I sat once next to a man in his seventies at the doctor’s office who was making a list. In bold letters written in a blue Sharpie, impossible not to see on the yellow legal pad, were the words: WHAT I STILL WANT.
As I glanced at the title of his page, I smiled and randomly thought of students I’ve had in the past. The most interesting were the ones coming back to college, also wanting something.
First I thought of the middle aged mom with seven children at home who wanted to support her family. She told me the first day of class that she wouldn’t be there too often, but she’d always have a teenager there to take notes and turn in her homework, and would that be all right? She worked full time at the hospital as an LPN, and was also going to school full time to earn her RN, because a couple of years ago her husband—the family’s wage-earner until recently—was struck with Multiple Sclerosis and was now confined to a wheelchair.
Yes, I could work with her to get her what she wanted, because I found myself wanting to be that selfless, devoted, and driven.
Then there was the recently widowed grandmother who, for her 65th birthday, decided she’d give herself a present and go back to school, starting with taking my business writing class. She was more prepared each day than I was, and spanked the class with her grades. I wanted one of her in every class I taught, for all the depth of thought she brought to the discussions.
Then I remembered the 40-something Mexican immigrant, who, although he had a good job, wanted to prove to his daughters that an education was important, so he was coming back to school to earn an associate’s degree. He was also a part-time actor, with an over-the-top personality, and was the loudest and most entertaining student I could’ve ever wanted.
And then there was the 50-something entrepreneur who apologized that he’d miss a few days because he frequently flew to Europe for work. I later learned it was in his private jet, and when I saw an article in the newspaper about him, realized he was a self-made millionaire several times over. But he always regretted dropping out of college and was “treating” himself to a degree in his spare time. He emailed me his writing assignments when he was over the Atlantic, and I wanted all of my students to take their educations as seriously as he did.
There were dozens of other students I’ve had over the years, with interesting lives and goals they never finished and regrets they were trying to reverse, and I remembered a great deal of them as I sat in the doctor’s office waiting, and I hoped they all got what they wanted.
“Wanna see it?” the old man next to me beamed, and I was relieved he was holding up his paper instead of the odd growth on his arm.
“It’s what I still want in life,” he explained unnecessarily and pointed to the list more than fifty items long and growing.
I took it obligingly and expected to be amazed.
Not in a good way.
The list didn’t read like a bucket list of sorts, or a wish list for his descendants, or pearls of wisdom he wanted to share.
I felt instead as if I was reading my 10-year-old’s Christmas list, a boy who was deliberately clueless to the needs of anyone else, and seemed to think we could generate money simply by buying fewer vegetables.
Some items on the old man’s list were amusing.
#4—a decent set of nose clips that don’t come off when I dive in the pool.
But, as I glanced sidelong at the hefty man whose breathing was a bit labored, I wondered just how many years it’d been since he dived into anything deeper than a bowl of pudding.
I began to squirm as I read other items.
#12 Cruise to Alaska—with the seafood buffets (because Sterling’s grandkids gave him that, and I have more grandkids than he does)
#27 Someone to remodel the bathroom. (Preferably one of those TV shows, not my sons because they don’t do as fine as work, and their wives will want to paint it again.)
#48 New taller vinyl fence in the yard (so I don’t have to see the tops of the neighbor kids’ heads when they’re outside)
And so the list went on, and I realized the very definition of Crotchety Old Goat was sitting next to me.
But when I came to the end of the list, I began to have just a glimmer of hope.
#56 A plain wooden coffin.
Until I saw:
(Except if someone will spend a few thousand dollars to give me proper send-off, I want one of those highly painted caskets—always thought that’d be a classy way to go).
I slid the page back over to him, disappointed. For someone of his age, and according to the old faded tattoo on his arm, someone who served in Viet Nam and knew about hardship and sacrifice and serving others, I’d expected something a little less . . . childish.
And I wondered snarkily for a moment what this man did with his social security payments taken from my paycheck.
I also thought about my former students who found a deeper purpose in life than just planning to get more stuff than “Sterling” had by the end. (Whoever Sterling was, I hoped for his sake this old guy lived far, far away from him, but I suspected Sterling was his brother.)
I also remembered the verse in Proverbs that says, “ . . . with all they getting, get understanding.” I looked into the eyes of the man next to me, and there was something hard and cold in them. He was obsessed with the getting, but in all the years he’d been on the earth, he’d tragically missed the understanding.
“So what happens if you don’t get all of that on your list?” I cautiously asked.
He blinked rapidly as if that thought had never crossed his mind. “Well, I’ll be giving a copy of that list to all my kids and grandkids. They usually give me useless stuff for Christmas and birthdays. Just how many pictures of children and by children can one man use, right? Can’t keep any of them straight, anyway, even when they label the pictures. No, I’ll get all of this,” he said confidently as he slipped the yellow page into a folder. “My wife says I’m nuts, but at this stage in my life I deserve to get what I want.”
Fortunately at that moment the person I was waiting for was ready to leave. I nodded politely to the old man as I left, and wondered if his descendants knew that he saw them only as objects to boost his getting, rather than as people to treasure. I rather suspected they did, and wouldn’t be weeping too much over his simple wooden casket.
I promised myself that day that if ever I got that old and felt the need to make a list, it’d better be of stuff I planned to give, not take.
Even if the coffin was one of those glossily painted numbers that looks like it was designed for a departing Vegas showgirl, nothing I took from the world would fit in it anyway. All that remains is what we give.