The Bucket List


I suppose that every cancer patient has a bucket list. You really never know what is going to happen: you have quite a high chance of suffering a stroke or heart attack during treatment and ending up passing away, or you might get an aggressive mutation that lets the cancer spread out of control and it overwhelms your meager defenses, despite your best efforts to be healthy. But even if you don’t have cancer there are so many things that can end your life too early… do you have places you’ve always wanted to see? Things you always wanted to do? There really is no time like the present, when you don’t have any idea how many more turns of the earth you have left, to do something that you can look back on for the rest of your days with a smile and a warm, refreshed heart.

Here is a principle you can live your life by!

For many, many years I always have said I don’t have a bucket list, because I have been lucky enough to do everything I ever wanted to accomplish in my life: I have the most wonderful people in my life, my family and friends, and even if I haven’t specifically said it to you yet, I love each and every one of you. Love is so much more important than travel or anything you can own. The most precious moments I remember are meals and experiences shared with the ones I love.

My friend Kat once sent me a link to an astounding cover of a Megan Trainor song, Like I’m Gonna Lose You. I’ve since added it to my chemo playlist and the lyrics get everything right:

Show Lyrics

Part of me wants to just stay home and spend all my free time visiting with friends and family. And I do! And yet there is a deeply nomadic part of me that has the urge to wander the earth, because sometimes everyday life can be confining. As often happens in life, bills need to be paid, kids need to be fed, everything in the house seems to be falling apart around me and I barely have the time to patch it all together. It’s way too easy to relegate all your dreams to the back burner when you’re busy playing Whack-A-Mole with everything else.

There are so many things out in the world to see and do, and most of those things would be fun, but when the number of your remaining days is uncertain, it helps to prioritize those dreams; and perhaps the best way to do that, I figured, was to finally embrace the idea of a bucket list. Most of the things I would place on a bucket list are projects that would take hundreds or thousands of hours, and I have realized that to be on my bucket list, I would have to accomplish it in a very finite amount of time like a few days or a couple of weeks.

Really the most important thing on my bucket list lately was to visit my cancer buddy LP (and do so regularly), and I accomplished that a couple of weeks ago. It was all I had hoped for and more: an airplane adventure, good Cuban food, a bit of sightseeing, and the company of some people I love most in the world.

For my next stunt, there is one thing that my mind keeps coming back to. When I was growing up, with my parents and sister (and sometimes with our dog Tiny and my parakeet Hershey), we would drive all the way across the country whenever the U. S. Army stationed us in some new place. I remember in those days, while we chugged cross-country in our Volkswagen Squareback that we called Mildred, my sister and I would sing popular songs and show tunes until my parents’ ears would bleed and I’m sure they spent the hours praying desperately for us to fall asleep. But when we weren’t singing we did spend many, many hours just staring out the window at the cornfields going by, or the canyons and mesas drifting past, and somehow the experience of passing over the landscapes and vistas of the United States became some of my most precious memories. Even the memories of breakdowns and getting epically lost are good recollections, like the time we pulled off the road going up a hill in a snowstorm in New York state and the car had stalled and wouldn’t start again. My Dad was able to diagnose it was an ignition problem. He removed the steering wheel and handed it to my Mom, who looked down at the steering wheel in her hands, re-evaluated her life and said, “That’s IT!!! I want out of this marriage!” Fortunately she stuck with it and we suffered many many more memorable road trips together, full of show tunes, bee stings, rustic camping, overlooks, hikes, restaurant dives, hotels with broken air conditioning, even an urgent #2 bathroom stop in what turned out to be a homeless person’s forest bedroom.

There is a song I always associate with those road trips, it is On the Road by Carl Franzen performed by John Denver. It captures exactly the feelings of the lonely road, even with car breakdowns and getting lost:

Show Lyrics

Another great set of childhood memories for me was when we lived in Japan, we traveled by train to see Kyoto and Kamakura, and I just loved the train system, and the effortless way the trains went clanking down the rails past villages, gardens, forests, and farms. I thought at the time that Japan must have invented rail travel, since they had so many trains everywhere, and they had the fastest and smoothest train, the shinkansen.

I had heard before of the Amtrak Zephyr train that goes from Emeryville, CA to Chicago, IL over the course of two and a half days, with an observation car where you can take in the breathtaking sights of the American west flying by, and I always dreamed of getting a bedroom sleeper car cabin for two so that me and my wife could make the trip together. I also want to visit my cousins in Chicago and I have long wanted to visit the U-505 housed at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.

It isn’t particularly cheap to travel in the sleeper car, as meals and stuff are included, so I imagined the expense would be achievable with just the two of us. But when I mentioned this dream to the children they were super excited to go, and I had to contemplate the expense of getting three of the 2-person cabins, and airplane tickets to California, and back from Chicago. After pricing it all, the cost was daunting particularly when dropping several thousand dollars on cancer scans and treatments, hitting my out of pocket maximum but also having to cover the costs of tests and procedures the insurance refused to cover. Honestly, all the expense meant that I kept the whole plan in my heart as a sort of pipe dream on the side, something that would be nice but probably nothing that I would get around to doing.

I can’t really express how shocked I was this weekend to log into Facebook and see our friend AW started a GoFundMe to finance the trip, and after our families did a lot of publicity, the campaign had already reached its goal when I noticed it. I was stunned at how many people responded so generously to make this trip happen, and my heart is full of emotion at all the prayers and good wishes I receive every day.

So many people offer us so much assistance, bringing us meals during surgery or giving us GrubHub gift certificates, which very directly helped me to rest and heal from my surgeries and treatments since I cook the family meals at home when I am feeling well enough and it gave me a well-needed break when I needed the extra rest. Some friends and my children have helped drive me to lab appointments or radiation and chemotherapy treatments.

It is difficult for me to accept the heartfelt charity of others. There are so many people I love in my life who need some kind of help from me, be it companionship in times of loneliness, to shopping for food and protein shakes for the homebound, helping fix home carpentry issues, fixing computers and technology, setting up networking, teaching people how to use their phones and bluetooth on their car stereos, assembling furniture, fixing minor car issues, and so many other things, that I prioritize all of these loving acts of service over time I would like to spend on my own projects. But there is no greater love than to pour yourself out for the good of others. I love the St. Ignatius prayer:

Teach me to serve as you deserve, to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to labor and not to seek to rest, to give of my self and not ask for a reward, Except the reward of knowing that I am doing your will.

So I realize this is why I find it difficult to ask for or to receive anything in return. And it’s why this gift is so very special, not because I get to spend precious time on a trip with my family, but because the people I love wanted us to make beautiful memories together. I am incredibly thankful and my heart is bursting with appreciation!

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