I think of myself as the kind of woman who, if only I were better organized or had less ADHD, could really make a difference in everything I do. I am a writer by trade. My book is due to the publisher soon, and I am writing this piece as a kind of productive procrastination. But I am done with future resolutions.
Recently, we unexpectedly lost a member of our extended family. She was there, and then she wasn’t. Now she is gone, and we are trying to figure out what to do next. We thought we had more time with her.
Suddenly, inexplicably, I have become a now person. I want to do everything I need to do, right away. I am not about to wait 10 minutes to complete a task. I used to walk by the garbage three or four or 12 times before thinking, “Hmm, I should probably take that out.” No more. Now I walk past it, see what I need to do, put on my shoes and march it out to the receptacle on the side of our apartment building.
Need to buy a stamp? Off I truck to the post office. Maybe it feels wrong or weird to think about mortality in this way, but there is something about losing a member of your extended family that makes you think, “Huh, maybe I should sign up for e-billing just in case I pass away unexpectedly, too.”
Becoming doers helps stem our grief. We miss her. We still don’t fully understand the details of what happened and will probably never really know. But we are grateful that all her doctor’s appointments and other obligations were taped up inside one of her kitchen cabinets, that it was easy to find everything because it was clearly labeled. We didn’t waste a lot of time pawing through things unnecessarily. Everything was organized, enabling everyone to find what they needed in what was otherwise a time of absolute crisis.
That’s a hard final gift to give someone, but she gave it to all of us.
So we just do what we can. You may not be able to stem the tide of the many, many problems in this country by yourself, and the midterm elections have already passed, and every day there is another disaster — political, climate or otherwise — but you can probably mail something you’ve been holding on to for the past three weeks.
Think of it as: “Do 1 Thing” — but every day, all the time, for the rest of your life. Make all your resolutions immediate. Maybe you just want to resolve to make more coffee at home. Make coffee now. Maybe you need to organize your personal affairs. Maybe you need a will. You can do it online, right now, if you are form- and attorney-averse, as we are.
Maybe your resolution involves political activism. Maybe you are not the phone-banking type. That’s okay. Find another way to get involved.
Me? I’m finishing my book. It’s about the American health-care system and the way we have both treated and failed patients. I was a longtime patient of medicine, and I became a practitioner, of sorts: I went through emergency medical technician training and ultimately got a job at a busy Level 2 trauma center near Chicago.
As an EMT, we saw everyone on the worst day of their life. Nearly everything was urgent. That’s usually not the case in the rest of your life, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t complete tasks quickly anyway. Sometimes a change in perspective is all you need.
For me, it was our unexpected loss. We’re still grieving. Everything feels urgent and important. Resolve to do something — anything — immediately.
Having spent weeks looking through her personal effects, hoping to find what is needed to complete various tasks, I can say it doesn’t pay to wait to organize this stuff. Make sure you have a will. Make sure you have explained what you want to happen when you die.
Is your 401(k) beneficiary your ex or your deadbeat brother? Change it now. Don’t think about any of these tasks too much (that’s always my problem). Try just doing instead. Send out holiday cards. You might surprise yourself.
I know I did. And judging by the neatly printed lists taped inside Auntie Joyce’s cabinets and the way she remembered everybody’s birthday, anniversary and other occasions without fail, she taught us a valuable lesson: In being organized, you’re better connected to the people who matter most.
Emily Maloney’s husband’s aunt, Joyce Fienberg, was killed by a gunman in October at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh as she prayed during morning Shabbat services. Maloney is a writer who lives in Evanston, Ill. Her first book, “Cost of Living,” is forthcoming. A version of this essay first appeared in The Billfold.