Joan Didion in her book The Year of Magical Thinking described her own magical thinking, particularly how she wouldn’t give away her husband John Gregory Dunne’s shoes after his sudden death of a heart attack because he would need them when he returned. And ever since Etan Patz went missing thirty-three years ago in the Soho district of New York City, his parents have never moved nor changed their phone number in hopes he might return or call. Perhaps this is because there has never been closure Etan’s body has not been found and no one has been convicted of his killing. However, it seems more like magical thinking to me.
I wrote about my magical thinking in my memoir. Even the title, Leaving the Hall Light On, refers to it. Our story was different from the Patz story because our son was declared dead by a coroner who examined his body, and we buried his ashes. But even though many of our friends and family encouraged us to move because his suicide took place in our home, I didn’t want to move or change our phone number for fear Paul wouldn’t know how to make his way back. I wanted him to know we were still here waiting for him.
For a long time, I waited for that familiar sound of his Volvo coming into the garage, the sound of the door from the garage slamming as he entered the house and went down the hall to his room, the sound of him walking around the house at night, the sound of the door opening and closing as he went in and out of the house. In fact, for a while, I thought I heard those sounds. And for a long time, I left most of the things in his room and closet alone for fear of removing his presence there, refusing to give away his things like Didion, in case he would need them.
Leaving the hall light on became another one of the things that helped me get through it. We left the hall light on for him when he was home, so I just couldn’t break that routine. However, my husband, Bob, and I had a push-me, pull-you interaction about it. Bob always had a habit of turning off all the lights before he went to bed. Since he usually went to bed after me, I would wait until he got into bed. Then I’d get up and turn on the hall light again. Sometimes we’d go back and forth on this several times in one night. If he forgot his glass of water he’d get up and turn the light off again. If he needed a certain vitamin from the kitchen cabinet, he’d get up, go into the kitchen to get what he needed, and then go down and turn the light off again on his way back to bed. And, if I fell asleep before him, I’d wake in the middle of the night and go back down to turn the light on once more.
Once in a while, I’d ask him to leave it on. If he asked why I’d give him the lame excuse that I needed a light on to guide me through the house when I left to go to the gym in the early morning dark. Sometimes he’d buy that. Most of the time he’d forget and turn off the light.
However, only in the last two or three years, leaving the hall light on has become less and less important. That meant I was healing. It also meant that I had faced the reality that magical thinking and leaving the hall light on would not bring him back, so my magical thinking phase of my grieving process was over. We have also given away most of his things. However, we still haven’t moved and changed our telephone number in the twelve years since our son’s death and we don’t intend to. About the Author: Madeline Sharples is the author of Papa’s Shoes: A Polish shoemaker and his family settle in small-town America, a work of historical fiction, published in May 2019 by Aberdeen Bay. Her memoir in prose and poetry, Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir of Living with Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide, was released in 2011 (Dream of Things). And her poetry book, Moving On, was published on January 30, 2021 (Cyberwit). Madeline also co-authored Blue-Collar Women: Trailblazing Women Take on Men-Only Jobs (New Horizon Press, 1994), co-edited the poetry anthology, The Great American Poetry Show, Volumes 1, 2, and 3, and wrote the poems for The Emerging Goddess photograph book (Paul Blieden, photographer). Her poems have also appeared online and in print magazines, e.g., in the 2016 Porter Gulch Review, Yellow Chair’s In the Words of Womyn 2016 anthology, Story Circle Network’s journals and anthologies (including Real Women Write: Living on COVID Time, the SCN anthology for 2020), the Best of Poetry Salon 2013-2018, the Vine Leaves Literary Journal: a Collection of Vignettes from Across the Globe, 2017, and Travel Stories and Highlights, 2019 edition. Her articles have appeared in the Huffington Post, Naturally Savvy, Aging Bodies, PsychAlive, Story Circle Network’s HerStories and One Woman’s Day blogs, and the Memoir Network blog. She has appeared on panels at writers’ conferences and has spoken about and read her work at book clubs, book stores, libraries, churches, writing groups, and on the radio. She also posts about writing on her website Choices. She is proud to add that her memoir Leaving the Hall Light On was on a list compiled by Erin Burba of BookRiot of the 100 Must-Read Biographies and Memoirs of Remarkable Women. This list included memoirs written by Mary Karr, Joan Didion, Cheryl Strayed, Sonia Sotomayor, Madeleine Albright, Maya Angelou, Anais Nin, Malala Yousafzai, Patti Smith, Katharine Graham, Nora Ephron, and many more.