Everyone needs a bucket list

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Bucket lists aren't just for the dying—and they should include more than just adventures.

Guest blog post by Lisa Calderone-Stewart

I recently saw Bucket List on TV—the movie with Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson. The first time I saw it was in 2009, the year I was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given six months to live. At the time, my sons urged me to make my own bucket list. We thought watching that movie would help. It didn’t.

In case you haven’t seen it… the two main characters meet each other in a hospital. Both have terminal illnesses and decide to make a list of things they want to do before they kick the bucket, hence “Bucket List.” The things they wanted were wild adventures: sky diving, climbing mountains, and visiting natural wonders around the world.

Not being much of a risk taker, I merely wanted to see everyone I loved, maybe write them one last note. Perhaps give them one last present. I came up with all kinds of gifts for my friends and family—mostly small trinkets with symbolic meaning (items already in my possession, as my rule was that I couldn’t buy anything new). That’s what I did for six months or so. So many people visited me, it felt like a non-stop party! We told stories, we laughed, we cried, we loved, we celebrated.

It was our most sacred time.

Some of those people who already did “the last visit thing” are coming back again! To do their second “last visit thing!”

CarolAnne, a very active friend of mine, made a “50th year” bucket list. At the end of that year, she had so much fun, she made a “50th decade” bucket list! She could have been in that movie! Her list also included sky diving, as well as white water rafting, parasailing, a helicopter ride, a hot air balloon ride, a fire engine ride, a trip to each of the states she hasn’t visited yet (yes, both Alaska and Hawaii!), and a trip to see the Space Shuttle launch in person. In fact, she is now celebrating her 60th birthday for 60 days, doing all kinds of special things during the months of May and June. She keeps adding to her “60th decade bucket list” as well.

I think everyone should write a bucket list long before they are sick or dying so they have an idea of what they want to experience or accomplish.

I am really lucky, because I had already done so many special things with my life. I wrote several books, and finished my first novel. (I’m almost finished with my second one!) I did a three-year research study on what makes teenagers want to be leaders. I launched Tomorrow’s Present, an umbrella of youth leadership training programs and events; I lived long enough to see its second director finish his first full year of the new, improved Tomorrow’s Present, now housed at The Leadership Center of Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee. Most importantly, I had already traveled to be present for most family baptisms, first communions, confirmations, and many birthdays and holidays.

Why a bucket list? Most people would say they are too busy, too involved with work or other obligations to bother with such a thing. Why now? Wait too long, and it may be too late. A bucket list really helps you consider what you want to do during your life and focus on some goals. It forces you to reflect on what your dreams and priorities might be.

I did a Google search for my name recently, to find an article a friend discovered when she Googled my name. I typed in “Lisa Calderone” and before I could add “-Stewart,” several choices popped up underneath, to assist with my search. The first one said, “Lisa Calderone-Stewart.” The second one said, “Lisa Calderone-Stewart cancer.”

Wow. That was my main identity now. I wonder what it used to say, before I had cancer. Maybe Lisa Calderone-Stewart youth leadership. Or Perhaps Lisa Calderone-Stewart Tomorrow’s Present. Things I devoted much of my life to.

No one puts cancer on their bucket list. But many people don’t have a bucket list until they discover cancer is already on it.

Margaret, from my palliative care team, wondered if they made a mistake by telling me I was only expected to live another six months. I told her, “NO! Not at all!” Even though their estimate was not quite accurate, it could have been. Without the urgency of a six-month deadline, my family and I might have missed doing some essential activities.

I am certain my whole New Jersey family would not have come to Wisconsin to celebrate my “last Christmas” in 2009! That gathering was so special for us! I wouldn’t have written so many notes and prepared so many gifts for so many friends. Most of all, my sons wouldn’t have come to visit me so often, and they wouldn’t be calling me every day. We certainly wouldn’t be as close as we are now.

I spent my Easter 2010 weekend writing my “last love letters” to everyone in my family. During December of 2010, I bought my “final Christmas ornaments” and wrote notes to be delivered Christmas of 2011.

Easter 2011 came and went, and my son has not had to deliver those Easter love letters from last year. And now I’m wondering if I’ll be here in six more months to send out those Christmas notes myself!

But they got written, and I know they will always be cherished.

I guess I have been double–blessed. First, to be given a prognosis of urgency, so I could “make my arrangements” and visit with and write notes to everyone I love. Second, to be given an extra year and a half (so far) to continue to enjoy my loved ones—in person, by Skype, by email, by phone.

After all, those visits and love notes were the only items on my bucket list! 

Bucket listing is a great summer activity, since summer is often the season of recreation and fun. Couples can bucket list together; so can families or best friends.

If I had one bucket list suggestion, it would be for everyone, no matter your age or your health situation, to spend time writing love letters to family members and friends. Nothing fancy, just a few paragraphs, so when you are gone (and anyone can be hit by a truck tomorrow!), there is something tangible left behind to comfort your loved ones. Something simple, like, “I especially remember the time we…” or “I have always appreciated your….”

It’s even more important if there are people in your life you need to reconcile with.

If you wrote just one letter a week, you’d have 52 by the end of a year. If you live another 20 years, you can always re-write them or update them. (Don’t you wish you had such a letter from your mom or dad or that favorite uncle or aunt?)

In fact, a family can have a “letter writing” weekend during which everyone writes a letter to everyone. Once they are written, and sealed in their envelopes, where might you store them?

In a bucket! Along with a list of anything else you want to do or share together!

It will become your most sacred vessel.


Guest blogger Lisa Calderone-Stewart is the director of Tomorrow's Present and an author and speaker on youth leadership. Read more about her interfaith youth program in Student Teachers, from January 2006.

Lisa was diagnosed with terminal cancer last year. For more on her story, see "The dying wish of a youth ministry pioneer." You can also read Lisa's personal blog Dying to Know You Better, and she has a novel, Made To Write, available at the link. Her blog posts on USCatholic.org can be found at Final Thoughts.

Guest blog posts express the views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.