A Different Kind of Bucket List

“I love when people that have been through hell walk out of the flames carrying buckets of water for those still consumed by the fire.”

Stephanie Sparkles

The one thing that I could feel just then was that I was walking out of hell itself. I had just left the hospital after my sixth and last hospitalization following chemotherapy treatment for non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Sitting alone in my van on that frigid January morning, my head pressed against the steering wheel, I wailed and hollered for twenty minutes until all of the anguish had been expelled. It was done. It was over. I had made it. I had made it. I had made it. Dear God, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you…jagged breaths breaking the sentences into fragments. My heart still jagged as well.

The 18 weeks of cancer treatment and multiple hospital stays were finally over. They had been complicated by my 79 years of age and by pandemic isolation, fear upon fear. I wouldn’t be going back to a life that bore much resemblance to the past.

I had been my only caretaker, and the side effects of the chemo were still debilitating and sometimes terrifying. Concern about blizzards, middle-of-the night life-threatening fevers, and ambulance rides to the hospital had all added to the unending nightmare of the life that I had had to endure.

Now I had to learn to live life all over again. I had survived. I already knew that the cancer was gone. Yet I also had a recovery to navigate, and that would turn out to be more challenging than I had thought it would be.

In the days after my outburst, I asked again – as I have had to ask more than once – the iconic question that poet Mary Oliver poses, the one that hangs over all of us when we cannot go back to who we were and now can only look blindly ahead:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

I knew I was changed, but I didn’t have a clear picture of what that even meant. This question is profound, but I wasn’t feeling profound; I was just drifting along, being carried by time and shifting shadows, casually watching for some new purpose, some clarity to show up.

Then – at just the right moment (isn’t it always that way?) – this quote came across on Facebook. And I knew what I needed to do.

I needed to carry buckets of life-saving water for those still consumed by the fire.

One by one, I began to gather up the new lessons that I had learned. I began my Bucket List to share with anyone who is still in the flames and wondering how they can possibly endure. Six months later, these are the things that I know so far about suffering:

  • You will learn more about yourself than you ever knew. Your profound courage and your deep cowardice. Your crippling fear and your overcoming of your fear, if even for a moment. Your ability to hope against hope. Your capacity to walk in total darkness. The weight of your vulnerability.
  • You may feel as if you had to lose some of your mind for a bit before you regained it, stronger than ever.
  • You may find the truth of the words of Friedrich Nietzsche that, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” And that you are stronger than you knew.
  • There will come some times of profound peace. Often, they arrive after an avalanche of tears. They are usually accompanied by some amazing grace and a healing of your spirit for a while.
  • There can be at least one person who understands deeply and profoundly what you are going through and what you need. This will be your soulmate…the one who can and will walk the journey with you without faltering.
  • If you have a faith in the love of God – or a Higher Power – or the Universe – your faith will likely meet you in new and unexpected ways.
  • Life will mostly consist of baby steps. But they will eventually get you where you need to be.
  • When you realize the power of your own suffering, you can find yourself in solidarity with all who suffer, for whatever reason. You know the truth in your bones now that we are all one. Perhaps that is the most profound bucket of flame-dousing water that there is.

I know that my list is not complete, but I feel the strong call to carry at least these buckets so that no one needs to give up hope. I carry the responsibility of that calling with love more than duty, and it’s a pretty darned good reason to look forward to what else lies ahead. I’m just 80, after all, so there’s still time to bring more hope into this wild and precious life that we share.

And I’m very okay with that.

(The list grows as we share our own experiences. I would love to know what you might add. We haven’t all had cancer, but we have all lived in the midst of our own challenges, including this endless pandemic. I invite you to feel free to grow the buckets in the comments section.)