A Father’s Bucket List

Two-thousand, seven-hundred, and eleven days.

About a month ago, I downloaded an app for my iPhone that is counting down the number of days until my oldest son leaves for college, assuming he goes off to college and assuming he goes when most kids go. I put the app on the first screen of my phone, and I check it every morning.

I know this is a little maudlin.

high school graduation

But I’m really tired of arriving at monumental moments in my life, and in the lives of the people I love, looking backward, and asking, “How did we get here so quickly, and why wasn’t I more intentional about the journey?”

And, actually, I’m not sure I’m being maudlin enough. Because when I installed the app on my phone, 2,738 days seemed like an eternity. But I have a feeling, in twelve days, when it ticks down to 2,699, it’s going to feel like time has actually passed.

How quickly will the hundreds fly by?

How quickly will the thousands race by?

Quickly, I think, because life gets busy and priorities get out of whack and I end up tyrannized by the urgent while neglecting the important and I can spend years on autopilot if I’m not careful.

The app has made me realize: just being aware of time passing isn’t enough. I need to be doing it differently, not just thinking about it differently. Living it more, not dwelling on it more.

I’m a father who needs a bucket list.

By August 20, 2022, there are a few things I want to do with my son:

  1. I want to pull him out of bed early to watch the sunrise. Over the ocean. Tell him he is as beautiful and brilliant as it is. And then I want to remind him, at the same time, that the world revolves around it, not around him.
  2. I want to stay up late stargazing together. Feel small with him. Tell him being small isn’t the same as being unimportant. I want to assure him he doesn’t have to change the world to matter—he only has to be himself.
  3. I want to, just once, not roll my eyes at another one of his Minecraft monologues. I want to sit down and let him teach me every detail of the game. For a whole afternoon.
  4. I want to go for a hike in the woods, find a break in the underbrush that looks like it might be a path, and go down it with him. Tell him the most interesting things he’ll do in life won’t happen on the path everyone else is walking. I want to tell him you have to get nicked up and scratched to feel like you’re really alive.
  5. I want to pay attention to every moment in which he is better than me—at chess, at music, at forgiveness, at whatever. And instead of it stirring up competitiveness in me, I want it to stir up joy. Every time I admire him, I want to tell him about it.
  6. I want to celebrate one of his failures. A big failure. Like a public humiliation. Or a romantic rejection. I don’t want to tell him it will work out better next time—I want to tell him it might not, but he should try it again anyway. Throw a big party and let him know that having skin in the game means, sometimes, you get skinned up.
  7. I want to go out for dinner with him, not primarily to eat a meal, but to practice how to treat the waiter. We’ll look the waiter in the eye and we’ll call him by his name and we’ll tip him well, because I want my son to know everyone is worthy of the same attention I give him.
  8. I want him to hate me, at least once, because I cared about him enough to set a boundary he didn’t like.
  9. I want to send him to therapy. And when he comes home from an appointment and starts telling me what I’ve done wrong, I don’t want to be defensive; I want to be different.
  10. At least once, when he defies me because I was wrong and he was right, I want to grab his head in my hands, look him in the eye, and tell him to never lose his determination to start a ruckus if he believes the world needs the ruckus he wants to start.

And last but not least, on the night before he leaves for college, while he is out saying goodbye to his friends, I want to wait up for him and, while I’m waiting, I want to remember:

the sunrise

and the stars

and the trail-that-wasn’t-a-trail,

and the waiter’s face,

and the moment I held my ground,

and the moment he held his,

and his wonderful successes,

and his equally wonderful failures,

and the long black arms of a Minecraft Enderman.

In 2,711 days, my son is probably going to be leaving home. I know I’m being a little bit maudlin. But that’s okay. I’m going to err in the direction of sappiness, because it’s also the direction of happiness.

Is there someone in your life you want to get a little maudlin about?

You don’t need to be a father or a mother. Perhaps you’re a grandparent, or a spouse or a friend or a lover or a sibling. Do you have a bucket list you’ve been waiting to make and to live?

