The List



Maggie Mitchell lay on her side staring fixedly at the bedside table clock. The world outside was silent, asleep in that dead hour that is neither truly night nor day.

            4:58 A.M.

            Maggie’s left eye was burning and tearing. She couldn’t risk rubbing her eye or blinking for fear of missing the change in time. She shifted her position in bed and trained her other eye on the clock.

            4:59 A.M.

            Maggie felt her pulse begin to quicken as she waited. The only sound came from the other side of the bed where her husband of forty five years snored softly.

            5:00 A.M.

            Adrenaline surged through Maggie’s body as it did every morning at this time.

            “Get up, West,” she said softly.

            West Mitchell continued to snore quietly.

            “West,” Maggie repeated, shaking her husband’s shoulder.


            Maggie felt the time slipping away and began to panic.

            “West!” she screamed.

            West Mitchell swam up out of a deep sleep and staggered out of bed.

            Maggie glanced fearfully at the clock.

            5:00 A.M.

            Maggie breathed a sigh of relief. That had been a close call. West had nearly ruined everything.

            Maggie grabbed her notebook from the bedside table and headed to the kitchen. It was time to start the day.


            West wasn’t sure when the problem began. He had worked the first shift at the paper mill for forty two years. It was hard work and made for a long day when you included the hour long commute and the frequent overtime shifts that West felt he had to take for his family’s benefit. There were many times when he came home from work, ate, and went straight to bed. He had missed a lot over the years.

            West knew something was seriously wrong three years ago when he came home from his last day on the job. He could still remember the pure joy and excitement he felt as he walked out of the mill for the last time. He had always been an outdoorsman and couldn’t wait  to take full advantage of everything the Blue Ridge Mountains of southern Virginia had to offer. West wore a huge grin as he drove up to his house and opened the front door.

            Maggie glanced at her husband and then returned her gaze to the television program she was watching. She was lying on the sofa in her nightgown working her way through a bag of chocolate chip cookies while she watched Martha Stewart cut up a chicken. It was four o’clock in the afternoon.

            West felt the smile slide off his face.

            “Do you feel alright, Maggie?” he asked worriedly. “Are you sick?”

            “I’m fine,” Maggie replied. “Never better, as a matter of fact.”

            “What’s for supper?” West asked nervously.

            “Whatever you want,” Maggie laughed. “Help yourself. I’m having cookies.”

            West stared at his wife, unsure what to do next.

            Maggie sighed and turned off the television.

            “Have a seat, West,” she said. Maggie spent the next several minutes explaining to her husband what to expect for the rest of his life. If he could retire, so could she. There would be no hunting or fishing in his future.

            “I’m not having you bring a string of smelly fish into this house. If I want fish I’ll get it at Kroger,” Maggie stated emphatically.

            West stared at his wife in amazement. “Where do you think those fish come from?” he asked. “Do you think they live at Kroger?”

            Maggie ignored the remark. “And I’m not eating anything you kill with your shotgun,” she added.

            “Why not?” her husband replied.

            “Do I look like Granny Clampett?” she asked. “I won’t have you acting like some hillbilly.”

            Maggie had been true to her word. West had not been fishing or hunting once in the last three years. He spent his mornings driving Maggie around to various stores and appointments. His afternoons were filled with  housework, laundry, dishes, grocery shopping, yardwork, fixing supper, and a thousand other chores that he never quite managed to finish.

            This morning West was driving Maggie to her hair appointment and then to her regular bi-weekly session with her psychiatrist. Two years ago she had been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder. In addition to the medication she was taking that prevented her from driving, Maggie was also being treated with cognitive behavioral therapy.

            “Hurry up, West!” Maggie screamed from the front hall. “We need to be out of here in three minutes.”

            West Mitchell swore and dabbed at a place under his chin where he had nicked himself shaving. His heart thudded heavily in his chest as he grabbed his wallet and keys and hurried up the hall where his wife was anxiously waiting.


            West had tried everything. He had suggested a vacation, a cruise, a visit to their son and grandchildren, a housekeeper, a yard man. Nothing had worked. Maggie was consumed with her daily schedule that she kept in a notebook. A three year stack of completed notebooks filled a cabinet in the garage.

            “Why do you keep them?” West had asked.

