The Bucket List - before there was one

August 8th, 2008 by Michael Davis

My wife and I just finished watching The Bucket List starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson as two cancer patients with a short time to live. They devise a Bucket List of items they want to do before their lives end - things which they would regret not having done. The movie received tepid praise from critics and was not particularly a hit with moviegoers in theaters. Death is, and has always been, a subject to avoid in polite society.

We both enjoyed The Bucket List. It wasn’t a buffoon-fest. Nor was it overly sappy - something it could easily have become.

It struck me, though, how many times I have listened to folk’s bucket lists. As a hospice chaplain for twelve years, I had opportunity to explore those lists. I remember a visit at the end of a week on Friday afternoon. The nursing home always smelled like pee or worse. It was not a favorite place to go but it was near my home and I could finish out the week with several quick visits and begin my weekend in short order. Ethel (not her real name) had a room with a window near a tree. The tree was not particularly pretty. It was just a tree. But she told me on that Friday that she liked to look at it.

Now, there was something about Ethel that I just liked. She enjoyed our visits. She was simple and plain-spoken. She was honest.

“Mike, I’m really starting to go downhill.”

“I know, Ethel. By the way, do you mean that you think you’re getting nearer to dying?”

“Yeah…. I think my time’s getting near. And, I don’t know what to do?”

“What do you mean? Is there something you want to do or need to do?”

“Yeah. You see that tree? It reminds me of the trees in East Texas. I’d love to go back there just one more time.”

“Where in East Texas would you go?”

“I’d go to Tyler.”

“And what would you do there?”

“I just want to sit under a big old tree and put my bare feet in the green grass. I always used to love to do that as a little girl and I want to do it again.”

“If I could arrange for you and I and a nurse and some of your family to go, would you want to go?”

“I’d love to. But I might not make it.”

“Ethel, if you don’t make it and you’re in the back seat of my car, the nurse will be with you and I’ll just keep on driving ’til we get back here. Then we’ll take care of the other stuff.”

“Could we really do that?”

“I think so. I just have to find a nurse to go with us and we’ll have to get permission from your family. Other than that, I think we could work it out.”

I left her bedside utterly elated, hopeful that we might be able to fulfill someone’s honest-to-goodness, real-life bucket list. Sadly, family was worried she might die on the way, even though arrangements were made and everything could be taken care of. They just couldn’t see her going to Tyler, even though she would be made entirely comfortable. So they chose not to let her go.
Just last week I heard another similar bucket list. Again, it was to go back to East Texas (what the heck is it with East Texas, anyway?). Again, I knew it would never happen.
Why is it that doctors and families will insist that patients fight a losing battle for three months in utter agony rather than live pain-free for three days in the fulfillment of a dream? Maybe that’s the reason the big-screen version of The Bucket List wasn’t the blockbuster that it might have been: because our own lists and values are so small, pathetic, and trivial. More to the point, our bucket lists as passed on to our families are as follows:

  • Live at any cost
  • Do nothing to rock the status quo
  • Have no dreams when you get sick

I’ve always been angry that Ethel didn’t get her trip. Why didn’t she? Who gave her family the right to rob her of this?

The thing about a Bucket List is that you have to choose to live it. As we age, our bucket lists tend to winnow down. The bucket lists of most of the elderly do not include jumping out of an airplane or driving a Shelby Mustang, as in the movie. For most elderly it breaks down to things like placing bare feet in green grass under a large shade tree in Tyler, Texas. We do them no favors by robbing them of their bucket lists. We do ourselves no favors by robbing them of their bucket lists. Our children see how we treat the lists of our own kin.
And, what’s on your bucket list?

Let them go under before you go after them…

July 12th, 2008 by Michael Davis

As a teen I was only marginally more athletic than I am now (which is almost none at all). Still, I liked to swim and felt I could do so quite naturally. I never cared for speed swimming, just swimming for pleasure and survival.

One summer I took the American Red Cross Senior Lifesaving and Water Safety class. It was a heck of a lot of work but pretty fun, too. One day we were instructed on approaching a drowning victim as they are struggling: “There are times,” the instructor said, “when it’s just best to let the victim go under. If you go in after them while they’re still struggling, unless you’re incredibly strong, there’s a good chance they’ll take you down with them.”

“But,” she continued, “if you let them sink under they may be too tired to resist as much, and you may have a better chance to help them.”

Of course, they also gave ways to help disarm victims so you could help them. But, as long as they were going to fight you, you were always at increased risk.

