I started making lists when I was about twelve. I know this because I have them. Mostly the lists were about people. People I liked, people I had crushes on, people I hated. The lists changed frequently, sometimes almost daily. Often there were ties for first, second and even third place. When my friend Fern and I spent hours on the phone at night, reading each other our diary entries, we’d sometimes make lists together. We had enemies lists which often included politicians we heard our parents discussing. We had favorite athletes lists and music lists, teachers lists and of course, lists of our peers and family members.
We changed popular song lyrics to reflect our current passions and we had so much fun singing them, especially the ones that were Beatles songs. I still find myself substituting our words when a tune pops up in one of my playlists. You’d never have known that either one of us had a care in the world. But of course we did.
My lists got more complicated as time passed. There were the standard lists that were more like timetables, when work needed to be done, birthdays and events that needed to be remembered, the stuff of calendars. But I had lots of other lists too. In my attempt to keep my priorities straight, I managed to write lists for a wide variety of topics. I had self-improvement lists, lists of books to read and movies to see, lists of subjects to become knowledgeable about, lists of places to see and goals to accomplish. I have a list I call “the permanent list.” That’s the one that has the unforgivable words or actions of people that I’ll never forget or forgive until either my brain or breath goes.
Right now I have a list of nicknames Michael called me. I also have a list of his terrible jokes and funny quotes that are part of our family’s vernacular.
“Birds of today”
White breasted nuthatch
White crowned sparrow
Rose breasted Grosbeak
White throated sparrow
Red breasted nuthatch
I have lists of birds and butterflies that have visited my garden. I have lists that are so obtuse I can’t recall why the words are on the same page. The habit of listmaking is a part of me which I suspect will go on until I don’t. After years of waking up and thinking of the day ahead, asking myself what I should think about first, I figure this was a pretty rational response to the flood of thoughts that’s my typical response to opening my eyes.
I suspect that some of my dreams are my subconscious attempts to keep sorting through the ever burgeoning thought stack in my head. Some people hoard stuff. I hoard words, ideas and feelings. I’m aware that the sorting by list is ineffectual at times. For now, it’s become clear to me that I can’t anticipate how long it may take, if ever, to always remember that Michael is dead. I mean, I know that he is. But when ambling through my days there are countless times when I expect him to walk through the door. If I feel like ignoring a text, I always think, wait, it might be Michael. I’ve called my son his name periodically.
In our younger days, Michael owned the car of his dreams, a white 1967 GTO convertible. Vroom, vroom. Today I was in a bookstore and saw a thick shiny book on the history of GTO’s and walked straight over to it, thinking I’d buy it for him and how much he’d love it. These moments are fleeting but real. If I don’t like my dreams, the ones when he and I are arguing, it sours my day. When I have a good dream about him, I wake up and acknowledge that feeling before going back to sleep.
September 17th, 2019
Things are better now. Tristan is healing well from his surgery and Gabriel turned 9 today.
And I’m still writing the letters that represent our constant dialogue over so many years. I can’t list myself out of these deeply ingrained habits that had to do with our life together. Although not quite a complete germophobe, I don’t expect that I’ll ever be without a small container of hand sanitizer in my purse. When he was immunocompromised, I was determined not to let him get sick. I sprayed surfaces with Lysol and suspiciously counted the number of times people touched their mouths and noses and then put their hands on common surfaces. Whatever I could control I did control. Endless hand washing and hyper- awareness. Good luck getting rid of that. I know it’s a peculiar preoccupation to watch people spreading their contagion around but it’s just normal to me now. I forgive myself. I try not to be angry about all that he’s missed and that we’ll miss together. That’s a terrible place to be. I only allow myself those thoughts for short moments. I think my quality of life would truly be pathetic if I got stuck in those mean, jealous places. The list habit comes in handy during those times. I can think of about a zillion things that should supersede that negativity.
Right now, I’m in the midst of other people’s hardships. I’m knowing more and more sick people and I have one very dear friend who’s in hospice awaiting her death. That’s at the top of all my lists now, along with the knowledge that as I’m aging, I’ll face more and more of those sad times. My dad always used to say that if you’re lucky enough to survive to age 70, sometimes you can just cruise along for awhile. He never got there. Neither did Michael or my favorite brother-in-law. All lost at age 67. I’m past that age now. I wonder when my turn will come to face my own demise. I don’t know if I’d think about it as much as I do except for how many early deaths I experienced. Nah, I probably would.
I always expected to just keel over one day like a tree felled in a wood. I certainly didn’t expect to be around longer than Michael who came from a family where everyone routinely lived into their 90’s. I think we’ve all been led to believe that’s possible for the majority of people but I don’t think that’s right. For every octogenarian, there are dozens of people who’ve already checked out.
I’m in the middle of three history classes this semester which are jamming huge swaths of time into 8 weekly hour and a half sessions. I come out of those classes dizzied by the compression of geologic time and long-gone civilizations that can be glanced over and set aside before tackling thousands more years. You realize how teeny you really are when looking at the world in these abbreviated segments. It’s fascinating stuff but absent a time machine, wrapping your mind around the brevity of our lives on a comparative scale is pretty daunting. And kind of comforting at the same time.
It’s only Wednesday and this week, I’ve considered the pre-Scottish elders and the Bog people alongside the Greeks and the Babylonians. We’ve looked at art and religious rituals, at least insofar as archaeologists have theorized about them and shared with us. I’ve been in ice ages and ridden tectonic plates and recognized that the Scottish oceanside rocks are basically the same as Maine’s because they used to be connected. All quite dazzling ideas that stimulate me to make more lists of things to explore, knowing full well there isn’t enough time for me in this universe to get through even a twentieth of what I’m writing down. But the habit is there and so I do it.
Lately because a cell phone makes it so easy to photograph anything, I’ve begun supplementing my endless writing with pictures to illustrate my lists. I have a photo of every place I’ve ever lived in but one because it was demolished a long time ago. I can always think of something new that needs to be photographed.
I have my butterfly and bird photos to go with their documentation as yard visitors. I keep having my storage on my phone fill up because I’m documenting everything. Maybe there’s a gene for this need to list and illustrate. It’s so much a part of me that I was lucky to start early and thus have plenty of writing and pictures of me in many moments with Michael and my family, including really intimate ones. Ah, the days of the self-developing Polaroids. I was compelled to record. I think my daughter is like me. A record keeper. Maybe it’s a coping skill, a way to not be overwhelmed by the complexity of our lives. We certainly have more than our share of angst right now and I think lots of people feel the stress. So I suppose I’ll keep at it, trying to organize everything and trying not to forget what’s important. I guess I could have worse habits. Even a little Purell isn’t that bad.
2 thoughts on “Habits”
You hit the nail on the head. The increasing numbers of people who occupy my sphere that are experiencing illness, death or the process of dying Is daunting. I struggle with how to stay present, living a vital and vibrant life while also embracing this ever enlarging “other” dimension. I often find myself looking for the right balance between sharing thoughts about my reality of loss and grief with my children who are living in the most vibrant and robust time of their lives.
I find myself wondering how my mother struck this balance. I know, at least for myself, it’s important not to become engulfed by all the natural truisms that accompany aging. At the same time I need to have a way to honor the sense of loss (including my own decline in whatever form it might come). If I ever figure out how to live in the best of both of these worlds I’ll get back to you. ❤️
Maybe I should just drive to Pittsburgh for a long weekend and we can try to talk it out. Complicated business.