Opinion | One Thing I Don’t Plan to Do Before I Die Is Make a Bucket List

I wish someone had told me that the end of a life is a mathematical equation.

At 35, the doctors tell me I have Stage IV colon cancer and a slim chance of survival.

Suddenly years dwindle into months, months into days, and I begin to count them. All my dreams, ambitions, friendships, petty fights, vacations and bedtimes with a boy in dinosaur pajamas must be squeezed into a finite and dwindling number of hours, minutes, seconds.

My precarious diagnosis triggers a series of mental health assessments at the cancer clinic during which lovely and well-meaning counselors, all seemingly named Caitlin, are telling me to “find my meaning.” They wonder if I should consider making a “bucket list,” as many other patients have found the process to be clarifying.

What new skill could I learn? What classic movies should I watch? Is there a passion I might reignite? Cross-stitching? Restoring a vintage car? Soaring in a hot-air balloon?

I attempt to take notes while they are talking, then find myself searching online libraries for the popularization of the term “bucket list” followed by a long period of processing my disappointment that it only became common after the eponymous Jack Nicholson, Morgan Freeman movie in 2007. Boring. But I resolve to follow the lead of the Caitlins nonetheless. After all, what do I know about dying? I’ve never done it before.

I fish around for inspiration in old journals of mine, and one night, right before bed, I find a list dating back decades. I lay the journal flat on the comforter. It stretches across many pages in blue ink, pencil, then a red scrawl as new fantasies were caught and bottled like fireflies.

#5 See the pyramids.

#16 Take a scooter tour around Prince Edward Island.

#42 Publish a book.

#81 Make decent bread.

#86 Explore Venice with my parents.

I am carefully arranged on pillows to keep my weight off the chemotherapy infusion pack. Shifting and harrumphing and rearranging blankets, I turn to my husband, Toban, and ask him,

“Does this count as a bucket list?”

I have been keeping lists like this since the 11th grade, when I was spirited away with other earnest Canadian teenagers to a conference center for a leadership program. We built bridges out of masking tape and copies of The Winnipeg Free Press. I found plausible reasons to hide in the bathroom instead of holding hands with beautiful, beautiful Scott Stewart in an icebreaker game as it was well reported that I had sweaty hands. But the culmination of the weekend was the rousing speech by a former Canadian football player who was making the rounds as a “life coach.”

We would need to become winners, he said, like a ragtag group of young men he once knew who, in 1990, won the Canadian Football League’s highest honors as the Grey Cup-winning team. Go Blue Bombers! We cheered. We learned about running our own plays in the Game of Life. Then we were instructed to write down specific goals to achieve before our clocks ran out.

“Ah, there it is.” I point to the page, holding it up for Toban to see. “Number three. Perform a cello solo.” In high school, that was the biggest dream I could imagine. I wanted to win an orchestra competition in which the prize was to play with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. Eventually I lost badly and had to watch from the audience as the winner, in an impossibly fluffy ball gown, sawed through Tchaikovsky in a flurry of bow strokes and crinoline.

“But number five. See the pyramids.” I sigh. I have been preparing to see the pyramids since elementary school when my sister and I learned Egyptian hieroglyphs and sent each other secret notes that read “jackal, scarab, bread, bread, bread” because we had misunderstood that the images should be read phonetically and had used them mostly to ask my mom for snacks. I wrote school essays about my future career in Egyptology for years afterward, that is, until I discovered that the great pyramids had already been plundered.

I return to the list, paging through, and checking off a few as I go. We did, in fact, buy a hot tub. I planted that herb garden. And last spring we fulfilled my parents’ dream of traveling together to Venice, learning to accept the merits of squid ink pasta and becoming emotionally invested in the rise and fall of its coastal empire. I strolled beside canals picturing return visits while my parents cheerily said their hellos and goodbyes to each monument and cobbled square.

“When I wrote this list, I wasn’t trying to imagine wrapping up my life. I suppose, I was just … dreaming,” I say to Toban, trailing off.

“Oh, honey.” He wraps his arms around me, careful with the wires and tubes. There is so much more silence between us now, as we walk closer to the edge, but I can hear my heart thrumming in my ears as I imagine crawling out of my own throat, out of this body, away, away, away.

It had not occurred to me, until now, that life’s wide road narrows to a dot on the horizon. I enjoyed the somedays I learned to conjure as a spectacularly unpopular child with a useful imagination. For several summers, I dreamed up a life on a farm on Prince Edward Island to attend a country school with Anne of Green Gables and her kindred spirits. I slept with clothespins pinching the tops of my ears for only a week before my mother persuaded me that I would never achieve Anne’s elfin features. “Bowler ears are a life sentence, I’m afraid,” my mother said, so I grew out my hair.

