Last week I went to see two of my favorite actors, Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, in the dramatic comedy The Bucket List. It’s a simple, straight-forward story of an unlikely pair of terminally-ill guys who meet in the hospital. Freeman’s character, Carter, tells Nicholson’s character, Edward, about his philosophy professor’s suggestion that they make a list of all the things they want to do before they ‘kick the bucket.’ A bucket list.
Carter is an auto mechanic, Edward is a corporate billionaire – Carter was busy raising a family and working on cars and Edward was fully occupied accumulating enormous wealth – so they had a combined bucket list as long as your arm.
The thing they couldn’t write on the list, but fit between the lines, was the need to squarely face who they were and come to terms with the big life-decisions they had made in their soon-to-end lives. The bucket list was the agenda–their illnesses gave them a deadline.
The day after I saw the movie I read a real-life letter from my friend and colleague, Forrest Church, minister for the past 30 years at All Souls Unitarian Church in New York. He had been through cancer surgery. The letter was addressed to his congregation. He said, in part:
“After enjoying a year of fine health, this past Thursday I learned that my cancer had recurred, having spread to my lungs and liver. There is no way to surgarcoat this news. I shall undergo a regimen of chemotherapy, more for palliative than curative reasons, but must face the certainty that my cancer is terminal and the great likelihood that my future will be measured in months not years.”
He wrote, “In matters of mortality, we are all companions.” Later he said, “I have greeted every day since my reprieve (and shall greet the days to come) as gravy.”
Then came a short bucket list: “Though all of our stories end in the middle, with unfinished business piled high, I should like to end my story, if I may, by summing up my thoughts on love and death in a book that might bring as much comfort to others as you have brought to me. In it, I shall share what I have learned from you during the three decades I have been privileged to serve as your minister.”
Regarding that aspect of his ministry in which he worked with individuals facing the same situation as he now faces, and with families who suffered losses, he said, “We have struggled to wrench meaning from loss, seeking to find our way through the valley of the shadow.”
Summing up he said, “Since it would be remarkably unimaginative for me to die at fifty-nine as my father and grandfather each did before me, I shall do my utmost to make it to September, when, after rejoicing in my daughter’s wedding, I shall celebrate both my sixtieth birthday and the completion of thirty years at All Souls.”
He concluded by saying, “In the meantime, know that my thoughts and prayers are with you.”
I have no doubt that Forrest will complete his assignment, writing a final book in this concluding chapter of a remarkable, imaginative life.