By Deborah Thompson
“Watch out for the number seven,” my mother tells me at the start of my recent visit to her Florida apartment; I’ve just mentioned that I will soon turn 57. “You know sevens are big in our family, right?”
I’m still getting used to how old my mother has gotten. A chaos of cross-hatched wrinkles nest her graying eyes. She’s convinced those wrinkles were caused by her cataract surgery, but more likely she just wasn’t able to see them before. She huddles in her powder blue bathrobe even though it’s 80 degrees outside and she doesn’t use the air conditioner. She’s been wearing the same robe since I was in high school, the blue now paler and more powdery. Because of the arthritis in her fingers, she can no longer button it, so she does without.
“Sevens? Big?” I ask. “What do you mean?” Am I witnessing my 82-year-old mother’s fall into dementia? Without her dentures, she slurs her words, which doesn’t reassure me. I know, though that when she says something nutty, it’s often because she’s now nearly deaf. Not hearing a question properly, she makes up her own question and then answers it. This time, however, she’s watching my over-enunciating lips and guesses correctly.
“You know, big. Significant. Not necessarily good or bad, just meaningful.” Her teeth, unprotected by her dentures, are little brown stubs. I haven’t visited her in years, so this look still jolts me. Although I was almost too close to her as a shy child, we’ve been semi-estranged for most of my adult life. It started when Rajiv, my husband, the love-of-my-life, was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and my mother disagreed with us about treatment options. She advocated for Rajiv to have a “good death,” to accept what was meant to be and to die in peace, rather than fighting to the bitter end, as he chose to do. I chose to resent her acceptance of his death and to clamp down on a grudge. After Rajiv died, she and my brother moved to Florida, into this two-bedroom apartment that now smells of mold and gefilte fish.
Over the seventeen years that I’ve been at odds with my mother, she’s shrunk. We used to stand eye to eye, but now she sinks beneath my gaze, all the more so when she’s hunched over her walker, which she needs for balance, because a bulging disk in a cervical vertebra gives her vertigo. “If I fall, that’s the end of me,” she states. Surgeons won’t operate, though, because of her severe osteoporosis and high blood pressure. She’s so tiny that, in spite of decades-old grudges, she makes me want to feed her, as she once did me before memory began. I give her a bony hug.
Thin bones, bad disks, and poor circulation also run big in my family, along with sevens.
In my childhood, if my mother, my brother, or I inclined toward superstitions—such as “sevens are big”—my scientist father’s rationality set us straight. After his early death, though, my mother leaned into magical thinking. With each new loss, she leans further. A friend of mine, a fellow atheist, would accuse her of “indulging in metaphysical comforts,” for which he has only scorn. Like my friend, I don’t believe in some grand design behind our mundane tragedies, much less a designer. I don’t believe there’s some pattern behind the random events that shape our world, the births and deaths and mitzvahs and disasters beyond our control.
Still, my mother has a point: sevens are big in our family.
Big Sevens in the Family:
- My mother was born in 1937 on the 27th day of the month.
- She gave birth to me when she was 27 years old.
- I was born on May 27th.
- Her husband, my father, had a stroke on April 7th…
- …and died on April 17th…
- …when my mother was 57 years old.
- My own husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer at age 37 (and he only died at 38-and-three-days, rather than at 37, out of sheer stubbornness).
Sevens are big beyond my family. Humans have seven “true” ribs. Almost all mammals, from the mouse to the giraffe, have seven cervical vertebrae. Seven bones hold up our heads (one wobbly, in my mother’s case). Our very spines embed the number seven.
You see sevens everywhere, once you start to look for them. In all three Abrahamic religions, there are seven heavens (or seven levels of heaven); ecstasy elevates us to “seventh heaven.” In the Christian bible’s Revelations, end times teem with sevens: seven seals, seven churches, seven angels sounding seven trumpets, even a lamb with seven eyes. Medieval Christianity recognized seven deadly sins and seven virtues.
Closer to home, in the Jewish tradition that my mother grew up in, and which my mother adheres to selectively, there are seven days of the week, as ordained in Genesis, and God chose the seventh, Shabbat, as the day of rest. Hence, in Judaism, seven is the number of completion. A Jewish mourning period is seven (in Hebrew, shiva) days; hence you “sit shiva” for the week following a death—as my mother did (in her idiosyncratic way) after my father’s death.
The Hindu tradition Rajiv was raised in posits seven higher worlds and seven underworlds. Seven chakras animate our spines. In a Hindu wedding ceremony, the bride and groom circle a holy fire seven times. I’m pathologically afraid of fire, so this ritual factored into our decision not to have a formal wedding. “I’m not running around a fire, holy or otherwise, even once, much less seven times,” I told Rajiv, “and especially not in a flammable sari.” Instead we had an efficient court ceremony and called it good. And it was good.
