A few years ago, a friend lost her father. She and I first met in the Little League bleachers and got better acquainted through our sons. At the time of her loss, however, we did not yet know one another well. We had never spent time together socially or discussed our families, so I had no idea what to expect when I went to pay a shiva call.
During the visit, she talked about her father in a way that touched me deeply. She admired how, to the best of his ability, he’d kept at the life he wanted to lead despite the multiple medical derailments he faced in the years before his death. She even discovered a list of professional tasks, to-dos related to his scientific research, scribbled on a magazine by his bedside table in the rehab facility.
I later sent her a condolence note to say that I hoped these memories of her father would give her strength as she mourned him. I also shared the fact that I couldn’t get his list out of my head. So poignant, I thought, that it was his constant companion until his last breath.
As if keeping a running list kept him going. As if list-making were the very essence of being human.
I’m a serial list-maker myself, mostly on the back of receipts and junk mail envelopes that fill my purse and cover surfaces throughout our home. Despite external appearances, they impose organization on my chaos, giving me a false but useful sense of control. I mean, I have no sway over the universal continuum. That’s all in God’s hands. But I can keep track of what we need from Costco.
This obsession with lists seems fitting, Jewish even. That “list of lists,” the Ten Commandments, has guided us since the beginning of our peoplehood. It defines us, and as part of the longer list of 613 commandments that fill the Torah, serves as both a spiritual and practical kind of Waze, guiding us as we make our way in the world.
Meanwhile, our own lists, whether you amass them the messy way I do or contain them in your phone, mirror our day-to-day lives. I once saw them as mountains to scale, the topography defined by deadlines, household projects, and the daily minutiae of raising a family. They seemed endless — and exhausting. After that shiva call, though, I began to think about them differently.
My friend told me about her father’s many professional accomplishments, as a toxicologist, and his esteem among his colleagues. I was impressed with all he had achieved, but it was the items he did not get to that resonated most. It has helped me — most of the time, anyway — to kvetch less about how much I have to do and be grateful instead for the health and energy that allow me to keep doing.
I admit that the one list I’m not a fan of is the bucket list. I value the concept, but wish they’d call it something that speaks to the kind of life we want to lead rather than an oncoming morbid deadline. Either way, it keeps our longings and ambitions right where we can see them, which is a good thing. I’m convinced that articulating our goals — to publish a novel or make aliyah or my son’s biggie, to try a ghost pepper — brings us one step closer to fulfilling them, whether we get the chance to or not.
Because we are human, we have limitations. And with them comes a list of disappointments, regrets, and shoulda-coulda-wouldas. We leave one opportunity behind at each fork in the road. We choose to honor our obligations over the pursuit of our dreams, or the other way around. We waffle and waver until chances slip through our hands, though sometimes, what we want may just not be in the cards.
There is power in our many lists, which combine to write the story of who we are. Will ours show that we strove in this world? Were we curious to travel, experience, experiment, and explore? Did we finally put our vacation photos into an album or return that sweater to Kohl’s?
It has been years since I paid that shiva call to my friend. Still, I often think about the outstanding tasks on her father’s to-do list and how the items we don’t get to check off our lists define us as much as the ones we do.
So grab a pen and the envelope from the phone bill. Life is short. Make sure your lists are long.