Essential American Wisdom

The Poignant Bucket List

It’s interesting how seemingly casual, light-hearted conversations can sometimes take on lives of their own and wind up in places that were never intended. I suppose it happens often enough to be no great surprise, but it seems to me that it’s a bit more rare to find yourself still thinking, many days later, about some of what was said and whether there might be some things in your life that needed to change or should be done differently going forward. The name for these sorts of experiences is “cathartic” and the older we are when they happen, the more likely they tend to stick with you for a while.
Such was the case in a recent conversation with a very dear friend.

We were yukking it up over a couple places we had each frequented, years ago, with our respective families and, completely out-of-left-field, the topic came up of how things might be when we find ourselves gently slipping into the warm bath of our life’s final days before stepping off this mortal coil. And don’t be alarmed… it was by no means a sad or morbid exchange… it was simply an imagining of where we would be and under what circumstances we would most likely find ourselves when those final times came. Think of it as the conversation you might have with someone close to you after you have finished writing your bucket list but only just started, wistfully, to envision in your mind’s eye just how things might ultimately play out.

In the days after that conversation I found myself thinking back to the loved ones that have since passed, my mother and father in particular, and all the others that knew their deaths were imminent but were no longer able to articulate how well they felt they had done with their lives or how far they felt they had gotten toward checking off any of the items that might have been on their own bucket lists. I can say with certainty that neither of my parents got very far… big ‘D’ dreamers, little ‘a’ achievers they were… although they were certainly never lacking enthusiasm for the next big adventure or life-changing idea they wanted to go chase after.
It’s hard to know for sure whether it was a blessing or a curse that I was by the side of each of my parents to see them off on whatever journey follows this life although, by the grace of God, I know Mom was in no physical pain. In the case of my father, God rest him, being able to watch the peace finally return to him in his final hours was of unspeakable personal relief. His head been an incredibly difficult and complicated life, ever the adventurer with but few personal victories along the road. He was a complicated man, hard to love and even harder to forgive, but there was no avoiding a genuine respect and admiration for his refusal to ever give up or stop trying to move forward. When I eulogized him, I quoted a line from a song that summed him and his life up quite succinctly:

“The smell of hospitals in winter and the feeling that it’s all a lot of oysters but no pearls.” – Counting Crows, “Long December”

In fairness to them both, however, the vast majority of us are very much like those two. We all have big dreams and grand ideas, and while we accomplish many things in our lives, far too few of them happened because of any organized personal conspiracy to make them happen. And, far too few of us think far enough ahead, early enough in life, to lay out a plan and structure our lives in such a way as to make them happen. Best laid plans and all that.

After all, and you can deny it quietly to yourselves as you read this, we live our lives, devil-may-care full-speed sprinting through our teens and into our twenties and through our 30s, like bulls in a China shop. ut it’s only when 40 punches you in the face with some harsh realities that you start to understand that you are already halfway dead.

Managing our lives with a little bit less chaos and a little bit more foresight would go a long way toward ensuring that – in our final days – we might smile… in reflective silence or otherwise… and know that we lived well and died complete.

Admittedly, I have lived the bulk of my life like my parents but, having said that, I have lived long enough after their passing that there is still time to put their lessons to some good use.

The Hermit life I have chosen for myself, such as it is, has afforded me greater opportunity to reflect on a past that is rapidly fading in my life’s rearview mirror. It has also provided me sufficient time to look ahead, with greater focus, toward the shortened stretch of road that remains untraveled. Now armed with a newfound clarity, gifted to me by the medically-induced challenges that accompany me on this last stretch of road, coupled with the fact that I am banging pretty hard on the front door of official ‘senior citizenship’, I find myself doubly inspired by the inner “hurry the fuck up, you’re running out of time” beast that keeps roaring in my ears (or is that just the permanent stroke-induced tinnitus?), telling me to get busy with putting a list together and getting the fuck busy putting some fancy frosting on this otherwise vanilla cake of life.

All this is to say that I am at that point where crafting a bucket list of any significance would necessarily require that I start with the last entry and work my way backward… on the fairly safe assumption that I have far more control over what I want the ending of my story to look like than I do over anything that might come along beforehand.

Now…having spent so much of my life surrounded by other people and driven by the fast-paced demands of the outside world, it has only been these last several years that I have finally been able to let up on the gas, turn down the volume of life, and fully concentrate on my own personal introspection. And even though it might sound funny, it really does matter how much you can isolate yourself in order to get the necessary perspective to properly map out a good plan for how your life should come to its ultimate and unavoidable close. Then, and only then, can you really consider where you want to spend it, and what and who you want to spend it on.

Unfortunately, this is wisdom we rarely acquire before the clock starts to noticeably wind down; most of the people you came across along the way are now long-gone in your past, and there’s not much time left to do anything more than to make the most of whatever time you might have left. What remains is the hope that you will be more carefree and creative in the endgame of your life than you were at the opening and through the mid-game.[yes, parallels really can be drawn between life and the game of chess… A game at which I consider myself a fairly decent amateur.]

With that, I offer my own reverse-order list of the last five things I want to live long enough to do before it’s my turn to check out, in the hope that others might be inspired to take a different approach to their own adventures in Bucket Listing:

  • Die on a king-sized bed in a Seaside Captain’s Cottage in northern Maine (preferably one that I own), during the height of The Fall season.
  • Get drunk, under supervision, on Ireland and Scotland Pub crawls.
  • Take a private Cruise along the Nova Scotia and Newfoundland Coast.
  • Cry at my granddaughter’s weddings.
  • Cheer at my grandson’s weddings.

I encourage each of you to put together a list of your own… There is such a thing as ‘too late to bother’.


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