The Playlist

M. Betsy Smith

The Playlist

I knelt in front of the oak cabinets, the knees of my jeans instantly saturated by the soaking wet carpet. I was so tired, but I had to get his record albums out. I had to save them. It was a lifetime collection for him, for us. They are our history, our soundtrack. I couldn't put the boxes on the wet rug, so I needed to carry the albums in batches to store in the boxes lined up in the next room. "Upright, not flat on top of one another. Stand them straight, no leaning so they won't warp." I could hear his voice. He taught me proper record-handling rules early on.

I pulled out a stack and a Beatles album was on top, Rubber Soul, my favorite. I closed my eyes trying to keep from folding into the fear and pain. I recalled our first shared Beatle experience still so vivid in my memory.

"Love Me Do” was playing over a tinny A.M. radio in a seedy motel in Vermont. I was eighteen and he was twenty-two. We had attempted to go camping at Emerald Lake, a state park that had lean-tos so we didn't need a tent. We were woefully ill-equipped for camping, but young, in love, and ready for adventure—until it started pouring. It was about dusk when the storm hit; our campfire was quickly doused, smoke billowing like a dense fog, and the sheet we had tacked up over the opening of our shelter soaked through and sagging in minutes. I was not a hearty, woodsy type, and knew I couldn't tough the night out. We loaded our wet stuff into his old Buick and left the park in search of a place to stay. We found a sketchy motel with one available room on a rural road a few miles away—we registered as Mr. and Mrs. Smith. The clerk didn't bat an eye, and I was a bit disappointed because, after all, we were engaged and I had flashed my modest engagement ring as we signed in.

Stripping off our wet clothes we squeezed together into the shower stall that thankfully offered hot water. We kissed until the water ran cold, toweled off, and dove into the bed grateful to be warm and dry. The walls were thin and the noises from the next room were causing us both to giggle, as did our squeaky bed. With every move we laughed even harder, snorting with tears flowing down our faces. We turned the radio on in an attempt to cover up some of the sounds and "Love Me Do" was playing. We started singing to each other with not so soft voices. "Love, love me do, you know I love you, I'll always be true, so pleeeease, love me do!" I couldn't help but smile at the memory.

I flipped the album over to run my finger down the song list. I stopped on "In My Life," and my throat started tightening up. Our son sang this song for our daughter at her wedding rehearsal dinner. It was his wedding gift to her and her soon-to-be-husband. He was emotional and had a hard time singing while playing his guitar. His sister was his best friend and the lyrics spoke for him. When he faltered, she started to sing with him. My husband and I cried openly watching them. There is no recording of that performance, but I'll never forget it. I start to sing, and hum, while my pant legs continued to absorb water:

"There are places I'll remember

All my life, though some have changed

Some forever, not for better

Some have gone, and some remain...

Mmmmm

Though I know I'll never lose affection

For people and things that went before

I know I'll often stop and think about them

In my life, I love you more..."

I looked up and saw the collage of our daughter's wedding pictures on the wall. When she got married, she didn't pick a traditional song to dance with her father to. She chose "Teach Your Children" by Crosby Still and Nash. At the time, I was surprised by her song choice until I listened and realized the message she was giving to her Dad:

"...Teach your children well,

Their father's hell did slowly go by...

Teach your parents well

Their children's hell will slowly go by...

So just look at them and sigh

And know they love you."

It meant something to her, and she wanted to let her father know how she felt. So many ups and downs in our family life, but yet we held together. Music is a common thread with and for him. Her father’s hell was in full bloom now.

I placed the stack with Rubber Soul in a box and went back for more. I never understood how he cataloged them; he had a system all his own that was not alphabetical and had caused me some frustration over the years. The genres, the artists, and their history and evolution as members of off-shoot bands were all carefully organized by him—but he couldn't help me sort them out; he was in the hospital. I had to manage it on my own.

My left thumb gradually slid over to touch the inside of my ring finger feeling the vacancy, a space where my wedding ring used to be. I took it off after his second suicide attempt a few months earlier. We didn't have dates engraved in our rings; we had song titles by the band "YES." "And You and I" is written on the inside of my ring. I couldn't recall all the verses, only snippets of the chorus. I felt a sort of irony that this song is on the Close to the Edge album.

I met my husband at a dance club when I was a conservative Catholic high school girl, and he was a long-haired factory worker and wannabe rock star who believed in the power of positive thinking. On our first formal date he walked into the restaurant and I could see him with his darkened aviator glasses, fringed leather jacket, and bell-bottom jeans. He was right out of Easy Rider minus the motorcycle. Four years older than me and sexy as hell. Our attraction was way stronger than our differences. We fell in love and lust. He gave me an engagement ring six months later while I was still a high school senior. Two years after meeting him I ditched community college and we got married. He worked in a GE factory and I got a job as a bank teller. People said it wouldn't last because we had nothing in common. We disagreed.

What we had were similar dreams for a home, a family of our own, and work we enjoyed that would do more than just pay the bills. We both loved music. And, we wanted to give our future children a better life than we had growing up. Optimism lasted for a while, but the jobs were hard and financial stress significant especially after our two children were born. The lack of formal education severely limited our career aspirations. We were too busy treading water for decades and didn't notice the subtle fracturing of our relationship.