Time is ticking.

Make it.

Live it.

Question: What would you put on a bucket list for you and your loved ones? Don’t let my list be the last word. Start adding your own ideas in the comments section below. Number them. Let’s see how high we can go. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

—————

Audio: Audio will be unavailable in March, while I’m finishing a book proposal.

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Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • nico

    i never had a dad like this(in fact quite the usual harsh absent demeaning opposite)… but i read ur words now as if those were a dad’s words to me ~

    • drkellyflanagan

      Nico, you are worthy of such words; I’m glad you can receive them.

  • Very inspiring for a new dad like myself.
    I’ve been struggling in the past with a choice to be a buddy or more of an authority with my (12 yrs) younger brother, most likely will have same issues with my kiddo as well.
    How would you balance it? or what’s your mindset about it?

    • drkellyflanagan

      Great question! The way I think of it, a kid has a million people who can be his friend, but most kids only have one person who can be their father. In fatherhood, their is space for a special kind of friendship, but it’s very different than the kind of friendship found elsewhere. That’s my gut reaction.

  • Tom

    I actually have my own bucket list over at my blog “These 30 Dreams”
    I also have a separate bucket list that me and my fiancee wrote together.
    Reading yours showed me that perhaps both of those lists focus a little too much on the external and not enough on the internal of how I relate to myself, and others.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Tom, it just sounds like your bucket lists aren’t finished. Keep adding!

  • Greg

    Wondering if anyone downloaded the app. Looked in the app store and couldnt’ find one that looked like the screenshot displayed in the post. Thanks.

    • schwerd

      can’t find an app with that screen either… hopefully Kelly will post the name of the app for us… I’ve found several others that purport to be similar, but none as elegant

      • drkellyflanagan

        It was an oversight not to link to it in the post! It’s called Countdown Star. You can customize as many countdowns as you want and choose different wallpaper for each, which is why mine may look different than the actual app icon. Glad you’re thinking about using it!

  • Cynthia

    Beautiful, Kelly, really, really beautiful.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you, Cynthia.

  • Nambster

    Thanks for this Dr. Kelly. Before I write a bucket list I will print this off and give it to my husband to get his reaction. Not to ask him to do the same but to see if he see any value in it. I am currently reading a book “The Conscious Parent” and this is one of those perfect examples of a very CONSCIOUS parent!! Its an example of how great we can build character in our kids that can give them a purpose driven life and those examples right there will be a reference point for me. I have 3 sons and I really need to get their dad to connect with them. Its battle I must say…one, because my first approach was always wrong and two because now I need to change his paradigm about my approach!!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Sounds like a very good book; I’m going to check it out! And yes, undoing our own mistakes can be an added layer of work, but I have a feeling it will be worth it.

      • Nambster

        “The Conscious Parent: Transforming Ourselves, Empowering our Children, by Dr. Shefali Tsabary” You are in the same line of work. It is an excellent book. I went through a series of emotions, very tough ones I must add, listening to some of the mistakes that I have done with my kids in the past, particularly the oldest our 10 year old. But I am determined to correct them and move on to a more fulfilling future with my kids.

  • Doug Scott

    Thanks Kelly…this is such a great list. I tend to be a spur of the moment…really trying to catch the moments as they happen kind of guy…kind of dad. Which works well at times…but your list specifically, and your post in general…really makes me want to pause to consider what those moments might be w my girls (and my wife)…and where/when they might happen. That will likely cause me to see them more clearly…as life happens. Thanks again my friend…and I hope that you are well. Cheers, D.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Doug, you rock, and it’s good to hear from you here on the blog. I like the idea of being more intentional about noticing the things we are already doing well. Thanks for that addition.

