The Bucket List - before there was one

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?

3 Responses to “The Bucket List - before there was one”

  1. 4Hope Says:

    As usual, you said it just like it is, Mike . . . we are so afraid to die yet are incapable of stating what it is that we are living for. What really matters to us - what values do we hold near to our hearts? What simple pleasures bring joy to our daily routine? If we know these things, we won’t really need a Bucket list. We won’t need to wait until we’re near death to finally decide what we want to do before we die. Although our wish list might not be completely fulfilled with our last breath, we can die knowing that we lived, pretty much, as we wanted to - as we needed to - as we were born to live.

    So, I ask myself, “What would I want on my Bucket list?” And we both know pretty much the places I still would like to see here on this planet. These places to visit would not really be a regret if I were never able to visit them with you. Not being with you, however, would be a regret. Not being with all my family and friends in this lifetime would be a regret.

    There’s my list. I do hope that if there’s anyone out there who actually reads ElderHope and this article will be able to embrace their own dreams, wishes and core beliefs and strive to live their Bucket list.
    Your spouse, Barb

  2. laurenk Says:

    I saw this movie recently, and was a bit disappointed. Sure, Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson were fine actors. But, while their visits to the pyramids, Eiffel Tower, Great Wall, etc. all made for beautiful cinematography, the story would have been better and more realistic if it actually focused more on things normal people would have on their list. As you alluded to in your story about Ethel, many of us in our last days would just want to spend it with our closest friends and family. Seeing the world would be nice, but would that really be a regret if it’s your last day on earth?

    What I found the most effective was the life review that Morgan Freeman was doing as he was on his travels in the movie. Reflecting on our life experiences, maybe even writing those down and sharing them with our loved ones, I think that’s the process we all need to go through to come to peace with our exits. Until then, bucket lists may only be scratching the surface.

  3. Michael Davis Says:

    Great comment, Lauren!

    I enjoyed reading what you wrote, especially “Bucket Lists may only be scratching the surface.” That is so true. I guess the thing that touched me about the idea of a Bucket List was this: As a society we approach our mortality in a way that is devoid of imagination, passion, and hope. The idea of a Bucket List allows us to quite literally re-imagine the potential of Life’s Final Chapters as one of hopefulness and creativity. It allows us to invest the days where we are able to live well with the knowledge that such times are limited.

    But, your point is well taken: What does it say about us as persons if our Bucket List is mostly made up of going to distant and exotic locations. Or, having some amazing experience?

    My wife and I never really talked about a Bucket List. We have talked often about what we would regret not having witnessed or done: We do have a mental list of what those things are.

    On my list is to see the sun rise on Cape Spear ( Per my internet sources, this is the farthest point east on the North American continent. For those who watch the sun rise there on any given day, they are the first ones to see the sun rise in North America. I want to see that someday. But, if I don’t get to see that while I hold my wife’s hand, it will have meant very little. Which I think is exactly your point. And, it was well-made.


    Mike Davis

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