A Life in Lists

April 17, 2015

A friend lost her father a few months ago. She and I met through our sons, who have been friends for years, and became better acquainted while logging hours in the Little League bleachers. Our lives intersect, but when she suffered that loss, I realized I didn’t know her that well. We’d never had a heart to heart, spent much time together socially, or discussed our families, so I did not know what to expect when I went to pay a shiva call.

During the visit, she talked about her father in a way that deeply touched me. She admired how, to the best of his ability, he’d kept at the life he wanted to live despite the multiple medical derailments he faced in the years before his death. She even discovered a list of professional to-dos scribbled on a magazine by his bedside table in the rehab facility.

For days, I could not get our conversation out of my mind. I later sent her a note to tell her how it had affected me. I hoped that the warmth of paternal tenderness she felt would continue to embrace her as she mourned him. I also shared the fact that my own father had long ago distanced himself from me, and how that wound had left behind a scar that periodically rubs at me, like an old sports injury before a storm.

Her reply has stuck with me since. She told me that there are things in my life she wishes for, though the specifics did not matter. It was the big picture she painted for which I’m grateful.

Neither of us had written from a place of envy. We did not begrudge one another anything. As our thoughts crossed through the ether in that moment, we simply laid out on the table what we were each missing, staring together at the raw open space in front of us.

We are all human, no matter how hard we try to be otherwise. Which means that sometimes, we want more than, or other than, what we have. Our circumstances are what they are, the way G-d mapped them out for us. Some of us embrace our lot. Some of us struggle to accept it. Some of us simply acknowledge what is and isn’t there.

But our longings, like any other emotion, are an inextricable part of who we are. In a way, these absences are what make us whole, motivating us to plod on in order to fill in as much of the emptiness as we can. They push us to succeed professionally, to be better spouses, parents, children, and friends, while encouraging us to find meaning in our encounters with the world around us.

During that shiva call, my friend told me about her father’s remarkable professional accomplishments, and the wisdom he shared with his colleagues and with the wider scientific community. I was impressed, but I’d never be able to scratch at the surface of his research with any degree of comprehension.

I have, however, grasped on tight to the power in the to-dos he jotted down on the magazine at his bedside table. So poignant, I thought, as if his keeping a running list would keep him going, too, as if list-making were the very essence of being human.

I certainly make a lot of them. They are on notepads and torn-open envelopes all over our house, and I know I am not alone. They impose genuine organization and a comforting though false sense of control.

More than that, though, lists – the ones we write and the ones we store in our minds — are how we chart our daily lives, and how we keep track of our failures and successes. They help us sort our hopes, plans, and secrets. They are also the tally of wounds, regrets, and loves that we scribble on our hearts.

Once, I saw those lists as mountains to scale. The more I crossed off, the more I added, and time always seemed to be running away from me. Since that shiva call, I have managed to view them for what they are: reminders of a full agenda of plans and goals both large (finish my book) and small (buy laundry detergent on the way home from work).

What I check off and what I don’t may one day define who I was and who I was not. For now, though, they are what keep me going.