I practiced sailing knots, memorized the parts of the ship and chapped my hands learning basic knife skills in preparation for seafaring as a mistreated orphan who craved a life of freedom. I founded the “Best Friends Writing Club” to allow other 12-year-olds to decline the opportunity to read my original works about a fierce young huntress with an unshakable bond to her horse Artemis. On the surface, I lived in a squat bungalow on the Canadian prairies through a seven-month winter. I was subject to my father’s insistence that ground beef and a can of vegetable soup was a viable dish called “Hamburger Soup Goop.” But I lived many lives nonetheless.

I did not understand that one future comes at the exclusion of all others.

Everybody pretends that you die only once. But that’s not true. You can die a thousand possible futures in the course of a single, stupid life.

A bucket list disguises a dark question as a challenge: What do you want to do before you die? We all want, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, “to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” But is the answer to that desire a set of experiences? Should we really focus on how many moments we can collect?

The history of the term “bucket list” is relatively new. In the 19th century, the term became a horrible reference to the act of either “kicking the bucket” from under your own feet (suicide) or having it knocked out from underneath you (homicide). But the idea that we should seek out a series of defining experiences is as old as our historical record. The ancient Greeks compiled a list of marvels known as the Seven Wonders of the World, including the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Pyramids of Giza. Travelers in the Roman Empire could consult guidebooks to steer them to famous landmarks, oracles and battlegrounds.

With the ascendance of Christianity under Emperor Constantine in the fourth century came a different form of bucket list: the pilgrimage to places made sacred by Jesus and the saints. Churches and shrines were built over those spots and so began a holy travel circuit that believers have been making ever since. (Be sure to stop by the shrine in Rome displaying the gridiron which roasted St. Lawrence alive, making him the patron saint of short-order cooks.)

Throughout the medieval era, those roads were teeming with pilgrims setting out and returning from epic journeys to see burial sites and relics scattered across Christendom from Canterbury to Jerusalem. This kind of bucket list captures the stirrings of our curiosity and wanderlust, devotion and enterprise, all of which pull us toward unknown adventure. It calls us on a hero’s journey.

The modern bucket list is something else entirely. With a hundred or so books with titles like “1,000 Places to See Before You Die,” there are enough activities in the modern bucket list industry to keep people industriously morbid. It is a form of experiential capitalism. Hang gliding. Snorkeling. Times Square on New Year’s Eve and Paris in the spring.

The problem with aspirational lists, of course, is that they often skip the point entirely. Instead of helping us grapple with our finitude, they approximate infinity. They imply that with unlimited time and resources, we can do anything, be anyone. We can become more adventurous by jumping out of airplanes, more traveled by visiting every continent, or more cultured by reading the most famous books of all time. With the right list, we will never starve with the hunger of want.

A few years ago, the father of one of my divinity students discovered that he was in the last months of life. Much to everyone’s astonishment, his father didn’t have a wish list. In fact, his father didn’t wish for anything at all. Not a trip. Not a meal. He sat contentedly in his overstuffed recliner in the living room humming about how much he loved his family.

I think back on this story and wonder: Do people age into acceptance? Is this personality or maturity or a natural realism? Had he already accomplished what he wanted to do? Had he seen his kids get married, reached an anniversary or hit some milestone? What amounted to enough?

“I don’t feel that way,” I tell the Caitlins, matter-of-factly.

I want two kids.

I want to travel the world.

I want to be the one to hold my mother’s hand at the end.

All my life I have teased my mother mercilessly about the time she interrupted a raucous gathering of her daughters with the announcement: “Wait! One moment! Girls! I just need to tell you. Girls. Thank you for your attention. This will only take a minute. Girls, I wanted you to know …. We have three kinds of apples.” The produce drawer at the bottom of the fridge is open and my mother is gesturing importantly, but no one can hear her anymore because we are apoplectic. The phrase “three kinds of apples” lived in Bowler infamy, until, of course, I realized that in motherhood, the vast majority of my mental capacity would be consumed by inventorying items in case of emergency.

I am taking stock all the time. Are we out of paper towels? Who is getting your mom from the airport? Did you remember your brother’s birthday? I have to send this email by 5 p.m. Each day sits in piles, there to be sorted between the things worth remembering and three kinds of apples.

But it is much easier to count items than to know what counts.

“Make a list,” prods another Caitlin, so I try again and again and again. Lists of places to go. Dreams to interpret. Careers I might have enjoyed. Enormous statues I want to see. Languages I have learned and promptly forgotten. My line items are alternatively boring, plausible, unlikely and all of them seem to include an unmet Canadian need to drive a Zamboni.

What strange math. There is nothing like the tally of a life. All of our accomplishments, ridiculous. All of our striving, unnecessary. Our lives are unfinished and unfinishable. We do too much, never enough and are done before we’ve even started. We can only pause for a minute, clutching our to-do lists, at the precipice of another bounded day. The ache for more — the desire for life itself — is the hardest truth of all.

Kate Bowler (@KatecBowler) is an associate professor at Duke Divinity School, the host of the podcast “Everything Happens” and the author of the forthcoming book, “No Cure For Being Human,” from which this essay is adapted.

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