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As time wanes, a bucket list becomes less adventurous, more emotional

Robert “Smitty” Smith fist-bumps Scott Farrell during the Feb. 8 Tampa Bay Lightning game, the fourth of five items on his bucket list.
Robert “Smitty” Smith fist-bumps Scott Farrell during the Feb. 8 Tampa Bay Lightning game, the fourth of five items on his bucket list.
Published Dec. 15, 2015

LARGO

Last Sunday, a couple of hours before their kids were supposed to come over, Robert "Smitty" Smith called his wife to his bedside and told her, "I'm sorry. I don't think I can make it."

He had been holding on for this evening. Their daughter, Nicole, was going to drive. Their son, Nathan, was going to help with the wheelchair. They were going to see the Tampa Bay Lightning game.

One of the last things on his bucket list.

They had hoped to go to an afternoon game, so he wouldn't get too tired. But the next one isn't until March. He might not make it that long.

So the hockey team offered four tickets to that 5 p.m. game against the Anaheim Ducks. Smith, 60, set out his Lightning hat. Started counting the days.

But he got so weak; the pain got so strong. "I'll call the kids and cancel," said his wife, Caron.

Smith shook his head. "Just give me some time."

• • •

They met in Gary, Ind., in 1973. He was 19; she was 17. She was apprenticing at an oral surgeon's office where his mother worked.

"He was so handsome, we started talking and found out we both loved to hike and camp," she said.

"She had a nice butt, and those blue eyes," he said. "The prettiest girl I'd ever seen."

He worked at a gas station and played hockey. She had never seen a game. Until she watched him.

They got married, moved to Florida. She cleaned people's teeth. He installed heating and air-conditioning systems. Every month, they took their two children camping. During the school year, they stayed close to home: Fort De Soto and Blue Spring. Summers found them scouring national parks for the perfect place to pitch their tent: from Acadia in Maine to Mount Rainier, Wash.; the Great Smoky Mountains to the Grand Canyon.

After the kids had grown and gone, about the time Smith started his own business, he and his wife were taking a drive one day when they started building a bucket list: things they want to do before they die:

Buy a bass boat. Spend a summer in Alaska. Take that train across Canada. "We wanted to camp in all 50 states," said Caron, 58. "We sold our house in Seminole, moved into a mobile home to save money, gave ourselves 10 years until we could retire. But we didn't get that long."

In June, Smith was working long hours, keeping people cool through Florida's summer. No wonder he was always exhausted. Then the stomach cramps started; his eyes yellowed. A tumor was taking over his pancreas.

By December, doctors said there was nothing else they could do. Smith went home under hospice care. Caron quit working to help him.

During those first long, frightening nights, they held each other — and revised their bucket list.

"It evolved into something much more emotional," said Caron. Ways to feel normal, without living in the past or dreading the future. Milestones to look forward to. New memories to make.

Five final goals: Buy a golf cart. Drive it to the Elks Club to say goodbye. See his siblings. Go to one last Lightning game. Make it to his son's 30th birthday.

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• • •

The kids came over a few hours before the faceoff. Smith swore he was feeling better. Hobbling on his blue cane, he grabbed a bottle of water and pocketed his morphine pills. He thought he could at least make it through the first period.

Outside the arena, a security manager ushered them into a reserved parking place, pushed up a folding wheelchair, rolled Smith inside a back door. Down a long hall, past cheerleaders and the press room. Outside the locker room, a Lightning official in a suit was waiting. "Welcome! We're so glad you're here," the man said.

"I'm here to get us points," Smith said. "Tonight, we're going to get five goals."

Their seats were in the first tier, near the Ducks' goal. Smith stood up from the wheelchair, grasped the handrail and tottered down 17 steps. His children slid past him, then his wife. She had never been to a Lightning game.

She couldn't remember the last time they had all been together, just the four of them — without spouses and grandkids, whom they adore. But just them and their kids out doing something fun. "Maybe when you were in high school, and we were camping at Lake Michigan?" Caron asked her daughter. "That was more than 20 years ago."

From his spot on the aisle, Smith watched the lights dancing over the shimmering ice, the players circling below, and he remembered what it felt like to be young and strong, to glide across a smooth mirror and feel like you're flying.

• • •

Everything had happened so fast. Since Christmas, he had lost 45 pounds. He was sleeping more, hurting more, trying to joke through the pain.

Terri Peterson, the chaplain from Suncoast Hospice, asked Smith whether he had anything he wanted to be forgiven for, any regrets to set right. Smith thought and said no. The chaplain asked, "Is there anything you still want to do?"

So he told her about the bucket list.

"When the end is close, we ask ourselves what matters most, what gives our lives meaning," said Peterson. "Having goals is important. They give us something to reach for, another possibility."

They don't have to be grandiose, or even active, the chaplain said. "Oftentimes when you're physically unable to do much, you begin to realize that what you really want most has been here with you all along."

Smith bought a red golf cart, stuck a Lightning decal on the dash. He drove Caron through their mobile home park to the Elks Club. When he limped through the door, everyone cheered. His brother and sisters came to visit, from Canada and Indiana. He checked three things off that list.

And in these last few months, Smith and his wife have spent more time together than ever before. "I guess we're noticing things more now," Caron said.

Every morning, instead of going out the kitchen door to see the creek slip by in silent solitude, Smith takes his wife's arm and walks through the front door to sit in the carport and wave to neighbors walking their dogs, smell the freshly cut grass. And every evening, they head outside to watch the stars poke holes in the black night.

A couple of weeks ago, Smith's son-in-law wrote a Facebook post about how sick Smith was, how much he loved the Lightning, how he had followed the team since its inception all the way through the Stanley Cup and beyond. Even in his last days, he wrote, Smith never missed a game.

Someone from the Lightning wrote back right away. The team invited Smith to a practice, gave him an autographed poster — and tickets to Sunday's game. If he could make it to the first intermission, he could meet the coach.

• • •

The Lightning scored the first goal in three minutes. By the end of that period, there were three.

Smith's eyes grew wide behind his silver-rimmed glasses. His wife kissed his cheek. The security guard came to wheel him to meet the coach.

"I see you brought the team good luck," Jon Cooper said, cupping Smith's thin shoulder. "Thank you! Keep it up."

Smith said, "We're sticking around until you get five."

After the fourth goal, Smith pulled out his water bottle. He hoped no one would notice as he poured two pain pills into his palm, swallowed them and closed his eyes.

He woke up with his kids staring at him and his wife asking, "Are you okay?"

Smith nodded, and coughed into his blue bandanna. "We just need one more," he said, wheezing.

With 13:40 left to play, the Lightning scored again. Fans jumped up and screamed. Smith heaved himself a little straighter in his seat and clapped above his cane. His kids leaned over to give him high-fives.

And beside him, the prettiest girl he had ever seen reached out and folded his cold hands into hers.

"Okay," he smiled. "I'm ready to go."

• • •

The last thing on his bucket list was to see his son turn 30. Saturday night, his wife helped him into the car and drove him to Nate's house for a birthday dinner. Smith couldn't eat, but he was there to watch his boy blow out the candles. And to add another goal: Hang on until next month to see his grandson turn 4.