Posted by: Brenda Kula | March 30, 2008

Tick-Tock

We dance round in a ring and suppose. But the Secret sits in the middle and knows. – Robert Frost (1942)

The recollection came early this morning shortly upon awakening.

When I awake in the night and feel unsettled, I usually go to the garden room and sleep on the couch there. The two dogs trail behind and curl up beside me. I have to get away from the sounds of breathing. In this case of course it is my husband’s breathing. I have to have silence, and only then can I ease back into sleep. The reason why has always been a mystery.

When I awoke around seven this morning, the first thing I heard was the ticking of a clock in the other room. And then the memory came flooding back. I was thirteen then and the sound was thirty-eight years old.

My great-grandmother was not well. The doctor had come the day before. Back in those days if a person was very ill, a doctor would come to their home. I knew something was amiss. She was in her eighties. I had been waiting for, and dreading, just this scenario for as long as I could process memory.

Tick-tock. The rise and fall of the covers over her thin body. The somewhat labored sound of her breathing. It had grown dark outside. I watched for a time, then went to the bed I shared with my grandmother in the next room to sleep.

It was not until today that I came to understand my avoidance of anything ticking. It drives my husband crazy that I will sometimes put clocks into drawers and cover them with clothing. That I buy beautiful clocks, plug them in or insert batteries; and if it has an audible ticking sound, out to the garage it goes.

Well, now I know.

The following morning that April of 1970, I awoke to my child-like grandmother yelling and crying. I threw the covers back and went running to the living room, where my great-grandmother had gone to sleep on the couch. I suppose she thought she’d get more rest there. We only had one bedroom in our little stucco house, with two beds.

The covers outlining her were still. The rise and fall of her breathing I’d witnessed the night before was gone. I reached down to touch her amidst my grandmother’s wailing for me to do something in the background. She was no longer breathing. Her body had become cool to the touch. I stood there, the loud, plaintive sobbing continuing behind me, unable to move.

My great-grandmother had prepared me for this moment all of my life. In her practical, utilitarian way, I suppose it was the only answer to her dilemma. To train the child that had come to live with her as a toddler, to take over the responsibility for her adult, mentally incapacitated daughter. To keep the family from putting her away. Possibly she had tried to train my mother for this important task. But she had taken off for parts unknown. My great-grandmother feared her other seven children would take the easy way out.

It would start out with the familiar refrain: "Now when I die…" And then she would launch into all these things I was to do, upon the event of her death. I don’t really remember even what they were now. But I came to hate weekends, when I couldn’t go to school. Because at school, I could escape the words.

I tried to grasp something I’d been taught, as I stood there. Tried to figure out what to do next. The crying continued. I was frozen.

And then the moment of reckoning came to me. It was just me now. And I was exactly 13 years plus two months old.

The memories have come to me over the span of my lifetime in little droplets, measured out in portions that are manageable. I don’t have long threads of actual recollection, really, from way back then. Just little images that crop up here and there. Like the way a camera flashes. Just that quick.

A wise doctor told me once that we are only emotionally able to take in what we can handle when it comes to remembering. That memories which accompany traumatic events come back to you when you finally feel safe.

Tick-tock has now been solved. A room quiet but for the breathing, sleeping old woman who was about to die in a few hours. And a clock measuring the hours until her passage.

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Responses

  1. Brenda, your insight amazes me. As does your ability to handle it. Hang in there, dear!

  2. Hi Brenda,

    I just have a minute before we sit down to eat, but I just wanted to tell you how moved I was by your story. It’s incredible that you lived through that. I have to go know, but I’ll be back.

    Rue

  3. Hi Brenda,
    Thanks for coming by and leaving such nice comments on my blog.
    I have been very moved by your post – I will be back.

  4. I’m going to try this again and hope it doesn’t post twice. Sorry
    Hi,
    Thanks for coming by my blog and leaving such a nice comment.
    My visit here was very moving – you have a way with words.
    Till later,
    Carletta

  5. Hi Brenda,
    That wise doctor was correct, and things come back as they’re allowed…

    You’re always in my thoughts.

    xo~Tracie

  6. Brenda– save these essays. Your writing is beautiful, and yes, it could help many. You are writing a book.

    Hugs,
    CurtissAnn


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