What’s in a book title?

The title of my memoir is Leaving the Hall Light On (Dream of Things). A lot of people ask me what the title means. Here’s an explanation.

Original Cover

Original Cover

At first I believed—my magical thinking—that if I left the hall light on, if we didn’t move away from our house, if we didn’t change our telephone number, Paul, our son who took his life at age 27, would know how to make his way back. Paul would 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 alone for fear of removing his presence there. For a long time I refused to give away his things in case he would need them when he came back. Once those sounds in my imagination and my magical thinking fell away, my need to keep 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. I just couldn’t break that routine.

And while that was all going on 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. And mind you that was a trek across the living room and down the steps of our tri-level house. 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 dark of the early morning. Sometimes he’d buy that. Most of the time he’d forget and turn off the light. Gradually though leaving the hall light on became less and less important. That I could leave it off night after night meant I was healing. And it also meant that I was over the magical thinking stage of my grieving process.

New eBook Cover

New eBook Cover

Here’s a poem with the same title, from a collection of poems interspersed throughout the memoir.

Leaving the Hall Light On

I lose my keys or sunglasses
and find them in my hand all along.
I lose my little boy in the department store
and he pops out squealing with laughter
from under the clothes display,
I lose important papers
and find them
in the stack of other papers on my desk.

I didn’t lose my son, Paul.
Paul is dead.
Death is forever.
There’s not a chance of finding him.

The light I’ve left on in the hall for him
every night since he died
doesn’t show him the way back home.
There are no more piano gigs out there for him.
The Sunday paper entertainment guide
doesn’t list his name at any jazz club.
He can’t join the young guys at the Apple Genius Bar
and help people solve their computer problems.
Paul would have loved that job.
He was made for that job,
but he checked out too early.
The new meds and surgery for manic depression,
the new information about mental illness
are not for him.

Why do people refer to death as loss?
Maybe just to encourage
people like me.
Maybe just to keep me looking for him.
Maybe so I can pretend he’s still out there.

Maybe that’s why I long to mother
the strong young men at the gym
and the bright ones at work.
They are the right age.
They have the same look.
They have the same appeal.

Every time I see a young man
with close-buzzed hair,
well-worn jeans,
a white t-shirt, and a black jacket,
sitting outside of Starbucks,
sucking on a cigarette,
every time I see a skinny guy
walking fast across the street
carrying a brown leather bag over his shoulder,
I look to make sure.

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