Editor's note: This is a travel story written by an individual who made a life-altering change to treat her cancer. It is not intended as an endorsement by the BBC of any specific treatment regimen for this or any other illness.
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 sleep.
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 clothes.
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 meal delivered.
- 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 country.
- 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.
Five 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 be too.
The 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.
Yet 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.
Inspired 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.
The 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 and textures.
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.
After a 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.
The 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.
On my 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.
One 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.
She finally got what she had wanted the whole time: to be free and not defined by cancer.
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 Panama.