Because She Had A Bucket List

About a month into our relationship, Emily and I decided to take a mental health day and check out Soundwaves, the water park at the Opryland Hotel. I have so many memories of that day. In fact, I could probably write an entire post just about that. However, I’ve been thinking about one specific moment from that day for several weeks now.

The water park has two lazy rivers: one with intertubes and one without. When we got to the lazy river with them, we opted for a 2-person tube and sat in it so we were facing towards each other.

As we floated around, Emily asked me, “So, what’s on your bucket list?” I don’t fully remember what I said, but I’m sure I mentioned traveling to Ireland and writing a book. I’m fairly certain I also made a joke about kissing a beautiful woman being on the list, but it was now checked off.

Eventually, I turned the question right back around to her. Unlike me, Emily had this highly detailed list of things she wanted to do. When I responded with, “Wow, you’ve really thought about this,” she said, “Yeah, when you almost die because your heart shits itself, you think about these kinds of things.”

That day, I made a promise to her: I told her I’d make sure we checked something off of her bucket list every year for the rest of our lives.

Emily’s Travel Dreams

One of the main items on Emily’s bucket list was traveling to all 50 states. She kept a running list of the states in the back of her planner, and each year she’d transfer the list over. Anytime we talked about vacation or travel plans, she eagerly tried to find a way to work a new state in, and I loved it.

Obviously, she had checked several states off during her childhood. But I really wanted to make sure she got to all of them as an adult. Besides the fact that I also love to travel, I knew she had started collecting bumper stickers from each state she visited as an adult, and I wanted to make sure she got all 50.

We had this ongoing trend that started with our St. Louis trip in September 2021. We left the state every month. We went to Missouri, Illinois, Florida, Kentucky, Alabama, and then repeated a lot of those. She also went to Colorado by herself (she took a friend to an inpatient eating disorder facility). I was trying to squeeze in a trip to North Carolina for the fall, but obviously we didn’t get to it.

Other Bucket List Items

Although her desire to see all 50 states seems like a big enough bucket list item as it is, Emily actually had another entire page of bucket list items.

Looking at the list, I am happy about some of the items I know I was there for her to check off. For example, she wanted to go to St. Louis, see a capybara, ride Wild Eagle at Dollywood, and see Opryland… We did all of these things at some point between 2020 and 2022. Of course, she also wants to see Demi Lovato in concert and see Lizzo in concert again, and we were supposed to do both of those things just days after she died.

However, some of my favorite things on her bucket list include:

  • Watch a surgery
  • See the Northern Lights
  • Be a foster parent
  • Stay in a yurt or treehouse
  • Go to Pride
  • Ride horses again
  • Learn ASL

I can’t do some of the things she had listed (like dance en pointe), but there are many that I can do for her. And, really, I want to.

I Just Wanted Her To Get To Check It All Off

When I cleaned out Emily’s car a few weeks after her death, I found her planner. I opened it up and looked at everything she’d written in it, and I began violently sobbing when I got to her bucket list. There are so many things on that list that she never got to check off, and seeing them written out in her handwriting just broke my heart all over again.

I promised her we’d check those items off, and we did start to. And yet, I feel like I didn’t do enough to help her accomplish more of them. I was too concerned about things that really didn’t matter, like making sure our home was clean or that we weren’t overspending. I just really wish I’d been a little more carefree so she could have seen more of the world and done more incredible things with what little time she had left.

But, I can’t go back in time, nor can I bring Emily back from the dead. Instead, all I can do is lean into the promises I made to Emily before she passed and during my speech at her funeral. In other words, I can finish her bucket list on her behalf.

According to my therapist, these promises and desires to finish what Emily started are the very protective factors I need right now because they’re what’s keeping me alive. They’re my motivation to keep going.

So, I plan to start on the bucket list in the week between Christmas and New Years. Assuming the weather doesn’t make it dangerous to do so, I’m going to take a road trip that will check three more states off Emily’s list. I’m going to drive through Illinois to hit Iowa and Wisconsin, then take a way home that lets me go through part of Indiana.

And, if the Midwest gets the blizzard some meteorologists are predicting, then I’ll find some other states to drive to instead. There are plenty of states left to hit, and I have plenty of podcast episodes and camping gear to go wherever I need to.

I don’t know why she died, nor do I know why I’m still here. But because I love Emily, I fully intend to keep the promises I made to her, including the ones related to her bucket list.


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