Daughter Finishes Dad’s Bucket List, Finds Herself
Laura Carney had trouble thinking about her father without crying for many years. When she was only 25, her father was killed in a car crash by a distracted driver. “I became sort of a timid person without realizing that I was,” Carney told Solace Cremation.
It was difficult to grieve for him with the trauma of his tragic ending still haunting her. Though she turned her attention to her career and later to working as an advocate for safer driving, she found the trauma of his death left her with anger that wasn’t serving her.
But 13 years later, shortly after Carney had gotten married, her brother found a list written by her father. It was titled “Things I Would Like to Do in My Lifetime.” Carney says she knew almost instantly that she had to finish her father’s bucket list. She explained she always considered it a wedding gift.
The list was written in 1978, the year she was born, while her father was still a young man. Her father wrote that he hoped to live a long life and that he wanted to make it to 2020. She set her sights on completing the list by then.
Only five items were crossed off from his 60, so Carney spent nearly six years working on what remained, with additional time added because of the pandemic: skydiving, growing a watermelon, meeting a president, corresponding with the Pope, driving a Corvette, surfing in the Pacific, swimming across a river, running nonstop for 10 miles, among them. She says the mission helped her better understand her father and has changed who she is.
Carney started the list when she was 38, but was able to embrace the youthful optimism of what her father had written. “To have something so incredibly optimistic and idealistic show up that was my dad’s list of dreams … I think the main thing it did for me was it gave me a second chance at being 25 … Now I’m getting an opportunity to revisit an innocence I’d lost,” Carney said.
Carney says that it helped her realize she was much more like her father than she knew. “I wanted to be a travel writer and have this life of adventure, but everyone was saying, ‘that’s crazy.’” But Carney says after finding the list she imagined her father had been through something similar at that age. “He didn’t let anybody limit his dreams and that’s who I am, too. It just gave me permission to be that person,” she said.
Her father was also a writer as well as a singer and salesman, so his list reflected his broad interests. The last task was to record five songs, which was meaningful to Carney because of her father’s passion for singing.
Many of the tasks necessitated bravery in the face of difficult or scary situations like swimming across a river or sailing a boat solo. But Carney found confidence in trying them despite her fears.
She also saw synchronicity opening before her eyes. She met a biographer of Jimmy Carter at a hotel just before she was planning to meet the former president. After learning to surf and watching the movie “Point Break,” Carney was eating at a restaurant in Los Angeles when the movie’s star, Keanu Reeves, walked in. The coincidences continued to pop up and made her feel her father was with her on her journey.
Though she has her own bucket list with about 98 items on it, Carney says she doesn’t feel any pressure to get them done in her lifetime. She still would like to go to Italy, hike the Appalachian trail and see the tomb of Joseph Campbell. She has already finished 19 items of her list while working on her father’s.
But there is an aspect of her journey that anyone can do, she says. “The thing that everybody could do is find something that your loved one loved to do and try to do it yourself.”
For her, it is the enduring friendships she made while working on the list that are most meaningful to her. “One of the most rewarding parts of my dad’s list was that everyone I know showed up. Suddenly there were people in my life … someone was a tennis coach, so they could help with that item, or someone was a landscaper, they could help with the watermelon. There was always someone who had a skill who could help me with what my dad’s dream was. The special part about the list item usually wasn’t so much the list item itself but the bond I was forming with that person who was helping me.” She says in this way, she was re-creating a ritual with her late father.
She completed many of these tasks alone and with some she was joined by her husband, mother and brother, but she never felt completely alone.
“I think our loved ones are still with us. I don’t think they go anywhere. I think their energy is meant to live on in us and the way we love other people,” she said.
Laura Carney is a magazine copy editor, writer and illustrator who lives in Montclair, NJ. She is the author of My Father’s List, in bookstores on June 13, 2023. You can preorder from links on her website.