  • Iryna_R

    Thank you so much for this post! Very inspiring! The list is absolutely great! I especilly loved points number 1 and 4. I remember my dad woke me up to watch a commet in the sky, which turned out to be one the greatest memories I have of him) And I feel lucky I had such walks in the woods too))
    What I would add to my bucket list is a road trip! For me, it is ideal way to spend some quality time together, either with friends or loved ones!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Road trip! Great addition. And so encouraging to hear that those small, special moments are remembered and valued. Thanks for sharing, Iryna.

  • Christina Haas

    So poignant and beautiful! My daughter is leaving for college at the end of August – how many days from now? Maybe 150? We are having a date every week to do the ordinary things we will miss when she is gone. The challenge, now, is to to that with both of her brothers who are coming up behind her!

    I love how you want to bring on the failure – for you and for him. I used to think something was wrong with me that I learned best from my mistakes, not by doing things well the first time. I can see now that it was the mistakes that gave me the real learning and growth. So bring them on!

    Thank you for continuing to make yourself so real to us.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Christina, you are one of the most intentional parents I know. I love that you’re doing a weekly date to celebrate the normal things that will be missed. What a great idea!

  • Tim

    Really gives you perspective when you see tangible numbers counting down. Great article! What’s the app called?

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thanks, Tim! Countdown Star in the Apple app store.

  • Dori Anne Abbott

    I have always made these types of lists; and was very intentional when rearing my three children. It was hard, because I was a single mother. But I did it. And I am glad I did it early, because now I struggle with Multiple Sclerosis, and I can’t do much physically. So many things I still want to do, now that they are all out of the house. I want to dance at my son’s wedding; when he marries a girl he hasn’t even met yet. I want to rock my grandbabies that haven’t even been born yet. And a thousand other things like that. I don’t know how much longer I have; and I don’t know if I will be physically capable of doing any of the things I want to. Time is precious.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Dori, thank you for sharing your story. I can’t imagine the strength and courage it took as a single mother with your ailment to be intentional with the kids. It would have been so much easier to give up. Instead, you showed up. You have my admiration.

      • Dori Anne Abbott

        How kind. Thanks for the encouragement!

  • Laura

    My first item on my bucket list is to let it be motivated and informed first and foremost by love as is yours. Simply beautiful!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thanks, Laura!

  • Mike

    I shared your blog with many. Brought tears to my eyes. Weeping 58 year old. Thanks for a wake up call.

  • Jason Garo

    This is a list that seems to grow as time passes. With my occupation, I lose a lot of time with my son. What I find most important are the moments when the world stops around us and we look at each other as father and son, and suddenly realize how awesome the other one is…I learn a lot from that cool guy!

  • Thanks for this Kelly! Gonna track down that app. 😉 Chris

  • Dee

    Great list Kelly. When my daughter was born 6years ago, it was a very tumultuous time in my life, needless to say things have been that way for sometime…I wrote a song for her and would sing her to sleep every night. It is the top of my bucket list must do; To ride horses with her and watch the sunset together.
    I have grown up with horses and she has a connection with horses as well. I want to encourage this in her life and see it come to fruition.
    …and much more.
    I have people in my life who think the words I love you are over rated and so are hugs and kisses. But I think that app, is a real reminded how little time we actually have to say those words and hug and kiss our children.
    Everyday counts.

  • Ben’s Mom

    I literally sobbed reading this. I have been a single mother of the sweetest little boy for 9 years. No help from the father. I signed away my rights to child support and he signed away his legal rights to the child. I told him he could have visitation up to 50%, the catch was – whatever he chose he had to stick with. He chose nothing. I hold no ill feelings, I just have a heart that hurts because a little boy doesn’t know the experience of a father.

    I am marrying a wonderful man in just a short time and he will be adopting my child. I am thrilled… and sick to my stomach at the same time. As an adult I am scared to change my neighborhood, where I attend church services, etc… but for my child I am terrified. It didn’t come into perspective until I read this beautiful piece. (I love all of your writings) I realized that this little 9 year old boy and I are about to embark on a new adventure and all these years have passed where I haven’t really done everything I could. I was so wrapped in being EVERYTHING to him, that I shorted him on the things that really matter. How can it be that over 3200 days have passed since that beautiful little being entered my life? How could I let over 3200 days slip by without being intentional in my actions? “Existing” and “surviving” are not acceptable ways to live.

