It wasn’t more than a few days after my Dad died, just four months shy of his 100th birthday, that my brother and I began the formidable task of “going through Dad’s desk.” The desk wasn’t really a desk at all; it was a repository for mountains of papers, financial statements, annual reports, brochures, medical journals and magazines dating back to 1963 covering everything from isometric exercise to safaris. Buried under a pile of backdated Wall Street Journals was the gift I had given Dad on his 70th birthday – a white plastic sign that stated Dad’s philosophy in bold black letters: A clean desk is a sign of a sick mind!
It made me reflect on my own compulsive need for tidiness, and I breathed easier as my brother and I tackled the stacks, tossing years of articles marked “consider for the future” or “review later” into 33-gallon garbage bags.
It is deeply comforting to actually do something concrete after someone you love dies. It can be almost anything really, a task that requires physical concentration like a sink that needs fixing, drawers that need to be emptied, or, in my case, a desk that needed cleaning. A task has a beginning, middle and end and helps makes order out of the emotional chaos that often reigns in the aftermath of death. It gives you a purpose and a place to park your numbness and grief while hoping that in some way, your actions will honor or benefit the one you loved as well as those who live on.
My Dad was not a “woo-woo” kind of guy. He was more of a “no-nonsense, what you see is what you get” kind of fellow. He rarely waxed prophetic, nor did he sentimentalize. So it was more than a mere coincidence that one of the first things my brother found, placed intentionally on top of a year’s worth of Schwab statements, was a hand-written list of Dad’s Top Ten, carefully penned on aged legal paper. And unlike Dad’s other lists, it didn’t contain buy-sell prices or strategies to beat the market. It was more of a summary of a millennium of life lessons learned, clearly meant to guide us in the days and years after he was gone.
Given the state of his desk, I almost laughed out loud when I read the opening paragraph:
“All compulsive behavior creates clutter. Make a conscious effort to identify and eliminate the cause of your clutter.”
The second paragraph really hit me hard because underlying its message was a sense of remorse and regret for not having followed his own maxim about time.
“Do not treat time casually like life is just a practice run. Live like you have but six months to live. Determine what you really would like to do and schedule time for it before it is too late. Do the important things NOW. Make the best use of your time by planning and rearranging for more efficiency.”
These paragraphs were followed by a list of ten directives entitled: “Questions to assist in establishing values.” True to form, only three of the ten were questions, the remaining seven were clear directives; Dad’s guiding hand leading the way.
“What are your goals?” “How would you like to spend your time?” “If you could do but one thing today, what would it be? Do it now.”
Clearly, the clock was ticking for Dad.
The paper wasn’t dated, and I can’t help but wonder when Dad wrote this list. Was he a young man trying to craft principles to establish his career, family and life? Was it after he retired when he had more free time and resources? Or was it, as I sense, in preparation for his own demise, during the many hours that physical energy eluded him but mental acuity did not. I sense that in some way, this was Dad’s last attempt to teach his children, whom he knew would find it, the most important things he knew at the end of his life. Essentially, it was Dad’s Best Practices for living life to the fullest.
I ask myself why Dad never spoke about this before he died. What would he have wanted to do that he never did? It will remain one of the conversations I wish we could have had when he was still alive. It would have opened up so much in terms of knowing how he really felt about life, what were his best decisions, his biggest disappointments.
Sadly, I will never know. But at least I have the list.
Amy Hirshberg Lederman has written more than 300 columns and essays that have been published nationwide, amyhirshberglederman.com