Norwalk resident William McEvoy died of a heart attack on March 16th at age 51. At the time of his death he was changing careers from publishing executive to Unitarian Universalist minister.
“Our Real Bucket List” was one of his last sermons, delivered at the First Unitarian Society of Westchester in October – Bob Welsh, Chapman Hyperlocal Media Board member.
This past summer, as part of my education as a minister, I participated in a Clinical Pastoral Education program, or CPE for short. I spent 11 weeks at Bridgeport Hospital as a chaplain, visiting folks in their rooms, responding to traumas and other requests, and being a presence for patients and staff. We’d be assigned particular units to cover daily. I had oncology and cardiac recovery, but we would also sometimes carry the response pager, yes, a pager, old fashioned as that sounds. If the pager went off, it meant there was an emergency somewhere that needed a chaplain, often in the emergency room and sometimes in an intensive care unit. Sometimes we’d be called because a patient died, to say prayers with the family and provide comfort. We would have the pager during the day, and once a week we’d pull either an overnight or weekend shift, where we were the only chaplain on duty.
I got an odd reputation among my cohort of chaplains, because after a few weeks, I’d taken many bereavement calls – at one point I had taken more calls than all my cohort combined. It seemed every time I got the pager or worked an overnight shift, people died. They started to call me the “Chaplain of Death.” I became very familiar, if not exactly comfortable, with death. I’d seen it come slowly, through ALS and cancer, and others come quickly, through car accidents, or heart attacks.
The 11 weeks passed quickly, and in the middle of August, I graduated. I worked my last overnight shift and went home that Saturday morning, proud of my accomplishment. I spent Saturday napping and then shopping for a birthday present for my wife Carrie, whose birthday was the next day. I made plans for our upcoming vacation that was going to start in a few days; we’d rented a cabin in the mountains near Lake George, and were looking forward to a relaxing few days before I had to start school again and begin my internship here among all of you.
That night, around 3 a.m. I woke up sweating, nauseated, and with a dull pain in my chest. I sometimes suffer from acid reflux, so I stood up, as gravity often helps with that situation. It didn’t help. It wasn’t going away. Carrie was awake by then and I told her to call 911. Happy birthday Carrie.
Had this occurred three months earlier, I would have waited. I would have given my stomach more time to settle, maybe taken a cold shower to deal with the heat, and overall, just “see what happened.” But I was the Chaplain of Death, remember. I’d seen what happened to people who tried to “tough it out”. If they were lucky they got to stay in the hospital a long time, slowly recovering from the massive heart attack they had. If not, I would be praying over their body and consoling their loved ones. Carrie called, the ambulance came, I was joking with the EMTs, nurses and doctors. Everybody was laughing. Long story short, the doctor put in a stent, found another problem and had me come back for another stent. My life was saved. If you want, I can show you my scars. I tell people CPE saved my life, and it did. If I hadn’t seen what I saw during those intense 11 weeks, I probably wouldn’t be here today.
As I lay in my hospital bed thinking, I realized that my situation was a result of my own choices. Not one big choice, like whether to get married, or become a minister. It’s the little decisions, the everyday ones we make in a moment without too much thought, without any mindfulness. For me, some of the questions were steak or salad? Steak. Walk the dog, or watch the second half of the game? Go Packers. One scoop of ice cream or two? Do I really want ice cream? Work out on the weight bench or sit in front of the computer for the next hour? I spent a lot of time in front of that computer.
Let’s call these the “virtuous” decisions. It’s unrealistic to think we’re going to make the “virtuous” decision all of the time. But by my reckoning, I probably went with the virtuous one about 40% of the time. I realized, and my cardiologist confirmed it, that if I had made the virtuous decision 60% of the time, I’d have been in much better shape, and may have avoided my heart attack altogether.
Now here’s the thing. We’re all gonna die. We know this, intellectually. We know that dying is part of life and that it’s all part of a cycle. And we all have some experience with it. For some of us, we know it simply through experience with a family pet. For others, a distant relative. That was pretty much where I was. Still others have had to confront the death of a person close to them, a spouse, a relative, or worst, a child. But even with this experience, which can be heart-wrenching, many of us still keep a personal distance from it. I think that sometimes we cling to that adolescent idea that we’re immortal, that there will always be a tomorrow.