We retired from our jobs after forty years of marriage and the chasm was too large. We had worked hard, educated our children, and achieved financial security, but the deep personal and emotional connection seemed to have severed. We no longer listened to music. His depression grew, as did my frustration. I didn't like him anymore even though I loved him. I didn't understand his depression and nastiness. He sat around in the garage smoking cigarettes and complaining about everything. I wanted to do all of the things I hadn't been able to do while raising a family and working full-time. We finally had time and money, but it quickly became apparent there was little we wanted to do together.

After our retirement, he tried to kill himself. Twice. I found him the second time in our garage. He blamed me. Maybe I was to blame—a little. I had moved on without him, pursuing my interests while he sat in the garage. We had successfully weathered the illness and death of family members and friends, job losses, and financial challenges. Both of our children had the advanced educations we wanted for them, with master's degrees from good schools. The list of dreams and goals was complete, yet the early predictions had finally come true. We couldn't last. I moved out after forty-six years together.

I was unable to survive in the negative space that was our home. I couldn't handle another suicide attempt on my watch. I knew mental illness is a medical condition, but I also learned I couldn't force someone to get treatment. He had to want to live. I was not responsible for his happiness, or so I was advised by our counselors. I was responsible for my own.

Two months after I moved out he fainted and fell face-first on the asphalt driveway. He used his cell phone to call me for help. I got to the house within fifteen minutes not thinking he was hurt badly enough for an ambulance. I was wrong. He was bleeding profusely from his face, mouth, and ear. We went to the emergency room and the waiting was interminable. I had to steal dozens of clean face cloths from a laundry cart in the hall to soak up the blood. It was gruesome. I was trying to be brave because I could see how frightened and vulnerable he was. I'm not good with blood so it was hard to be strong. Once he was seen, and x-rays and CT scans done, it was determined he could not be treated there. His injuries involved multiple specialties due to jaw fractures, punctured ear canal, concussion, and numerous face and mouth lacerations. Thirty hours later he was transported in an ambulance to a Trauma 1 hospital an hour away.

I went to our house the next morning to get him some personal things, and that's when I discovered the flooded living room. A pipe had sprung a leak under the floorboards and our built-in cabinets. The cabinets held his vinyl record collection. More than six hundred albums collected over decades that had to be moved. All I could think in the moment was, Are you kidding me, God! He must have heard. It was Sunday, and I called a plumber who not only answered his phone but was at the house in twenty minutes. A minor miracle. He found the leak but not before the water had caused irreparable damage to the floor and cabinetry and some of its contents.

Later that afternoon I went to the hospital to check on my husband and speak with the surgeon. Looking at his battered and bruised face, I knew I still loved him. He was crying and apologizing for everything and telling me he loved me. He wanted to live. Decades earlier we had eliminated, "in sickness and health" from our wedding vows believing we would always take care of each other. I knew then I would be there for him, and if the tables were turned, he would be there for me too.

Not all the specialists had seen him yet, so we would not know the full extent of his injuries, or the cause of the fall until all of the needed testing was complete. I didn't tell him about the flooding.

I left the hospital and returned to the house to deal with the wreckage. After I moved all of the records, I wandered around our home—the material evidence of what we had accomplished together.

I walked past the boxes of records, pictures, books, and stereo equipment crammed into our dining room along with the living room furniture and made my way to what was once our shared bedroom. I found his wedding ring tucked in a small box in his dresser drawer. He hadn't worn it much as he worked so many years in a factory, and it had the potential to damage the wooden necks of his guitars. Still shiny and new looking, the engraving crisp and clear, not worn down like mine—a YES song title, Nous Sommes Du Soleil, "we are of the sun." He loved this song, as did I. I still do.

Nous sommes du soleil. We are of the sun. We can see.

Nous sommes du soleil. We love when we play.

Open doors we find our way

We look we see we smile.

We join we receive

As our song memories long hope in a way

Hold me around lasting ours

We love when we play

Nous somme du soleil

I retrieved my ring from my jewelry box, slipped it on and crawled into our bed. I would call the kids tomorrow. He can't die, not yet. Our playlist isn't complete. It's time to listen to music again. I turned on the bedside radio and a CD was already loaded. Fittingly, it was the Byrds. His nickname was McGuinn when we met and he played all of the Byrds songs on his twelve string Rickenbacker. I loved watching him play guitar all those years ago. I drifted off to sleep listening.

To everything (turn, turn, turn)

There is a season (turn, turn, turn)

And a time to every purpose, under heaven

A time to be born, a time to die

A time to plant, a time to reap

A time to kill, a time to heal

A time to laugh, a time to weep

A time to gain, a time to lose

A time to rend, a time to sew

A time for love, a time for hate

A time for peace, I swear it's not too late

I swear it’s not too late.

About the Author

M. Betsy Smith

Betsy started writing four years ago after working twenty-six years as an insurance professional. Her first essay about her journey as the mother of a brilliant, alcoholic son was published by Refinery29. She has also had work published by The Write Launch, Entropy, Brevity, WriteAngles Journal, and Chaleur Magazine. Betsy was awarded a five-day writing residency by Straw Dog Writers Guild based in Northampton, MA. When she's not writing, she enjoys reading, sewing, and a good cup of British tea.