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Creating a Playlist for My Life: The Answer to a Lawyer’s Unexpected Question 

All Jeannie Ralston wanted to do was make sure her will was done. But, instead, the lawyer prompted her to think deeply about the music that makes our memories.

“I’m too young to be doing this,” I said, feeling the tears forming in my eyes.

The lawyer across the table nodded her head. “I know. Everyone feels that way, but it’s important.” She then pointed to the box of tissue sitting on a credenza. “We keep Kleenex in every room. Sometimes I need them myself.”

My husband and I were in a conference room on the 23rd floor of a downtown Austin building. We had come to have preliminary talks about a new will. The last will we’d done had been downloaded off the Internet, and we’d gotten some clerks at the American Airlines ticket counter to witness it. My husband was flying off to Antarctica to photograph a science expedition there, and we’d forgotten until the last minute (literally) that the foundation sponsoring the trip required everyone to have a will. Even as our kids grew and our lives became more complex financially, we avoided getting a “real” will.

But here we were doing the grown-up thing, finally thinking through what we wanted our boys—now 20 and 22—to have and how they should receive it. We’d already gotten past the monetary part, and I was relieved that it had been easier than I’d expected.

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Into Surprising Territory

Then the attorney, taking notes on a large iPad screen with a stylus, said we should talk about our wishes for a funeral. Robb and I both said we wanted to be cremated. She continued with a request for specific instructions on the service. “I want it to be a big party,” I said. “I always love throwing parties. I was talking about my 60th birthday party even before I’d had my 50th.”

The lawyer wrote down “Celebration of Life” in her notes.

What about songs you want played, she wanted to know. I was suddenly seized by panic. I had no idea we were going to get down to this level of specificity in this meeting. That’s when I shouted my distress and headed for the tissue box.

My mind went blank. I tried to think of my favorite 70’s songs. I love that genre because it covers my high school years, and I was quickly scanning my brain for the 70’s songs that defined that era for me. At the moment, I could only think of the blockbusters: “Born to Run” and “Free Bird,” which didn’t seem appropriate. I laughed to myself when I thought of the presumptuousness of “Stairway to Heaven.”

Finally Robb asked,  “What about that Natalie Merchant song you like?”

I looked at him blankly. “These Are the Days”? I wondered.  

“No, the one about the wife. The one you always say you want me to sing after you go.”

“Oh, ‘My Beloved Wife.’” I looked at him and the tears came afresh. I couldn’t believe he remembered. “You were the love/For certain of my life/You were simply my beloved wife,” Natalie sings. Robb is not sentimental at all—normally—but at the moment he was looking at me as if he had absorbed the words.

I dabbed my eyes. “Yes, put down `My Beloved Wife,’” I said to the attorney.

Robb thought of a song he’d like: “Sweet Child of Mine.” We had recently fallen in love with the version sung by one of the characters in the film Captain Fantastic as her mother’s body was being cremated.

The attorney said that once we had assembled a list of songs we could get back to her, and I’ve been spending the last few weeks thinking about it.

My Playlist. What’s Yours?

Besides “My Beloved Wife,” here are the songs I want played at my last party, the one I won’t be attending: my playlist for life.

“Song Sung Blue,” by Neil Diamond

I think this is the first pop song I was aware of, and it conjures up the summer I was 11 on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I was at the point I knew I was leaving childhood behind, and when I hear it I see myself in a little smock top with strawberries on it, hair blowing in the wind as I climbed through the sand dunes. I can almost smell the salt air.

“Old Days,” by Chicago

I remember hearing this song during a later summer, when I was 14. I can close my eyes and see exactly where I was—driving across a bridge on the way to the swimming pool in my hometown in Tennessee. I remember having a very meta moment: Some day when I’m grown up I am going to hear this song and think of this particular moment and this particular summer when I was getting my first taste of glorious freedom. And I was absolutely correct.

“It’s Been Such a Long Time,” by Boston

I don’t know if anyone could have had a more 70’s moment than this: I was at a Boston concert with a beautiful friend. We worked our way up to the front row, and it seemed that the lead singer couldn’t take his eyes off my friend. We were invited back stage after the show, and after a few moments with the band and crew, we felt out of place, a little nervous. Before we left, I had the Boston lead singer sign my—wait for it—Earth shoe. Why I did not keep that shoe I’ll never know. But the song will take me back to that electric night, and the lyrics seem just right for when I’ve gone: “It’s been such a long time/I think I should be going/Time doesn’t wait for me/It keeps on rolling.”

memories defined by music

While You See a Chance You Take It is one of the songs on the author’s playlist.

“While You See a Chance,” by Steve Winwood

I remember riding back from the ski slopes in Colorado on a family vacation when this song came on. I was in my mid-20s, just making a career in New York City. My brother-in-law turned to me and said, “This is kind of your theme song, isn’t it?” I took it as a compliment and have considered that song mine ever since.

“Changes,” by David Bowie

 The first time I recognized the power of this song was in the mid 80s after my boyfriend and I had broken up.  The line “Turn and face the strange ch-ch-changes” made me want to throw back my head and shoulders to the sky, literally opening myself to new possibilities. I’ve played it many times when I’ve faced daunting times—moving, taking on new responsibilities, trying to make it through a bout of depression. It’s never failed to brace me, calm me, inspire me.  

“Roam,” by the B-52s

This song was popular when I met Robb, and because he was a photographer who traveled the world, I felt like it was written just for us—that it presaged a life of adventure ahead. “Around the world the trip begins with a kiss.” The song was not wrong.

“Let’s Stay Together,” by Al Green

Robb suggested this one, remembering the Al Green concert we went to for our anniversary after we’d made it through a particularly difficult patch. I loved that he remembered that song. I have started considering that my husband is—contrary to my long-held notions—more romantic than I ever thought, and that this process of planning my end—contrary to my sentiments in the attorney’s office—could be more life-affirming than I ever thought.

By Jeannie Ralston


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