt. I was proud of my baby sister.

It was the summer before her sophomore year of college when I got the phone call. I was at home, pounding out my thesis on a shitty secondhand laptop. Mom called, and told me I needed to come home right away. After a few frantic phone calls to my asshole boss and a redeye flight, I walked into the hospital to see Kari attached to dozens of machines – one that breathed for her, one that pumped food down her throat, and one that beeped with every beat of her heart. I couldn’t comprehend it – Kari, a stroke.

One by one, they removed the machines, and we hoped that when the last one was wheeled out of the room, we’d have our chatterbox back. What we were left with the hollow shell of my sister, unable to walk, or talk or care for herself. The doctor encouraged us to place her in a nursing home, so she could stare at a ceiling while the elderly dropped like flies around her. Mom and dad saw no other choice, but I couldn’t do that to her. I dropped out of school, and went through CNA training. Soon, I was moving Kari into my two bedroom apartment.

Every day, I carry her from her bed and sit her in a chair by the window. I read Anna Karenina to her, and play recordings of Sam Waterson reading the Gettysburg address. I watch her closely for any signs of recognition, any sign that the light is still on and Kari is still home. Most days, she stares blankly at the horizon, drool oozing from the corner of her mouth. I recall the days when I would stand over her crib and listen to her babble while blowing itty bitty baby spit bubbles. It seemed so sweet and promising then.

Occasionally, I wonder if my time would be better spent cleaning catheters and balancing checkbooks. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’ve even flirted with the idea of relinquishing my little sister’s care to total strangers wearing pastel scrubs. Having a “normal” life again would be nice, but no matter what I choose, I will never be able to separate myself from Kari. I am her eyes, sucking words from pages. I am her ears, relishing the power of history’s greatest speeches. I am her lips, her skin, her nose, the filter through which she experiences the world. I am the housekeeper, just trying to keep things tidy until the lights come on and Kari comes home.

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