When I was slightly younger, I was in the Boy Scouts of America. One summer my dad (now deceased) and I went on a fifty-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail. In preparation we went on many short hikes in the Shenandoah National Park. While these were long and arduous treks, they were amazing in their beauty.

Prior to our hikes we were given careful preparatory instructions: “Keep at least ten paces away from the hiker in front of you. If you are too close behind and they get into a snake den or take a fall off a ledge, you won’t be able to stop yourself, and you won’t be able to help them.”

Both of these examples contain wisdom that caregivers (and co-dependents) desperately need to take to heart: You cannot save a loved one if you yourself are not safe. I know: that’s easier said than done. But, it has to be done, it has to be intentional, and it has to be a choice we make.

There are a million reasons that we can call to heart to ignore the warnings that we must protect ourselves. But, we imperil ourselves and our loved ones if we fail to heed this wisdom. I have sat beside many wives (and husbands) who stayed at their husbands (and wives) bedsides while they were sick. They stayed so long with no respite that they deeply endangered their own physical and emotional health.

Guilt is a great thing when it serves as an alarm that we need to pay attention to something. But when it drives us to endanger ourselves, and as a result our loved ones, guilt becomes an illness, an enemy.

Occasionally folks write ElderHope out of a pool of guilt over feeling that they are not doing enough to care for their loved one. But like the first two stories above demonstrate, often the best thing we can do is stand back, rest, step away, until the situation is again safe for us to step forward. Only then can we be effective in caring for those we love.

Militant Atheism: The New Fundamentalists

May 31st, 2008 by Michael Davis

Let’s be clear: I have no agenda when it comes to another’s faith preferences. I have enough issues living my own life without trying to impose my values on you. If you ask me about my faith tradition, I’ll skim over it and likely move on pretty quickly. Would that all the atheists were the same.

In a visit with a couple about a year ago, the wife was going to surgery. I visited with the couple merely to assist with a paperwork matter and assure them that I was available to help if there was anything they needed. As I left the room, I said to the husband (while the wife was gone for testing) that I would keep them both in my prayers, that I cared about their wellbeing. That was the entire extent of anything religious I said. Before I closed the door, he replied: “She doesn’t need your prayers.”

Similarly, last summer when visiting my local Barnes and Noble , I noticed a whole table filled with recent diatribes against God, Christianity, and any other faith tradition (conveniently enough failing to recognize that atheism and agnosticism are also faith traditions). As I read the flyleaf of each book, it became clear that bashing people of faith is becoming a cherished indoor sport.

Some of those books were quite straightforward in stating their case that faith traditions as a whole hobble our development as a global society. It was quite clear from several of these books that they were making a case that faith practice, faith values, and faith traditions have little or no place in public life, if any place at all. Indeed, they seemed to feel that faith practice was a sort of mental illness.

Does any of this ring a bell? You’ll have to pull out your history helmet to be able to know what I’m talking about. Yes, we’re talking about the reign of Hitler. And where did Hitler’s cleansing process begin? That’s right:With the mentally ill.

We began this essay by saying that we have no beef with the faith preferences of others. Indeed, I have known many atheists and agnostics whom I deeply respected. I just want people to be able to hold the beliefs they feel the most comfortable with and find the most convincing. If that’s atheism or agnosticism, go for it.

For that matter, I’m equally sickened by those of religious persuasion who feel the need to judge atheists and agnostics. They are fundamentalists (not in a historical sense) who roughly parallel many of the other fundamentalists who so currently trouble our world. Hear this: those dogmatists who subscribe to the position of the radical atheists are no less fundamentalists than are those who seek to coerce others into a particular faith tradition. They, too, seek an Inquisition of sorts. They, too, can imagine society as being better without the presence of a belief in God. The only question that remains to be asked of them is how far they would go to see that happen?

In the recent movie Expelled, Ben Stein takes to task the educational establishment: Not for teaching evolution, but for rooting out anyone who has questions about evolution or holds a position that doubts evolution. In short, those who question evolution don’t even have the benefit of a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.

We began this essay with a story about a woman who’s husband says she Doesn’t need your prayers. I’m not sure what book of etiquette these folks were reading from, but clearly they missed an essential lesson in the pottie training section.  And, that’s where I fear all this is heading. When someone says, I’m praying for you, the appropriate response is, Thank you. You don’t have to believe in prayer yourself. Assuming the person is being at all honest, the only reason they’d say something like that is because they care and because they feel that prayer may have some value on another’s behalf. It is an act of kindness. What is wrong with that? Are they not allowed to say the word prayer in the presence of these zealots?

