Wissot: Lucky people keep a bucket list
I always thought the term “bucket list” originated with the 2007 movie starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman where two terminally ill old men leave their hospital beds and embark on a journey to fulfill their last wishes and final dreams before they die.
I was wrong. The term “bucket list” goes back much further. In the 19th century, the term became a horrible reference to the act of either “kicking the bucket” from under your feet (suicide) or having it knocked out from underneath you (homicide). I learned those interesting facts by reading a column in The New York Times by Kate Bowler titled “Why I’m Not Making a Bucket List.” I’ll get to why Ms. Bowler chose not to make a bucket list later.
There are many good reasons for not drawing up a bucket list. Being young is one of the most obvious. When you are in childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, you think you have all the time in the world to see what you haven’t seen and do what you haven’t done.
In middle age (40s to 60s) you are too busy raising a family, building a career, saving for the kids’ college educations, planning for retirement, and there’s no time to think about before-you-die pilgrimages.
Bucket lists are a luxury for people like me who are on the backside of life and have time to spare and money to spend.
Ms. Bowler was not lucky like I’ve been. An associate professor at Duke Divinity School, she writes that: “At 35, the doctors tell me I have Stage IV colon cancer and a slim chance of survival.” She struggles in the column to decide how to spend what little is left of her life.
I haven’t been told by doctors that I have a finite amount of time to live. But I can look to my family’s genetic history to know I’m not likely to live deep into my 80s or even get a whiff of my 90s. At 76, I’ve already lived seven years longer than my father did. With the exception of one grandfather, none of the men on either side of my family made it out of their 70s. As a kid I remember many of them dropping dead in their 60s from heart attacks while attending a bar mitzvah or wedding.
My mother lived to 81 and I would be happy to steal another four-and-a-half years for myself. But if I don’t, it’s OK. I’m not being cocky about death; I’m reluctant to die any sooner than the expiration date imprinted on my DNA. I just know all good things come to an end, including our existence here on Earth.
My life could certainly have ended at 35 the way Kate Bowler has been told hers will. She doesn’t deserve to die so young, and I don’t deserve to live as long as I have. I’ve kept reasonably fit and not eaten a particularly harmful diet. But so have many people who have died much younger than me. Fertilizing flowers could have been what I’d be doing now, had it not been for the vagaries of chance.
The way I look at it, I’m playing now with house money given to me by the big casino in the sky. At some point, the casino will stop funding me and rescind my gambling privileges. It’s like Santa Claus comes to your house and brings you great presents for 80 years. Then one Christmas, the Angel of Death shows up instead. Bummer. No more goodies for you. But it doesn’t negate the 80 times Santa climbed down your chimney.
I don’t think any of my philosophical musings about death would bring much comfort to someone who knows that this coming Christmas will be their last. People who know that death is imminent plan for the future quite differently from the rest of us. None of us know how we would react if handed a terminal diagnosis. I agree with Mike Tyson’s line that “everybody has a plan until they get hit.”
At the end of her column, Bowler references a story about one of her divinity students whose father is terminally ill. Everyone in the family was astonished he didn’t have a wish list identifying things in his life he wanted to do before he died. Instead he was described as spending his remaining days sitting in his “overstuffed recliner in his living room humming about how much he loved his family.”
I suspect I won’t be able to replicate his contemplative contentment when my time comes.
I’m lucky I don’t even have to try until then.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at email@example.com.