Fifteen years ago, at a time when I thought my life
would be taken either by cancer or by my own hand, I wrote a bucket list. I’d
been ill for several years due to tumours growing like trees in my body, their
branches twisting my organs until they stopped working. Many surgeries later,
the tumours had all been removed except for small pieces, which I had hoped
would die on their own. But instead they returned, stronger and hungrier,
consuming everything, consuming me.
My body was not owned by me during that time. I was
only an anxious observer who worried about bills that lay unopened on the
kitchen table next to printouts of platelet counts. Exhausted by medications,
angered by doctors, I spent my days terrified, my nights in a dull, dreamless
Cancer is a lonely business. People don't really
understand what cancer means: sometimes it means you will die. It's not popular
to say so, but it's true. Everyone tells you "you will beat it",
but no one wants to talk about the fact you might not. But you, you
have this truth with you every day: you wake up in the morning and it is there.
It follows you wherever you are, this unnerving feeling that you are rotting
inside. It stares back at you in your mirror as you brush your
teeth, making you cover all the mirrors in your house. It sits next
to you as you drink your liquid meal replacement because you can't eat solid
food. It crawls into the phone line as you try to talk to friends,
contaminating the conversation until you stop calling anyone at all.
One morning, I realised I had to make a choice: end
life or find life.
I remember that day so well. I was lying on the floor
of my living room, and I had been lying there for a long time. Overnight.
I was cold because the fire in my wood stove had gone out, but I didn't care. I
was so ill that I'd soiled my clothes with urine. My hair was tangled and dirty since
I hadn't showered in more than a week. I had on an ugly maternity dress that
someone had given me, the colour of a Band-Aid, and I hated it. My tumours had
come back and my abdomen was so swollen I couldn't wear any of my own
My dog was hungry and pawing at the back
door and I made myself get up to feed him. Then I saw how he looked at me:
his eyes were wide and alert to a stranger. Me. I looked at myself
in the bathroom mirror and saw someone in hell. Right then I knew I had to pull
myself together. There was no one else to do it.
I cancelled my chemo. I threw away my medications.
Driving to the countryside with my journal and a blanket, I stretched out in a
field surrounded by sheep and sunshine. And that is where my bucket list was
born, the list that kept me alive.
From the start, I knew my list had to be that of a
visionary: impossible tasks, a maze of places and acts that required my full
participation and a belief in the magical qualities of the universe. Choosing
tasks that were far away or took a long time to accomplish meant promising
myself to be healthy and whole again. I needed to be propelled out into the
world, shooting like a cannon into a neighbouring
country, soaring on the desire to have more time.
I wrote until the light dimmed, the grass buzzed with night
insects and the path back to my car disappeared. But while creating that bucket
list, my pain, aloneness, and fears were replaced with the gift of forgetting.
I forgot who I was and decided who I would become.
Once home, I taped copies of my new list on the
refrigerator, the bathroom mirror, the dashboard of my car. I tore the list
into narrow strips, one task on each, and placed them in every book I owned, my
wallet, the silverware drawer.
Soon slips of paper were everywhere, reminding me that
I needed to live, scribbled with jumbled words, wishes:
- Skydive solo in the Nevada desert just after sunrise.
Spend an entire day at the top of the Empire State Building and have a five-star
- Jump off a pirate boat into the sea.
- Build a cross on a mountaintop along the Camino de
Santiago in Spain.
- Nap in Vita Sackville-West’s White Garden while
reading Virginia Woolf.
- Become a Buddhist monk.
- Feel quicksand.
- Join a Catholic order of nuns.
- Be entirely alone in a desolate landscape in another
- Snowshoe in Canada.
- Be the star of a parade.
- Eat dinner with a famous artist.
- Work on a banana plantation.
- Plaster a city with poems in the middle of the night.
- Ride a train to an unknown destination.
- Spend the night at the bottom of the Grand Canyon with
an astronomer who can explain the stars.
- Travel around the world alone, taking my time.
- Be an artist.
- Experience nature.
- See everything.
These and hundreds more slips prompted me to do the
things of my wildest imaginings, crazy dreams requiring endless resources of
time and money that I didn’t have.
I was still sick, but my days were full of plans and
preparations and I began whittling down the list with surprising success, in no
particular order. Some things were hard to manage, but explanations usually
opened doors. Money was useful, but not entirely important: the sheer will needed
to actually do something seemed to make it possible, whether it was expensive
or not. Other tasks proved impossible or ridiculous in retrospect. Pirate ships
were terribly hard to find, and the top of the Empire State Building didn’t
allow food of any kind, so I’d had to make do with a hastily gobbled hotdog that
I smuggled in under my jacket. Sometimes I changed my mind: being a nun sounded
lovely until I realised I couldn’t even wear lip gloss, and snowshoeing turned
out to be more torturous than fun.
The list kept me alive. I didn't think about being
sick anymore. I treated my body like it was well, forcing it to do things it
had never done: skydiving, white-water rafting, ballroom dancing. And six
months later, somewhere between talking stars with an astronomer in the Grand
Canyon and almost getting arrested for plastering poems on lamp posts in my
city at 2 am, I felt better. The doctors told me I was better, too: the
cancer was gone.