            “They’re the pages of our life, West,” Maggie had replied.

            “They’re all the same, Maggie,” West had quietly noted. “Wouldn’t you like to read a different page?”

            As he drove to the shopping center where Maggie’s hair stylist was located West told his wife for at least the third time that he needed to schedule an appointment to see the doctor.

            “I finished the last of my blood pressure and cholesterol medication two weeks ago, Maggie. I need refills.”

            “Fine, we’ll swing by the pharmacy later,” Maggie said irritably.

            West shook his head. “I can’t get anymore refills until I see the doctor so he can do some bloodwork.”

            Maggie flipped through her notebook. “Maybe next month,” she said. “This month is booked solid. I wouldn’t worry about it. You’re busier and more active than you’ve ever been.”

            It was pointless to argue with her. The fact that he had a long history of elevated cholesterol and blood pressure, that he was now sixty six years old, that he ate a poor diet of frozen dinners and snacks because he couldn’t learn to cook even after three years of trying, that he had been experiencing dizziness and chest pains, all would have fallen on deaf ears. There was no room for West on Maggie’s list.

            West sat in the waiting room flipping through ancient magazines while Maggie and her psychiatrist engaged in their therapy charade. The session finally ended and West reached for his car keys.

            “May I see you for a minute, West?” the psychiatrist asked.

            West entered the man’s office and waited to hear what was on his mind.

            “You’re the closest person to her, West,” the doctor began. “Does the medication seem to be helping?”

            “No,” West replied bluntly.

            “How about the behavioral therapy?” the psychiatrist continued.

            “Neither therapy provides any therapeutic or pharmacological relief for her disorder,” West replied. “She does exhibit classic signs of Flat Affect due either to the medication, her condition, or both.”

            The psychiatrist stared at him in amazement.

            “Nice talking to you,” West said on his way out the door. He had no use for someone who continued to schedule appointments and accept payment while providing absolutely nothing in return.

            The chest pains started on the way home. By the time West had finished the laundry the pains were so severe he had to sit down.

            Maggie tore her eyes away from the television and looked over at her husband.

            “Supper won’t fix itself, West,” she said. “I want to eat in thirty minutes.”

            West struggled to his feet and tried to catch his breath. He was taking a dinner out of the freezer when a bolt of pain ripped into his sternum and dropped him to his knees.

            West dug his phone from his pocket, dialed 911, and curled up on the floor to wait for the ambulance.


            Maggie was unable to accompany her husband to the hospital. It wasn’t on her list and she was unable to break free of the shackles the disorder placed on her. West raised his head from the gurney and watched his wife standing helplessly in the driveway.

            Maggie called and spoke with him every day but couldn’t find a way through the maze in her mind that would lead her to the hospital.

            The heart attack had been a bad one.

            “You need to slow down, West,” his doctor told him. “You’re not a young man anymore.”

            A week later the doctor paid another visit to tell him he was being discharged.

            “There’s nothing more we can do for you here,” the doctor said.

            He handed West a fistful of prescriptions, written instructions, and follow-up appointments.

            “Get the prescriptions filled immediately,” the doctor instructed. “No driving, heavy lifting, or intense exercise until I say so. I’ll see you in two weeks.”

            West nodded and began to get dressed.

            On his way out the door the doctor turned and said, “I’m not kidding, West. I think the next heart attack will kill you.”

            West called Maggie and gave her the good news.

            “Thank, God,” Maggie said. “My list is a mile long. You’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”

            West remained silent.

            “West?” Maggie said.

            “I should be home in about an hour,” her husband replied. “The taxi is on the way.”

            West stopped at the restroom in the hospital lobby to flush his prescriptions and paperwork down the toilet. As he waited for his ride West reflected on his life. He had been a good husband and a good father. He knew that. Maggie would survive; their son would see that she received proper care.

            The taxi pulled up and West gave the driver directions.

            “Could you hurry?” West asked.

            “You bet,” the driver replied. “I’m sure you’re tired of the hospital.”

            West managed to swallow a wild laugh. There was grass to cut, laundry to wash, supper to fix, errands to run, and a thousand other things to do by the end of the day. Maggie was waiting for him, waiting with her list. His pulse began to race with terrified excitement. Today would mark the last page in his life. He couldn’t wait for it to end.