And then we get to the last group, the one I joined in August – those who have had our own brush with death, through disease or accident. We get a little closer, we start to understand, truly understand, in our core, that we’re mortal, and there may not be the time to do everything in life. So one thing we need to reckon with is that at the end there will always be things left undone, the question is not whether or not we will get everything accomplished, the question becomes what shall we leave undone? What do we want to look back at and say “I’m glad I did that.”
So here’s a question for us to ponder. Are we ready? Are we satisfied with what we’ve done in our lives up until now? We need to remember that we’re going to leave things undone, that can’t be helped, but can we look at the things we’ve done and say “Yeah, I’m okay with that, it’s not perfect, but I’m okay with that.”
I invite you to look at your bucket list. I’m not talking about your Jack Nicholson bucket list movie bucket list. Those are great fun to make up and check things off – seeing the Northern Lights, sky-diving is always popular, maybe visit the Taj Mahal. Those are some of the ones on my list. Those are dreams, and don’t get me wrong, dreams are good to have, but I’m talking about a different bucket list. Call it your cosmic bucket list, or call it what I do, your real bucket list. Because these are real, and they’re often not easy. In fact, they’re probably some of the hardest things you’ll ever do. Because they’re often about failure, either our own, or the failure of others. They’re about forgiveness, asking forgiveness, forgiving someone else, or for some even more difficult, forgiving yourself. They’re about love. They are about our connections, they are about the people we care for deeply in our lives. It is these connections that are the essence of what makes us human. So instead of seeing the Northern Lights, “I want to reconcile with my brother.” Instead of going sky-diving “I want to start calling my friend Helen every month.” Instead of visiting the Taj Mahal “I want to spend more time doing things, real things, with my family.”
When I spoke with patients who were dying at Bridgeport Hospital, there wasn’t one who regretted not seeing the Northern Lights, no, these real bucket list items were the regrets they had, the things they didn’t have time for. They didn’t regret not getting those TPS reports to their boss. They didn’t tell me they wished they’d watched one more football game on TV. And many of them were out of time.
Some of my patients did not have these regrets, they were happy with what they’d done in their life. They’d either resolved many of the things on their cosmic bucket list, or decided they were okay with what they had left unchecked. I don’t presume to say they died happy, but they didn’t seem to have much in the way of regret. They were the minority, however.
I sometimes think about those patients who died suddenly, the ones who never saw it coming. Often they were younger. What did they leave undone?
Like my diet and exercise choices, our life choices needn’t be virtuous all the time. I don’t believe you need to be perfect or even near-perfect, you really only need to make those virtuous choices about 60% of the time, maybe 62%. I sometimes wish I had a cosmic Fitbit that somehow tracked how I worked my virtuous muscle every day, that I could know at the end of the day that I’d done the moral equivalent of ten thousand steps. But we’ll just have to be our own judge of that. But we don’t really need a gadget, in our gut, we know.
I used to think I have the time to make every mistake and learn from it. Not anymore. A professor once told me, “life’s too short and we don’t have the time to make all of our own mistakes, we gotta learn from each other’s mistakes.” That’s what I did when I had my heart attack, I’d learned from CPE that I better get myself to the hospital. Well, now I’m telling you about some of the other mistakes some of my patients made. I’m learning from them. I hope you will too.
So I’m going to ask something of you. And don’t think of it as a homework assignment, instead, take it as a sincere request that you take a few minutes for yourself. I’d like to ask you to take a piece of paper, and I mean, a piece of paper, something tangible, physical. Then take out a pen, a good one, one that you like. Then write down your real bucket list. It shouldn’t take you that long. When I did it, I found it took less than ten minutes. And not because the list was short, but because I knew what those items were right away. I found it helped to approach this as a sacred ritual, as a spiritual practice, by physically manifesting these ideas. When you’re done, you can do as you like with the paper, shred it, burn it, save it. It’s the act of writing it that will be powerful.
And once you have that list, remember, you have the time. You’re not in a hospital bed. You may not have all the time in the world to do these things, but you have some. So please, make that call, put aside that work, put down that cursed smartphone, turn it off even. Reach out and make those connections that are on your mind, turn into those hard things, do what you can to heal those wounds. Forgive. Make the choices that you will look back on and say at the end, I’m okay with how I lived my life, it wasn’t perfect, but I’m okay with it. At the end, be able to look at the things you’ve done and be content with the things that have remained undone.
Edited for length. This sermon is made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/.