A Cancer Survivor's Guide to Writing a Bucket List


There are as many ways to write a bucket list as there are personalities. Goals can be practical or dreamy, lists long or short. Some bucket lists are like drill sergeants, others a soft voice whispering in your ear. If “write a bucket list” is on your bucket list, here are a few tips.

“Your dad thinks I should drive out west this summer,” I say to my son.

“That’s not a bad idea,” he says.

“But I don’t know,” I say. “That would take days.”

I love to go places, but I also love to sit on my porch and watch birds. I love a modest adventure, but I also like to come home at the end of the day (or weekend).

“Maybe I should drive, “I say. “Your grandpa always wanted to drive across the country.”

“What do you want to do?” my son asks, startling me out of my memory of my father, weighted down by both Parkinson’s and cancer, not fulfilling this dream.

“You know me,” I say. “I am happy on the porch watching birds.”

My son’s question is a good one. What do I want to do? I pause, and I tell him the first thing that comes to mind. I want to see whooping cranes in flight. After another pause, I share my dream of being a country music singer.

“What about you?” I ask my son. “What do you want to do?”

He tells me that he has been lucky so far. That is how he lives his life. He follows his dreams.

“You are more Zen about it,” he says, meaning I am not so goal-oriented.

There is one thing I always knew I wanted to do. I wanted to have a child. And here I am with a grownup son who asks good questions. He is right. It is time for me to identify more of my own dreams. Hanging up the phone, I decide to compose a bucket list.

I think of not only my father, but also my brother who died of cancer at 21. Paris was on his bucket list after he got his prognosis. Compromising, he went on a camping trip to Hobcaw Barony in South Carolina. The trip was life affirming for somebody who knew he would die soon.

Paris is great, but I am not my brother. A cross-country drive could be fun, but I am not my father. Who am I? What should I want?

As I am trying to figure out what to add to a bucket list, I get a text from a friend who knows that I have been seeking the Greater Yellow Lady Slipper orchid in forests near my house. My friend has found a colony near where she lives.

“Come on over Sunday afternoon,” my friend says.

My friend takes me to the orchids. After I sit with them, taking photographs and breathing the woodsy air, I continue a walk through the woods to look at other wildflowers with a friend I have known for fifty years. Maybe this counts for the bucket list-- this simple afternoon.

I realize then that I need to stop worrying about what to put on my bucket list and follow my heart. Here is my advice for you:

- Figure out what you truly want, not what you think you should want. - A list needs only two items and can be as long or short as you want it to be. - Choose both realistic goals and elusive butterflies (literal or figurative). - You do not need to live out the unfulfilled dreams of friends and family members. - If you are happy sitting on your porch, or driving around with a friend to look for wildflowers, bloom right where you are planted. - Revise the list if it starts to feel more like a to-do list. - Insurmountable goals work better as daydreams.

The next time I talk to my son, I will tell him that I do not truly want to see the whooping cranes. If it happens, though, I am sure it will be as dreamy as a colony of Greater Yellow Lady Slipper orchids on a May afternoon.

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