Helena was a woman of many lists. She carried scraps of paper with her at all times, each one detailing the to-dos and remembrances that crossed her mind at any given moment. She was prone to pulling out these pieces of paper with some frequency to add the latest reminder, whether it was mid-conversation, the early hours of the morning or during her daily walk with the dog. The listing and constant note-making never bothered John. It was a fact of life and after ten years of marriage it seemed a perfectly normal thing for a person to do.
The day Helena died she had 137 items that remained unfinished on her various lists. John, however, only discovered this several months later, when he had come to the conclusion that he had to sort through her belongings and take them out of the house, or he would be an certifiably insane by Christmas. He had tried several times in the weeks following the funeral, but each attempt had left him curled on the couch, clutching their wedding album to his chest and snoring slightly, two empty bottles of wine on the coffee table.
The first list, dated 4/22, the day before her death, was in the pocket of her favorite sweater. Somehow, John never knew exactly, Helena had always know where each list was and its exact purpose. To John, any given list looked like a set of tasks to do around the house or mental notes, but Helena vehemently disagreed. He never understood her methods, but he didn’t question them.
Of the eight items on the 4/22 list, all but one had been crossed out with red pen. The last line read, Do the dishes. John taped the scrap to the refrigerator door and did the dishes.
Later that week as he packed away their winter coats into the hall closet, a note tumbled from Helena’s parka. He dropped the coats in a heap in the hall and breathed in the loops of letters her hand had written. For nicer weather, the top read. None of the items had been crossed out.
1. Sunrise hike
2. Try grilled veggies on the BBQ
3. Make homemade mojitos
4. Buy a new bathing suit
It took John two tries to get up in time for the hike. In the brief moments when the sun was rising over the mountains, his heart ceased its ragged aching and he let tears of relief rush down his face. That night he burnt the veggies on the BBQ but ate them nonetheless and continued to eat them the rest of the week. The mojitos replaced his nightly sit-down with the wine bottle. And, his new bathing suit was exactly the kind of tacky pattern Helena would have hated and he would have bought, just to hear her tease him.
The sorting continued. Several weeks after the first note, another appeared while John was sorting through Helena’ pants. It was dated 4/20. Pick up dry cleaning and Buy dog food were yet uncrossed. John left the pants scattered around their bedroom floor and went to the kitchen. He taped the note next to the first two, picked up his keys and headed out the door.
The next note was in the car, crumpled in the trunk under the dog leash. John found it while loading in the dog food.
Daily Reminders, the top read. Nothing was crossed out. Instead, little red stars were drawn next to them.
3. Read something fun
4. You are amazing- tell yourself that on the way to work
5. Live in the present
This list too went up on the fridge. For two more months John sorted through everything in the apartment. It became a hunt for a list and often he would not stop his sorting, boxing, searching until he held in his hands one of those scraps of paper, textured with handwriting. The twenty-two lists he had found were all taped to the fridge, an overlapping mosaic of words, lines and stars, now marked with little ticks in black pen.
Helena had been gone five months when John finished sorting through everything in the house except the night stand on her side of the bed. Her journal, lucky bracelet, dream catcher, collection of stones and bouncy balls, everything that made her who was was, was kept in that night stand. John sat down on the bed, his arms and hands heavy as he reached out to open the drawer. They paused over the book lying where she had left it under the lamp. It was a novel, one that had made her laugh every night before turning out the lamp. There were only thirteen pages left for her to read. Thirteen pages. She never knew how the story ended.
John tossed the book onto the floor and reached to open the drawer. He noticed then a piece of paper, smooth and clean, poking out from under the book cover. He pulled it out.
1. Fall in love
2. Visit Paris
3. Run a marathon
4. Collect a stone from the Grand Canyon
5. Learn how to quilt
6. Volunteer in Africa
7. Learn Portuguese
8. Read Shakespeare’s full works
9. See an opera
100. Find that one thing in life that brings you the greatest peace, harmony and happiness
John picked up the novel and set it on his night stand, then took the note to the fridge. Ninety-eight things to go.