Physics and geography, too, favor sevens. Seven colors refract in the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet (at least as delineated by Sir Isaac Newton, who didn’t deal in shades). There are seven pure notes (do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti) on the traditional Western diatonic musical scale (though not on the scale of classical Indian music, which I was still learning how to hear when Rajiv died). There were Seven Wonders of the ancient world. And seven continents. And seven seas.
The square root of seven extends to infinity. Seven divided into itself tempts us with eternity.
Seven years is a significant span of life. We get the seven-year itch. Common lore says it takes seven years for your body to replace itself—which isn’t exactly true, but true enough. The ancient Romans believed it took a soul seven years to remake itself—which is why breaking a mirror (which holds the soul) gives you seven years of bad luck. In biblical tradition, agricultural land must lie fallow every seven years in order to rejuvenate. Debts should be forgiven after seven years.
And perhaps grudges, as well. I find myself falling under the spell of seven.
Universities give tenured professors a sabbatical after seven years of on-campus work. A sabbatical offers a year away from the daily demands of teaching, advising and service (those endless committee meetings) to work on an extended project, or to re-educate or even to reinvent themselves. I’m visiting my mother on my third sabbatical, after twenty-six years of teaching, as I try to remake myself once again in my 27th year. I taught through dreams of making a difference, taught through the death of my life-partner, taught through grief and through depression. These twenty-six years of teaching and of living have ground my idealism down to petty bitterness. This visit is a part of my attempt to slough off the exoskeleton of shed ambitions and dead desires, and to emerge newly vulnerable to a different world above ground.
There’s something perfect in design about the number seven, something almost architectural in its balance. A grouping of seven makes for a symmetrical, self-reflecting structure. It builds up in its first, second, and third items, but then, even as it reaches a climax in the fourth, it’s already beginning to turn. That fourth item serves as the shamas in a seven-pronged menorah. Then comes the reversal, with the fifth answering to the third, the sixth reflecting on the second, and the seventh mirroring the first. The structure of seven offers a chiasmic magic.
In my childhood, because of my irrational fear of fire, my mother always lit the shamas of Chanukah’s nine-armed menorah. I was able, with shaky hands, to light the other candles with the shamas, but I couldn’t strike that initial match. That was back when her hands were smooth and steady and her wedding ring gleamed on her finger, long before arthritis swelled her finger joints into knobs.
Midway through my week-long visit, her ringless hands now try to pull wilting files out of the file cabinet so she can show me what to do with her meager assets after her death. For her, that’s the main point of this trip.
There are, of course, rational explanations for the preponderance of sevens. My father would surely have pointed out that the roughly one-in-ten chance of an event’s landing on a date ending in a seven. Those are already pretty good odds. If you count month, year, and age, the odds are much higher. Confirmation bias—the predilection to notice when sevens cross us, but not when they don’t—all but guarantees their presence. Needing something more meaningful than odds, we mystify. If we can’t find a reason for the unpredictable, we at least find a pattern.
So say many contemporary scientists, from evolutionary biologists to neuroscientists to anthropologists to cognitive psychologists: we humans are a pattern-making people, even compulsively so. We’ve evolved to seek patterns. Without our ability to recognize them, we couldn’t function. Our ancestors wouldn’t have learned to associate the rustle of leaves with the subsequent attack of a predator. We’d never learn a language or a song. If not for our sharp pattern-recognition skills, we wouldn’t be able to speak, much less to tango.
This ability to find patterns matters so crucially to our very survival that we can’t turn it off. Our brains seem “hard-wired” to find the larger pattern, even when there is none. Nothing is lost when we over-correct, whereas we could lose our lives by turning off our pattern-recognition. Belief in a grand though not-yet-identified design may be an evolutionary appendix sprouting from our skin-saving ability to make predictions from incomplete evidence. We can’t help it; we need to fill in the blanks, to draw connective lines through white space.
Some anthropologists even posit that belief in a (false) religion is more “natural” to our cognitive systems than disbelief. It takes deliberate, effortful cognition for us not to follow our natural tendency to have faith in a larger design. Even scientists who don’t believe in religious tenets will fall into these modes of thinking when they’re “off duty.” We find a pattern even where there isn’t one, and then, finding a pattern, we assume a designer.
There’s also the concept of the “magic seven” that isn’t magic at all. It’s cognitive psychology. In 1956, Harvard psychology professor George A. Miller published his paper “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information.” To reduce the article down to the most rudimentary summary: seven is roughly the limit of things we can hold in our head at once. If you’re given a list of more than seven items, you likely won’t retain them all. That’s why they made phone numbers seven digits. (It’s also why, when Stephen Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People originally offered eight habits, a canny editor convinced Covey that seven worked better.) Although “Miller’s law” (as it’s come to be known) has been contested over the years, with challengers offering different numbers as the “magic” one, the number seven has magically lingered in psychology lore. The “magic” of seven, though, stems not from numerology but from neurology.
