Kay is sleeping when I arrive, as she often is. When I call her name she doesn’t wake, but her snoring tells me she is fine. I peek in her door: her legs are folded Indian-style, or “criss-cross apple-sauce” as my daughter says these days. She is collapsed back onto a pile of pillows, looking both like a child and like someone on the threshold of the next world. She is so comfortable that she still doesn’t wake, so I haul out the box of files, set up my mug of coffee, and I dig into the stack of papers on her desk.
For a few hours a week, I am a personal organizer for Kay. It’s an excuse for us to spend time together, an excuse for her to pay me. Even recovering from a stroke, she is more organized than me, but she needs my eyesight and dexterity to sort through this mountain of mail. Her stroke occurred three years ago, and this stack measures the pace of her life since then, the halts and starts of medical procedures to keep her alive. In some ways, it is a record of her fight for independence, her fight to live on her own again, despite disabilities. There are bills and medical records from 2003 and from this year, and several of the years in-between. This is a first pass on these papers: I simply open envelopes and arrange all the Medicare files by month and stick them in the file folder. We will talk through these files later, deciding what to keep and what not to keep.
Postcards and photos and poems intermingle among these official papers, and I file them in a small accordion file for “dear things.” Kay wakes, after another round of door-knocking and greeting on my part. She has an appointment in an hour, and waking is hard work for her. I read her a thank you note from a friend, and she softly brushes the thank you note against her face.
Kay is so fierce—these little glimpses of dearness slay me. If I falter at my task, fall into this sorrow, she may miss a necessary bill. If I slow down much, this pile will still greet me next week, too. How to be moved and not too moved, at the same time? If I were any more vulnerable at this work, I’m afraid I would cry all the time and be just useless. Compassion and work, side by side. She heads off to wash her face and swallow the medications she needs, the fresh thank you note tucked into her pocket.
Leaf by leaf, I sort. April 2003, twelve pages into this pile, June 2003, six pages into that file. Tucked in-between is a small stack of grid paper, torn out of a book. There are phone numbers and a name on the first page, in neat writing. This must be Kay’s handwriting before the stroke! I turn the page over to see where I ought to file this, and the page reads, “Today I will meet my daughter. She is twenty-three years old. I have not seen her for twenty-two and a half years. Her parents kept their promise and retained the name I gave her when she was born.” Four or five pages continue, but I have read something not mine, and it burns my eyes, my heart, my soul. Dear God, what else has this woman endured? I take off my glasses and cover my eyes.
“Are your eyes bothering you, dear?” she asks. She can see a little. I’m certain she cannot tell that I am holding pages from her diary. I quickly place the handwritten pages in the back of the file of dear things. From the first time I created this accordion file, I’ve not been certain she will ever really see these photos, postcards and notes again, whether she would recognize them if she did see them. They are kept “just in case.” In case she can see them. In case someone will read them to her, should she go completely blind. It’s clear that all the items in this folder are intimate—only a relative or close friend would be bold enough to read them for her. That person will know what to do, I surmise, whether to read these pages or not.
“My eyes are okay enough, Kay. I just need to refresh my coffee. I’ll finish this stack in a moment and then I’m ready to go.”
It’s a lie. My eyes are not okay. Kay’s daughter’s name was written clearly on that page and already my memory has blotted it out: not mine, not for me to know. It is one thing to read a story like that in a book. It is another to read it in handwriting, across the room from the writer of such a private truth. If it were my right to know such a story, I would talk with Kay about it, but it is clearly not my right. It’s likely I will never know how the story ends.
My eyes are waiting to rinse clear. My eyes know too much. She doesn’t need to know what I’ve seen.
I look Kay in the eye. “Ready?”
“I’m ready,” she answers. “Let’s go.”