Cancer, Procrastination, and Hope's Bucket List

Recently I met a woman. She was friendly and pleasant, with a warm smile. I listened to her closely when she spoke. I did this, in part, to return the favor. She had listened closely, and even asked questions, during the book talk I had just given.

"I want to go away and see things," she told me.

Many people say this sort of thing. Not so many have Stage 3 cancer. She had a bucket list, she said. Ambling around the country, going nowhere in particular, was on it.

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As a travel writer, and someone with a talent for getting lost, I have considerable experience with aimless ambling. Wittingly and unwittingly, I have seen my share of back alleys and back roads. Partly because she was so obviously sincere in her desire to travel, partly because talking with people with cancer produces in me a sort of hyper enthusiasm, as if a loopy smile and a lot of hand waving can wipe the disease away, I prattled on and on about the joys of travel. The chance to find hidden corners. The chance to meet people. The chance to see the sunrise in an unfamiliar place. The chance for so many chances. Here I may have paused.

She listened quietly through my babble. When I finished she said, "That's exactly what I want to do." The woman's name is Hope.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Here in Ventura County there are events everywhere. An open house at the new Rolling Oaks Radiology Women's Imaging Center in Thousand Oaks. A "Relay for Life" event on the track at Camarillo High School, honoring cancer survivors and raising money to fight the disease. A cancer symposium, "Surviving and Thriving," at the Ventura Beach Marriott. Another symposium, "How to Cheat, Treat and Beat Breast Cancer," at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. On the first day of October our local paper the Ventura County Star printed the day's edition in pink.

If I was a newspaper journalist I would have written this column at the beginning of the month. But I'm not. I'm writing this in the middle of the month, hoping it carries into November and maybe on. Cancer will carry on. Procrastination, too.

I don't know if Hope has breast cancer. She didn't say. She might have breast cancer, she might not. Sadly, there are many cancer options.

I may have been frenetically enthusiastic in my delivery, but I told my new friend Hope the truth. The greatest joy of travel is the people you meet. Travel has seen me to breathtaking places and moments -- lightning forking over the snowy Andes, mantas swooping through blue Hawaiian waters, evening shadows purpling the Grand Canyon's deeps -- but even these moments pale in comparison with the people I've met. They have surprised me. They have bewitched me. They have welcomed me into their towns, and sometimes their homes. Sometimes they have cheated me, or stolen from me or just been rude and cold. People come in many packages. But most of the people have been good, and many of them have given me a gift, a little piece of them I will carry with me forever. Lessons in living.

Once, kayaking off Ocracoke Island, North Carolina, I met a man named David. It was Thanksgiving and brutally cold, a hard, damp wind producing an uncountable army of whitecaps on Pamlico Sound. When I met David, he was bobbing at the mouth of Ocracoke's tiny harbor. I saw him before he saw me. His head was down, consulting the navigational chart spread across the deck of his kayak. He had a compass, too.

It is bad form to paddle silently past the only other kayaker for miles.

"Beautiful out here, isn't it?" I said.

It was, in a frozen, gray, victory-at-sea fashion.

David's head came up slowly, as if reluctant to leave the chart. He appeared to be in his fifties, though it was hard to tell, as only a small portion of his face emerged from the bubble-wrap of protective gear. I was wearing nothing but a wetsuit, and perhaps a bluish complexion.

David looked at me like the idiot I was.

"It's a little cold," he said.

We bobbed in the water, the wind beating between us, and exchanged pleasantries. David had come to Ocracoke for the long Thanksgiving weekend.

He didn't smile as we talked, but his tone was amiable. I had drifted close enough to see that he had a small plastic orb affixed to the shoulder of his jacket. Technologically speaking, it resembled one of those Christmas snow globes, only instead of swirling snowflakes, it contained a winking light.

His eyes followed mine. "GPS," he said. "I'm one of those people who like to plan."

David asked where I was from, and when I told him California, he said his wife's family lived in California. "My wife died about a year and a half ago," he said. "Of cancer."

The wind whistled.

"I was just paddling in a sluice back there," David said, more to himself than me. "There were herons and egrets. It probably goes back two miles. I was paddling back there and I'm thinking, 'This is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen.'"

I paddled to David's sluice, a ribbon of gin clear water little more than paddle-length wide in most places, snaking into the interior of the island. I floated over its mirror surface to the whisper of marsh grass. Out of the wind it was warm. Birds sang, and egrets, snow-white and silent, swooped low, dropping below the grass line to their own secrets.

David was right, it was beautiful, but now, ten years later, it is David I remember, bobbing quietly beneath the marled sky, a meticulous man who couldn't plan for everything.

"You know, she loved to kayak," he said. "She really wanted to come here, but we just kept putting it off."

You don't have to travel far to meet people with cancer or bucket lists. I met Hope ten minutes from home. I'm glad I did.

Before we parted Hope gave me another warm smile, but there was something harder in her eyes.

"I mean it," she said. "I'm really going to do this."

If Hope reads this, I hope she doesn't mind that I wrote about her. But I hope she doesn't read it. I hope she's miles from the internet, sitting on a weathered dock in the Florida Keys, watching baitfish ripple the surface as the sun rises.

By then it probably won't be October. Not that it matters. Any month is as good for cancer as it is for following through on a bucket list.

Ken McAlpine is a three-time Lowell Thomas award-winner. His most recent book is "Fog," praised by one critic as "one of the most intelligent, richly detailed, deeply felt and evocative novels I've read." He writes weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog about Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

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