I don’t point out to my mother all the meaningful numbers in our lives that don’t have a seven in them. My father, who had a non-seven birthday in a non-seven year, died at age 63 (admittedly a number divisible by seven). I don’t point out that Rajiv, who was born on the 29th day of the fifth month of 1964, was diagnosed with terminal cancer on July 13, 2001, all non-seven numbers. (It was on a Friday the 13th, but that is, to use a phrase my mother favors, “another story altogether”). Rajiv died on the 2nd of June, 2002, also non-seven numbers. Nor do I point out that I became a widow just after turning a non-seven 39. Those are the numbers that mean the most to me, the dates I will never forget, the touchstones I can’t stop touching. All non-sevens. All non-sensical.
What a hard time I’d had after Rajiv died—even harder than after my father’s death. I hadn’t known how I could survive it—how anyone could survive it—but then there was my mother, already widowed for over a decade, and still standing, even if she’s had to lean on a cane and then a walker. She survived, and even found a kind of peace that I never could.
How I struggled to make sense of the unacceptable, to find meaning, and at the same time to resist the temptation to manufacture meaning. The temptation to attribute some sort of underlying design, some grand plan, just because I needed one. Rajiv, a scientist like my father (Are all daughters doomed to marry their fathers and become their mothers?) rejected the relief of “everything happens for a reason.” I made it my ethic not to indulge in such magical thinking. The same ethic kept me from talking to Rajiv after death, from addressing him as “you,” even from writing letters to him, as grief counselors recommended. How I would have wanted to leave notes and stick figure drawings for him in the half-filled spiral notebook we kept on the kitchen island, where we scribbled notes for each other (“Dogs are fed”; “Went to radiation”; “Thinking of you.”). I resisted believing he still existed, when I knew he didn’t. But I was fighting against neurology, suppressing my survival instinct.
My mother doesn’t care if she’s deceiving herself. She keeps pictures of my father all over the house, over two decades after his death. She greets him, sometimes, as she passes one of his photos, and talks to him: “Hello, Ronnie. I’m thinking of you.” She even sings to him—in a voice (which I’ve inherited) that couldn’t carry a tune even before she went deaf—about having had the time of her life and owing it all to him. She knows he can’t hear her, but she believes he can anyway.
While I may be the more rational mourner, though, I’m beginning to realize, over this week that I’ve spent with her, that my mother is the sane one. Even people who believe that the atheist view of the world is correct may feel otherwise. It’s nearly impossible to accept a world of suffering for nothing. It’s nearly impossible to accept death without a point. Our lives have got to offer more than this vast randomness.
My mother doesn’t just believe in, but is certain of, a grand design and a something-more beyond this material world. “Do you want to know how I know? Because otherwise it doesn’t make any sense. A lifetime goes by so quickly, and what then? This can’t be it. It’s only logical. There’s got to be more than this.” How can I argue with that?
I don’t tell her my doubts about the significance of seven because she wouldn’t be able to hear me anyway. She’d probably just take my yammering as assent, as she so often does in her deafness, filling in the answers she wants for the ones she misses.
I don’t tell her because, at 82 years old, my mother, this woman who taught me to count, gets to believe whatever she wants. She’s already lost so much: her husband, her sense of balance and stability, her teeth, her hearing, her distant daughter. She doesn’t need to lose the number seven, too. There’s no point in imposing my ethic of resisting false patterns onto her. Seven is one of the few solids she has left.
I don’t tell her because I envy her certainty, her ability to make meaning, her ability to survive.
I don’t tell her because I want her to be right. I want there to be a bigger pattern. I need there to be. But I can’t believe it. All I can do is let my mother be my believer by proxy. If believing is what keeps her heart pumping, then I need her to keep on believing.
I don’t tell her because, in spite of my resistance to magical thinking, I’m worried about turning 57. I can’t help it. I’m worried that this will be the year I lose her.
I don’t tell her because when I hug her bony body, there’s barely any flesh left.
I don’t tell her because when she finally smiles in recognition at the surface absurdity of her theory of sevens, the wrinkles that had seemed scattered chaotically around her eyes all line up in a way that makes sense.
Deborah Thompson is a Professor of English at Colorado State University, where she teaches literature and creative nonfiction. She has published numerous creative and critical essays, and has won the Missouri Review and Iowa Review awards in creative nonfiction, as well as a Pushcart prize. She is the author of Pretzel, Houdini, and Olive: Essays on the Dogs of My Life, published by Red Hen Press, and is working on a nonfiction book on mythologies of dogs in American culture.