Not so many years ago when you went to the airport you would almost certainly be accosted by some dogma peddler selling his/her faith tradition. They could and would harass passersby. Restrictions were created that made them stay in a little space off to the side of the terminal corridor. They were not allowed to step outside of that space and witness. Perhaps it’s come to that for this new breed of atheists. Perhaps they need a booth?

For years, we have been warned by left-leaning media about the dangers of intolerance. Yet here, on a Barnes and Noble display, and in an innocuous contact where someone of faith says in the best way they know how that they care, we find two front-and-center demonstrations of the direction that society may be moving. Apparently, it’s increasingly okay to be intolerant of those of faith. And, when I look at history, more than making me angry, it makes me a little afraid.

My Bad

February 23rd, 2008 by Michael Davis

Recently, my son, a teenager who is quite dear to me, forgot that we were supposed to meet at a certain time. I traveled a good while to pick him up. He didn’t show up. In a later conversation, he said with regard to his error, “My Bad.”

Now, I know that this is a colloquialism that is quite popular these days. He probably hears it all the time at school. So, this is no slam on him. But, it leads to a bigger question, one that I’m sure you can see coming: “Who authorized replacing I’m sorry, I was wrong with My Bad?”

In a best case scenario, My Bad communicates the following: “Listen. This time, and only this time, the ball of responsibility happened to land in my court. Next time, I fully expect it to land in yours. In this particular instance I’ll accept that it may be that I messed up. But, in the scheme of things, it’s much more likely that anything that goes wrong will ultimately be your fault.”

On the other hand, I’m sorry, I was wrong actually takes responsibility. It does not imply that you fully expect the other person to be the regular screw-up. It does not minimize the error. It simply acknowledges that we erred and that we care that we were wrong. There are other versions of this that come to mind. One is, “I messed up. Forgive me.”

Part of being an adult is taking responsibility for one’s actions. With this new quip, “My Bad,” popular culture has just taken a big step toward locking people into a cycle of immaturity. It’s time to pass the word that My Bad is unacceptable.

What’s Worth Staying Up For

November 21st, 2007 by Michael Davis

To place a ragged and gently moistened towel,

On the feverish brow of your child; To rub his back,

Until you both awaken, hours later, fever gone, Bathed in Sun’s rays.


To summertime fish in the light of a kerosene lantern,

Your sister only feet away, trying to make sense of meteors and love,

of what made us each the way we are, the way we chose to be.


To feel love, to watch the Universe crossing the street,

To be present when the Healing occurs,

These are worth being up for - for God’s sake, stay awake!

On a small world, far away

November 7th, 2007 by Michael Davis

Tonight, at the end of a rather full and long day, Barb, I and our two Goldens, Jeffie and Jillie, went outside for a walk in our rather well-lit neighborhood.

In recent days, we went on a trip to Fort Davis, Texas and the Fredericksburg, Texas. There in Fort Davis we toured McDonald Observatory. It was a wonderful and surrealistic time watching the full moon in all it’s magnified glory. We also got to see some other highlights from the stellar wonderlands. But, perhaps the most amazing part of the viewing that night was to see the unexpected Comet Holmes. Only recently, it burst out of nowhere and seemed to explode.

Tonight, on our walk, we got to see it again. Such sights remind me of how small we are, perhaps even inconsequential. Rather than leaving me with a sinking feeling, I draw comfort from the fact that - even with all the incalculable objects in the Universe at any given time billions are dying, billions are being born - the Universe has its own alarm clock for what’s supposed to happen when. It all looks so beautiful and it’s all going on just fine without any help from me. Whatever (or whoever) holds it all together can probably manage without interference.
Do yourself a favor.  Pull out the binoculars tonight and go outside with someone you love. Behold the wonder of the Universe. It may help you to reorganize your perspective. We all need to find our Place.
And, to find, Comet Holmes, go here.

Disney and Einstein

August 1st, 2007 by Michael Davis

This past winter, I won a trip to Disneyworld through a sweepstakes on the Kim Komando Show, a nationally broadcast radio program about All Things Digital (It is, by the way, a wonderful program and resource for anyone trying to learn about computers, as well as those who are old hands). What stands out to me as more than shear coincidence is this: that while I was reading a biography of Albert Einstein by Isaacson, we ended up going on this trip to Disneyworld. Why amazing? For the following reasons:

  • Because Einstein and Walt Disney were both beginning some of their most formidable groundwork in nearly the exact same years;
  • Both of them could visualize beyond any of their peers the principles upon which their chosen science lay;
  • Both of them brought the full force of their imaginations to bear upon their field of endeavor.
  • Finally, they unequivocally and unabashedly refused to have their minds tethered by what had gone before.

