The only serious fight I ever had with a dear college friend was over the merits of the classic movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” He found it smarmy, sentimental, and overrated; I found it endearing, reassuring and charming. It was shown annually at Oberlin the night before we all headed to our various “real” homes for winter break, and I vividly recall standing outside the building in which the movie was about to start, frustrated and angry to the point of tears as the snow swirled around us and groups of exhausted, well-bundled fellow students streamed towards the doors. Years later, I fell in love with the house in which I live and write, because the banister reminded me of that in the “drafty old house” inhabited by George Bailey and family, and the built-in plate rack and swinging kitchen door were reminiscent of the house in which George grew up.
I am nearly certain that my friend still rolls his eyes every December when those of us who are sentimental types settle in to watch George Bailey discover what is really important in life; I am absolutely certain that I watch the movie every year on or about Christmas Eve, and that I cry from the moment George announces that he “wants to live” until his friends and family gather to sing “Auld Lang Syne,” and Clarence gets his wings. I am unrepentant, unashamed, and generally pleased to discover that my cynical, black-wearing self can still be moved by the notion that even at our worst, we are an essential part of both our own small worlds and the larger universe.
Over the past few weeks, due to the tedious limitations imposed by sciatica, I have had some opportunity to see what my own life would be like if I weren’t around. (There has, unfortunately, been no cinematic rush of wind to signify the emptiness that is The World Without Annie, and I have no ghostly escort – just the Vicodin). Let me also say most emphatically that Rob is a good and consistent helper, picking up my slack on top of his own work, with no complaints. Well, hardly any. The following is in no way intended as one of those exceedingly cliched rants about how husbands do not fold laundry, remember to pick up the kid from band practice, or put the roast in the oven. Like my mother before me, I have been blessed with a husband who knows how to do stuff, and does it. I will also be forthright about the fact that I am not a particularly good housekeeper, and my house is never ready for a white glove test, although I am good at a quick vacuum-cushion fluff-scented candle procedure when company is inevitable.
There are, however, many things that I do on a daily basis, without thinking. When there is something on the floor, I pick it up. If I am walking through a room, I will generally collect all objects, on the floor and otherwise, that belong somewhere else in the direction for which I have set my course, and put them where they are supposed to be. Considering only the floor, there are a remarkable number of such objects. One of the cats spends all of her waking hours retrieving socks, clean and dirty, from wherever they may be, carrying them laboriously down (or up) the stairs, and presenting them to us with impassioned cries. We think she is under the impression that she has snuffed them, but no one knows for sure. These laundry murders lead to a trail of socks, black and white, clean and dirty, throughout the house. They are on the stairs, in the dining room, in the upstairs hall, and on a particularly bloody day there are as many as four or five of them.
I see these socks, I pick them up, and since the clean v. dirty issue has become moot during the trip in the cat’s mouth, I put them in the dirty laundry. I also pick up the bits of tissue that the dogs chew up and leave on the floor, Sam’s clothes which are left on the bathroom floor post-shower, the great clumps of flaxen hair that one of the dogs seems to eject from her body as she passes through the house, and the swirls of papers that fall from Sam’s backpack. As I am currently unable to bend over without feeling that I am one step away from an acutely painful death, I have to ask one of the male members of the household to pick these things up and dispose of them properly. One of them does so with great graciousness, the other with considerably less, but it gets done. I wonder, though, if I were not here, if my husband and son would now be up to their belts in socks, tissue, dog hair, pre-algebra worksheets and dirty clothes?
I also do the laundry, and I know how many of everything everyone has, whether they have enough of them, and exactly where each article of clothing is currently located. Since laundry involves a number of perilous activities for my sciatic self, including carrying full baskets up and down the treacherous basement stairs, my current laundering activities are confined to folding. Last Friday, Sam (who currently has exactly one pair of long pants for every day of the week) was horrified to learn that the laundry had not been done, and that he had been given the pants he had worn the day before. The word “given” is important here, because part of my usual life as an enabler involves assembling and laying out complete outfits for him so that they are ready for the following day. If I was out of the picture, Rob would certainly do the laundry, but would he know when it was critical to run a dark load so that Sam would have clean pants? Would he know how to remove Sharpie from denim? (Okay, neither do I, but it sounded good). Would he know that the blue and white Abercrombie sweater can be machine washed, but must be dried flat because otherwise it will shrink to the size of a doll quilt?
I could go on forever (and you may, in fact, feel that I already have). Seriously, though, if I were gone, who would send the school pictures to the relatives? Who would know that Sam didn’t love Cocoa Puffs anymore and wanted Frosted Mini Wheats? Who would know which upcoming social engagements were surprises, and should not be discussed with the surprisee? Who would know which one of Sam’s friends probably hadn’t called his mom to say he was coming over after school, and that he needed to call her before she filed a Missing Person report? Who would clean out the refrigerator once a week? Who would know the dates of dental cleanings, jury duty, the last fall leaf collection by the City, and when the library books were due? There’s also the issue of cooking – Rob can, and does cook, but it’s difficult to imagine him poring over “Bon Apetit” in the evening looking for the perfect rendition of barbecue sauce. There would be a lot of grilling, a lot of burgers, and they would both probably be delighted.
There are also spots I fill in the larger community that are empty these days. I can’t drive my dad to his eye appointment because, well, I can’t drive right now. I am missing meetings right and left because I can’t sit for very long, and lying on the conference room table at City Hall is frowned upon. I did not take chicken soup to my sick friend Diane, I have not been to see Patty’s adorable new puppy, and I have turned down everything from a Girls’ Night Out to seeing David Sedaris (and believe me, that one hurt). I am kind of a recluse who lies on the couch most of the time and is occasionally thrilled to be able to perform menial tasks.
Setting aside the perfectly likely solution that, if I disappeared, Rob and Sam would just split up the work and get it done, I see a fairly bleak existence for them without me. (Except for meals, which they might prefer under an Ann-Free regime). I pick up, I spruce up, I care about the icky warren of cords under the table in the living room, and the mysterious and significant scratch on the dining room table. I know that it is a crime against nature for Sam to wear a blue v-neck sweater over black wind pants, and that Rob can’t go to Church with a spot on his tie. I am the Family Sartorialist.
The existential question here is smaller than the one posed by “It’s a Wonderful Life;” obviously if I had never been born, Rob would be married to someone else, Sam would not exist, and my brother would be much happier, having been an only child. The question is really what happens when I stop doing everything that I do? Does it matter? Have I just encouraged all sorts of pathological dependence in order to justify my existence? Does it really matter if there’s a trail of socks on the floor and dinner is burgers every night?
I like to think, I guess, that I am an essential part of this family, this community, and maybe even this world. Things do work better when I am functional, and I am reminded of that daily whether it’s the Great Duplicate Pants Scandal of 2009 or my simple inability to strip the bed by myself on laundry day. Maybe (and bear with me here) this whole Sciatica thing is a figurative “angel,” showing me that the world is a better place if I’m not merely alive, but actually doing something useful.
Every time a bell rings the Sciatica gets its wings?