The bucket list had become a tool that changed me
from someone who had obsessed about mere survival into a strong woman who
didn't care so much about living as she did about thriving.
years later, I found myself travelling around the world alone, with a single
task left to complete on my bucket list. It sat, dangling like a loose thread,
demanding to be pulled. Part of me wanted to pull that thread, close the
chapter and start a new story that had nothing to do with cancer. The other
part of me was scared, thinking that once the list was finished, my life might
final task was to spend a month at the Louvre in Paris. I’d never even been to
Paris, I didn’t speak French, and all I knew about the Louvre was that it was
filled with beautiful art which most people had only a few days to see. A month
at the Louvre. Impractical, luxurious, out of reach.
despite an utter lack of funds on my round-the-world adventure,
I suddenly had an unexpected delay in Paris, forced to stay
there for three months as I waited for my visa to arrive for India. I knew no
one except a glum Parisian art student who had scribbled her telephone number
on a napkin one night as we both tried to sleep in Mexico City’s airport on our
way to other places.
by a desire to sleep indoors rather than on a park bench, I called her. By some
twist of luck, she had a brother who was out of town, who happened to have an
empty apartment near the Bastille. I could have the apartment for
three months if I wanted. At once I viewed this as both a miracle and a
warning: it was the end of the list that had, in my mind, kept me alive – and perhaps
the end of me.
I set off at sunrise the next morning, fed by a warm
baguette and the subtle light of the city, grey turning to lemon yellow to
gold. With light rain as my only company, I walked through Paris until I
reached the famous pyramid, splashed with water nymphs in the form of diamond-coloured
drops, surrounded by Japanese tourists holding candy-coloured umbrellas. Rain
mixed with tears as I sobbed, finally allowing myself to cry for the first time
since I’d forced myself off my living room floor all those years ago.
There was no need for a tour, plan or guide. Unlike
the rushed tourists who had to chase down the usual suspects in
between flights, I had the extravagance of time. That first day I spent with
the first sculpture I saw, the Winged Victory of Samothrace. Gazing at this human
figure with wings, perched on the edge of a boat, I imagined her taking flight
each night after the Louvre closed. And as I sat on the stairwell looking
up at her, I realized that this was not the end of me, but rather
the beginning of me.
month went by slowly, like a painting as it takes shape under the hand of
a painter with only one canvas and 1,000 ideas, each day layered with new colours
For 30 days,
each morning I would walk through the city, stopping to buy my
baguette and coffee, pretending to be offended when the waiter laughed as my
grim attempt at French was replaced by sign language. Further on I'd
dodge the rubbish trucks and the early morning graffiti artists to get a place
in line at a bakery hidden in an alley, where I'd buy a warm
croissant from a baker who smelled like cherry pie. When I'd finally
arrive at the square of the Louvre, the pickpockets would smile at
me in greeting, while the flower seller pushed a nosegay of
bruised violets or tiny pink roses into my hands. At the entrance to the
Louvre, the staff would wave me in as they squabbled in furious French with the
illegal ticket-sellers just outside the doors.
few weeks, I could walk into the museum with my eyes closed. I knew the feel of
the handrails, slightly worn yet smooth and cool. I heard the sound of the
security guards shifting their feet, the hum of vented air, the sigh of shoes
walking on marble. Each painting and sculpture seemed to have waited for
my arrival, dressed in their finest draperies and gilded frames, like flags in
an endless procession of gladness.
women of the Louvre invited me to walk past the crowds into their private
chambers. Teasing. Whispering. Welcoming. The Mona Lisa, small and stained
green, her plucked eyebrows raised quizzically at the crowds who came to
admire her. Gabrielle d'Estrées caught forever fondling one of her sisters, no doubt
wishing she hadn’t. The Marquise de Pompadour, impossibly coiffed and powdered,
permanently poised in pastels. La Grande Odalisque, her body stretched before
the world, waiting for gossip and visitors. Here were women unapologetic
about being women: whole, incomplete, messy, divided, fertile, plump, merchant,
slave, prostitute, servant, old, nubile, lost, found, owned, free. I sat
before them, held their gaze evenly, without blinking. Our stories were
not the same, yet I found myself in each one of them.
last day at the museum, I said goodbye to these painted women, who at first had
seemed two dimensional and flat but had come to life and become friends.
Then I took a different route back to the apartment, and found myself on
the banks of the Seine. I walked along the river, my thoughts on that woman
who, many years ago, sat in a field and wrote out a list to save her life. I’d
carried her list with me around the world, and as I took it out of my bag,
my hands shook so badly it seemed as though the paper would take flight.
last gesture, one last goodbye, one last promise made to that woman who was me
so long ago. Her list was finished, and somehow I felt her end
had come as well. I held the journal tightly and tore out that final
page of my past. I folded it into a small paper boat, and set it on the
Seine. It floated, small and white, like a dove, a peace
offering to my old self. My eyes followed the little white boat as it
moved down the river, past the barges, until it was gone. She was gone, too.
finally got what she had wanted the whole time: to be free and not defined
And I, too, was free. I still am.
Amy Gigi Alexander is a writer
of memoir and fiction, whose work has appeared in World Hum and AlterNet, and
is forthcoming in The Nervous Breakdown and the Lonely Planet anthology An
Innocent Abroad. She is working on two memoirs, one about living and working
with the Missionaries of Charity, and one about life with the Ngabe people in