And, I asked myself, “What if I chose to do that in my personal life, in my professional life? What if the hospital I work at (one of the best in the nation, I will add) chose to do more than procedures, choosing instead to entirely re-imagine the heart and its care from the ground up, revolutionizing not only the procedures but indeed how we communicate about the heart?”

What if, when patients came in for a procedure, they learned Disney-style why they were there, what went wrong, how we would fix it, and how they might prevent it from happening again?

What l realized from Einstein and Disney was that each one changed the world - one in physics, one in entertainment and understanding. And, as I beheld the wonders of Disneyworld, I sat in amazement thinking that perhaps if I chose to really imagine, and courageously pursue that belief and imagination, perhaps I could - even in these later years - still do some great things.

Your own close encounter

May 13th, 2007 by Michael Davis

I remember the night I saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind for the first time. It was at the mobile home of a neighbor in the dark back country roads outside Chattanooga, Tennessee. I’m going strictly by memory right now but if it serves correctly, the beginning is marked by ocean liners that have been misplaced, missing monuments, and generally remarkable and humanly impossible things. There’s also that annoying sequence of musical notes that baffles and plagues the scientists who wonder of its significance and meaning. The notes are truly haunting.

They also haunt Richard Dreyfuss and several other compadres, so much so that they leave kith and kin in order to follow what some might term whimsy. Perhaps it is whimsy. At least the Dreamkillers would have us think so.

In the end of the movie, Dreyfuss joins the aliens, entering a new life entirely juxtaposed to the one he lived before. He jumps off the train of life as he has known it. He bets his very life on the belief that there is reason to follow dreams, take risks, and discover the bigger picture. He votes for mystery rather than complicity. I love that final scene, all the people leaving the alien craft and some getting on for, hopefully, the adventure of a lifetime. The craft is surrounded by hundreds of people. In their hearts I think most of the observers are wanting to get on, but afraid of what it will mean, what lies ahead.

If I could interview just one movie director it would be Steven Spielberg. Somehow he has learned to make the conventional unconventional, the routine hair-raising. I think I remember reading a long time back that Spielberg was having problems conceptualizing the craft and the surroundings in that final scene of Close Encounters. If memory serves me correctly, he had driven up to the top of one of the mountains that ring Los Angeles. He stared out over the magnificent lights of the city hoping for just the right solution to materialize in the quietness of that space. Indeed it did. Being awed by the lights of the city, he wondered what those city lights would look like if they were all turned upside down and made to look as if they were coming down from the sky. And thus was born the final scene of the movie.

In this moment, as in so many others, little makes very much sense. Life seems to be a few dissonant notes, jagged, with no apparent rhythm or pattern. But for those who are willing to follow the broken strands of sound, to embrace the pain and the the losses, the music will one day make sense and be beautiful beyond belief. Indeed, it will welcome others into your story, into the hearth of your own heart’s kitchen. Often we have to leave the comfort of home, the safety of the familiar, to find the music that will free our souls from the tyranny of the urgent.

Written by Mike Davis June 7, 1995

Health Care: Taking responsibility

May 3rd, 2007 by Michael Davis

We in modern society are fond of complaining about the health care system. Indeed, complaints about modern health care are ubiquitous - like talking about the weather: “Was it raining when you came in? Darn if my hemorrhoids aren’t acting up again. You never see the same doctor these days.”

See what I mean? I know, the example is a little extreme (but not by much - look at prescription advertising for medications on television these days). But, it still speaks to a broader issue: Our sense - perhaps our fear - that health care won’t take care of us now if we need it, and more anxiety-provoking still, will not be there when we need it as old folks.

As a health care professional (and married to another quite fetching health care professional), I am deeply familiar with these fears both on a personal and a professional level. But as I was reading an article this morning, I realized that I am a part of that system each day for each patient I see. Indeed, I may be the whole of the system for that patient on that day. In four hours when I begin seeing patients, I will either cast sunshine or shadow over the patients I am seeing who will be having a heart cath, or perhaps a catheter ablation to fix a unstable heart beat. The system may very well succeed or fail based on what I do or say. Even if the procedure is a success, the encounter with the system may fail based on how I or my co-workers take responsibility for the well-being of this patient in this room at this time and how well I do what I said I would do.

I fear that we hide behind our systems. Our hospital coalitions are even called systems. When did we buy into such an impersonal way of saying that we are caring for people? As long as we hide behind our systems, will our health care professionals ever fully own that it is people, persons, that we care for?

We’re linking to Technorati!

March 27th, 2007 by Michael Davis

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