Stephen McGinty: Stephen Sutton, so well lived

THE DEATH of heroic young cancer sufferer Stephen Sutton should make us all realise how precious our lives are and encourage us to make sure every single day counts, writes Stephen McGinty

Stephen Sutton, 19, shortly before he died last week. Picture: Contributed
Stephen Sutton, 19, shortly before he died last week. Picture: Contributed

MY BUCKET is empty. Well, not quite. At the very bottom, in a small puddle of water, swims a very big fish, but I’m not sure if I even want him in there. I may empty it out, and then what will I do when eventually told my days on this mortal coil are rapidly reducing?

Everyone else’s bucket seems to be filled with parties, holidays, elephants and parachutes, and what do I have: nothing but an empty bucket and, at best, a very big fish.

Now, I know the term is “bucket list” and usually refers to a long list, written down on paper to which one can apply with satisfaction a large red tick when a task or experience has been accomplished, but in my mind I don’t actually see the list, just the steel bucket and what it could possibly contain.

When in 2005 Justin Zackham, a Hollywood screenwriter, coined the term as the title of his screenplay about two elderly men diagnosed with terminal cancer who set out to achieve their life’s ambitions, he adapted the phrase “kick the bucket” as in: to die. Now “kick the bucket” has an even stranger origin, as some believe it refers to a form of suicide (you can imagine how) where one stands on a bucket, then kicks it away. But there are various other interpretations. Either way, Zackham’s screenplay became a mildly successful movie starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, whose individual buckets were also filled with parties and holidays and parachutes.

I can’t quite remember if there was an elephant, but there certainly was a large mountain.

I should be clear that my inadequately stocked bucket is not as a result of a lack of judicious and morbid planning. How many of you have worked out that in the event of being rendered into a coma, which audio books and music play lists you would wish to hear? Well, I have – the rest of you, best get to it. Or what activities have you reserved as a form of rehabilitation in the event of debilitating personal trauma? I’ve got the Harry Potter novels and golf tucked away on a dusty shelf for just such an eventuality. What I don’t have is a well-stocked bucket.

So, let’s deal first of all with the sole content, the “very big fish”. Ever since I was a child and first saw Jaws on television, I’ve had a mild crush on Great White Sharks. The night after the first screening I slept with my knees up at my chest, too fearful to slide them down to the bottom of the bed in case a roaming nocturnal shark happened to be swimming past my bedroom.

The first “post-Jaws” swim in the local pool was a battle between my imagination and the verifiable fact that in the 100-year history of Clydebank municipal baths there had not been a single sighting of a dorsal fin, even in the deep end.

Since then, I’ve had the privilege of swimming with a sand tiger shark at North Queensferry which, up close, resembled a bored fridge tipped on its side.

However, I’ve always had a mild interest in participating in a cage dive off the South African coast, where they toss bloody chum overboard and within a few minutes a 25-foot Great White is inspecting the cage as we would a tin of tuna.

I’ve always wondered if I would have the courage to clamber down into that cage.

The reason a “bucket list” is on my mind is because of the incredible determination of Stephen Sutton, the 19-year-old who died on Wednesday after almost four years battling bowel cancer.

Eighteen months ago, when told that his condition was terminal, he abandoned plans to be a doctor and instead drew up a list of 46 things he wanted to do before he died, including playing the drums in front of 90,000 people before the Champions League final at Wembley last May, skydiving, hugging an elephant and meeting Jimmy Carr, the comedian.

Yet top of the list was to raise £10,000 for the Teenage Cancer Trust. He did so within three months, then continued to revise his target from £50,000 to £100,000 to £500,000. In April, he posted a Facebook picture of himself in a hospital bed, removing the oxygen mask and raising his thumb. It was, he said, “a final thumbs-up” as his condition has worsened. He added: “It’s a shame the end has come so suddenly.”

One of the comedians he had met, Jason Manford, then launched a #thumbsupforstephen Twitter campaign, which went viral with celebrities posting selfies of themselves and holding signs urging people to donate £5. By 27 April, fundraising had passed £2 million and Stephen had heroically managed to cough up a tumour, which meant there was the possibility of more time.

What galvanised people was Stephen’s stoicism and lack of bitterness. He wasn’t raging at the dying of the light, but instead seemed grateful for what little light he had. As he wrote on 8 May: “I actually see myself as very fortunate – despite being incurable for a while I have had a sustained period of very good health …My disease is very advanced and will get me eventually, but I will try my damn hardest to be here as long as possible.”

Possible ran out on Wednesday, when his mother wrote on Facebook: “My heart is bursting with pride but breaking with pain for my courageous, selfless, inspirational son who passed away peacefully in his sleep in the early hours of this morning.”

When I read about Stephen Sutton’s condition and the courage and good humour with which he was handling it, I was filled with a mixture of admiration and relief. Admiration at his stoicism and determination to achieve a “good death”; for if such a thing is ever possible, it was certainly one he could now cross off his list. Relief, well, because it wasn’t me in that hospital bed hoping for a few more days or weeks.

I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that after a public death such as that of Stephen Sutton, there is a tendency to think about one’s own life and what else we could or should be doing with it. We’re still here, at the party, in the game, when someone like Stephen has, sadly, had to leave so soon.

Yet it never lasts and we rarely act upon it. It is as if, for a few minutes, we break the surface, look up at the blue sky and ponder: “What next?” And then life, like a wave, with all its individual, mundane problems quickly washes us down under again.

Yet the reason why we all fail to achieve or do all that we hope or imagine is procrastination, that charge of static electricity that builds up between us and a body of work or a goal that repels us from starting one day at a time. For it is not the case that we decide not to do something, but instead we decide to do it tomorrow, then tomorrow then tomorrow.

The reason we do this is that we assume there will always be a tomorrow and a tomorrow and a tomorrow. Death, as they say, does have an ability to focus the mind.

So while I could interpret my piddly bucket as a testament to a fortunate life in which I’ve been able to do many of the things I wished as a child, it could also be a consequence of middle-aged apathy. Maybe I need to look at the world with the same joy and wonder that Stephen Sutton did when he said, “You get one shot at life … make it count”, and then perhaps reach back to Jaws and say: “I’m going to need a bigger bucket.”