Lists for the Living


The logistics of moving my two sons out of the house and into their respective colleges have occupied much of my time during the past two weeks. This naturally involved the creation of many lists. Amid the to-do lists, packing lists, and last minute must-have menus, there were music playlists to update, shipping ledgers to fill out, and, longest of all, the shopping lists.

Like ghosts of intentions past, these lists were all that remained when all was said and done. They lingered in the boys’ now empty bedrooms, and in the kitchen, and the study, and my purse, and my car. Spaghetti and meatballs, Tony’s Pizza, Cancel boys’ gym memberships, Send tennis racquet, Water plants! My first act as an empty-nester was to gather all these scraps of paper, full of pressing needs (now mostly fulfilled), and toss them into the recycling bin.

I found another list while I was cleaning, though, and this one I can’t quite bring myself to throw away. It’s the list of foods I made for the family of a friend in late July. Well, not a friend, exactly, but a dear and wise former colleague I lost touch with 20 years ago. Alan Cheuse was an intellectual, academic, novelist, memoirist, voracious reader, and raconteur. His reverberant baritone was the voice of hundreds of book reviews on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” I was his radio editor there for a few years, during which time he was never anything but patient, kind and respectful, when he could have easily gotten away with being self-important, arrogant or dismissive. Long, long ago, he and his wife, Kris, had Craig and me over for dinner at their book-filled townhouse, where he regaled us with stories of his youthful adventures and his literary life.

Alan’s last novel, published just last year, was called “Prayers for the Living,” which made it all the more poignant when I heard, several weeks ago, that he’d been in a serious car accident here in California, thousands of miles from his D.C. home.

I learned (over Facebook, naturally) that Alan’s wife and grown daughters had flown out to San Jose and were sitting vigil at his hospital bedside. I was in the awkward position of wanting to help, but not knowing how to….I didn’t know the family at all, and barely knew Alan, to be honest—not after 20 years. The only comfort I could think of was food.

The phrase “comfort food” takes on new meaning when you are deciding what to prepare for a distraught group of exhausted strangers sharing a hospital room with their comatose loved one. It needed to be food they could eat while crying, heartsick, jet-lagged and clinging to the thinnest strand of hope. It needed to be bursting with nutrients, with life-giving colors and vitamins and chlorophyll. It needed, I felt, to be easy to swallow, but neither smelly nor mushy. I labored over that list. Here it is:

  • Grilled herbed chicken breasts with tzatziki sauce
  • Cumin-scented red lentil and carrot soup
  • Pita bread and roasted red pepper hummus
  • Tuscan farro salad with cherry tomatoes and balsamic dressing
  • Homemade cinnamon granola with Straus yogurt and honey
  • Heirloom tomato gazpacho
  • White bean, prawn and fennel salad
  • Fiery carrot dip with whole grain pita chips
  • Brownies and lemon bars
  • Wine??

Over the course of a wrenchingly sad week and a half, I made these foods and drove them down to San Jose. And I did pack wine (and a corkscrew), just in case it might help someone sleep or maybe unclench her jaw for a minute or two.

Alan never woke from his coma. He will never finish the novel he was working on, never teach another writers’ workshop, never check another item off his to-do list. His heart-broken family members eventually returned to homes and lives that are now sadder and emptier.

Look around your house and you’ll see your lists. These are not insignificant slips of paper. In fact, they are, in some respects, profound. Lists signal intention and forward motion; they offer a glimpse into a wished-for future. Lists are truly nothing less than life affirming. The other day, I started a new one:

  • Take a writing class
  • Read “Prayers for the Living.”

Leave a Reply