    I have much to learn and much to do… but I have about 3200 days in which to do it. Thank you so much for this post, I have never needed anything more than I needed this, right now. Thank you.

    Ben’s Mommy

    • MamaPistachio

      Ben’s Mommy – You are amazing! I have have chosen a similar path with my sweet little lady of almost four. I find that balance is often hard to obtain and maintain. As a woman who bared witness to the character of both of my parents (one who stayed, survived and existed vs one who’s been long absent), I know more now than ever the importance of that balance. You are amazing and will continue to be! You may have flaws and faults, but I’m sure that beautiful little boy, even if he doesn’t fully grasp it now, will someday know, respect, and love deeper the mother that you are! Congratulations on your wedding! 🙂

      • Ben’s Mom

        You are so kind (and amazing yourself) thank you for your sweet response. I wish you the best as well, in all that is to come during the next 5100+ days with your daughter. God Bless you.

  • Trenton’s mom

    My heart immediately swelled and burst with emotion…the good kinds…when I read this. My last child is 17 and at the end of his jr Year in high school. I’m a single mom older 54 and his father is in same area but ill for a long time now…disabled stage 4 disease…in and out of rehab…we were together 9 yrs in recovery and had my son….but he’s been gone 14 yrs with limited contact and yrs inbetween. We’ve made our peace and so has he and my son…recently in fact…hes clean and in longterm rehab now 1 yr…doing well…so when he dies I at least know I gave my son closure and a modicum of peace regarding his father. My son is biracial gifted in music he’s a 7 year trombonist in various school bands, Allstate, etc. This touched me bc the countdown has begun. We are acting as if he’s college bound and will begin the placement and application and grantseeking process in short order… but I have no idea in the world how this will come together. I’m a adult grad myself had him at age 38….jr year in college…and went on to graduate in 2000. I’ve become sick over the past 10 yrs…left my field due to sickness and stress..ccouldn’t be of service any longer. I’ve maintained us by skin of my teeth. 3 jobs in various capacities but all way beneath where I once was. I lost my job in Feb. Once again sick sick sick. On unemployment until August. Home and trying to start a new online business….home like I always wanted to be but couldnt…with him. The countdown has begun….he’s my last. My heart. My recovery baby. My 2 kids from a previous marriage are 32 and 30. This child will go to college as they could not, with a ticket in music in hand. How I don’t know but we’ll get there. My hope is that my new venture will flourish with 15 hrs a day hard work put in right now to build, and im addressing my health issues so i can see this through, for him. Im all he has. And poor as hell. But everyday when he gets off that bus and walks in and I’m here and i hear the clock ticking….we are barely surviving on 800 a month so there’s no extra income yet for bucket list things….tthe ones that cost…but I’m going to make that list THANK YOU sir and a big item on my heart even if it’s just for 3 days is a trip to the beach, just me and him. I’ve never been able to take him on a trip. I just want him to come home on a Friday and I say grab some clothes some swim trunks and get in the car boo I have a surprise for you! That’s what I’d add to the list for us…a weekend with his mom on the beach, to remember…that I made happen even when times were so hard. I know this is my last window of time to have impact in his world. College, music, manhood, life decisions, that grownup world is right there like around the corner. I want these last months as a kid to be happy ones. Not everything he wants but everything he needs. Bucket list it is! Thank you.

  • Trenton’s mom

    From Trenton’s mom: the countdown to college app …. is there one for androids not just iPhone? I want it so much! Please advise. You can email me at carlastrulife@cheerful.com

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  • Thanks dr Flanagan for this full of inspirations. Bucket list is great idea. I done my own one: http://tatasap.pl/ojcowskie-bucket-list/