In Laura Carney's "My Father's List: How Living My Dad's Dreams Set Me Free," the journalist stumbles upon a bucket list written by her late father, who'd passed away 13 years earlier. Carney sets off on a journey to complete the unfinished items on the list.
Completing the list required Carney to tackle some intense challenges — including parachuting out of a plane. But it also forced her to reckon with her family's complex history and come to terms with her continued grief. "My Father's List: How Living My Dad's Dreams Set Me Free" ($18) is on sale now. Read an exclusive POPSUGAR excerpt of the novel below.
We were visiting my brother in Salem, Massachusetts, when we found it.
As we gathered around Dave's granite-topped kitchen island, catching up on his wedding plans, my future sister-in-law, Jaime, went into their bedroom to retrieve something.
"Oh yeah," my brother said. "I wanted to show you this."
When she returned, her long blonde hair matching the walls of the rustic kitchen, she was holding a small brown suede pouch with a drawstring. She turned it upside down and out tumbled a silver ring and a driver's licence, along with three pieces of folded notebook paper.
"We found it when we were unpacking," Dave said. "Do you know about this?"
I unfolded the papers and started reading. At the top of the first page was "Things I Would Like to Do in My Lifetime!" in my dad's handwriting.
He wrote the list when he was twenty-nine, covering both sides of each page. The first item said, "I would like to live a long, healthy life at least to the year 2020." The last said he hoped to dance at his grandchildren's weddings.
But both those goals were rendered impossible on August 8, 2003, the day he was killed by a distracted driver.
That summer I was twenty-five, pursuing my dream of becoming a writer in New York. My dad had encouraged this more than anyone, so I knew I couldn't give up on it. He wasn't there when I accomplished my goal of working at a women's magazine eight years later. And he wasn't there five years after that, when I needed him to walk me down the aisle.
But on that afternoon in my brother's kitchen, I felt connected to him as we chuckled at his often indecipherable handwriting. I wondered aloud if he'd kept the list his whole life. He'd never told us about it. But then Dave remembered the World Series game he'd checked off.
"Look," he said. "He even wrote the score."
"As proof?" I asked.
Then something strange happened: we realised that many of his want-to-dos were things we'd already done. "I did that!" I cried about number thirty-one, "Get my picture in a national magazine." "And you did that!" I reminded my brother when we saw he'd wanted to record five songs (Dave recorded his with his a cappella group in college). All in all, there were thirteen items we'd accomplished. Not a small dent, considering he wrote down sixty.
But in my father's entire lifetime, he'd only checked off five.
Item number twelve said, "Give my children the most love, the best education, and best example I can give." He never checked that one off, but he should have. Because it's the reason I did this.
I decided to finish the list.
As soon as my husband, Steven, suggested it, I saw my dad in my mind's eye, smiling and nodding.
As the story goes, my mom found the list in a dresser in 1978, the year I was born, and read it in disbelief. She says they laughed over "have my own tennis court" and even harder at "correspond with the pope."
But at the time she was secretly concerned that the man she'd married had room in his head for much other than changing nappies.
I knew I was tempting fate by going after his ideas now on purpose.
The last time I sat down alone with my dad was when I was twenty-five, a week before I moved away from home. It was my last "every Wednesday and Sunday." That's how often he said he'd see us when he left. And that's how often he did, for nineteen years, usually in restaurants, movie theatres, bowling alleys, roller rinks, sports arenas, swimming pools, malls, arcades, every park in Wilmington, Delaware, and in summers at the Jersey Shore.
My brother had moved to Arlington, Virginia, getting a job in accounting soon after college. I'd lingered in my mom and stepdad's house longer, which felt unnatural as I was two years older. As we talked over lunch, my dad knew I was embarrassed by this.
He told me he envied what I was about to do, try to find my way in New York as a writer, because it was something he'd wanted to do when he was my age. He told me that of all the talents my brother and I possessed, what made him the proudest of us was our kindness. He told me we were the best thing he'd ever done.
He said this all the time, "You're the best thing I've ever done," so that was nothing new. But I hadn't known it was our kind hearts that filled him the most with pride. He'd so often tried to predict our careers, athletic and otherwise, that somehow I'd missed it.
"You're audio," he'd say to Dave, "and you're visual," he'd say to me, acknowledging my brother's gift for singing, passed down from him, and mine for drawing. He'd say that someday we'd run our own business, with my brother as the accountant and me as the editor.
When it came to sports, you'd think we were forming a team he'd drafted. I had the excellent tennis backhand, but my brother had the "power forehand"—and later, in adolescence, the "power serve," backed by a muscular build I could no longer compete with. My tenacity on defence on the basketball court earned me the nickname "the female Bobby Jones" while my brother had "the second-fastest hands in the East"—"second" because my dad's were "first."
I didn't possess Dave's coachability; I was more flappable. So my dad taught me to take my time, to look squarely at the basket and visualize the ball swooshing through. To imagine success before it happened.
The day my brother finally beat me in a race was not a good one. At age eleven, my baby fat shed, I'd emerged a long-legged goose of sorts. "Look at those long strides," my dad said. "You're going to be a long-distance runner."
I was fed up. I didn't like being "the breaststroke champ" simply because I couldn't swim freestyle. I didn't like being applauded for treading water so furiously that I wouldn't go under simply because I was too afraid to dive. I didn't even particularly like playing goalie to Dave's swift football kicks or catcher to his pitches.
We were in our favourite park that day. And at eleven, with my feet in pink suede sneakers too big for my body, I ran off to put my long-distance-runner label to the test.
My father's cries of "Stop!" and "Where are you going?" were of little concern.
I'm doing this, right now, by myself, I thought.
I ran toward the park's mile-long track. After five minutes, I began to tire. But then I saw the first stop on the obstacle course that ran along its perimeter. Its familiarity comforted me.
In the summer my dad took us around the course on Wednesday nights. It was part of his exercise routine, and some stops were intolerably dull for children. But he'd pepper the course with jokes and trivia.
The first obstacle was the tire jump. The last was the balance beam. I had them committed to memory.
One by one they passed in my periphery. The yellow sand beneath me turned to clouds of dust. I began to lose my breath. I'd looked behind me a few times by then.
Why aren't they following me? I wondered. A moment of panic overtook me.
I'm really doing this alone, I thought. It is completely up to me now.
I slowed my pace to a power walk...and then to just a walk. And then I just wanted to make it to the balance beam.
Fully expecting him to be angry at the finish, I was surprised to find my father proud of me.
"I'm not a long-distance runner, Dad," I said, embarrassed to have walked most of it. I stepped onto the balance beam and started across it, one foot after the other. Slowly, surely … my preferred pace. It was my favourite of all the obstacles.
"Oh, but you are a long-distance runner," he said. "You are."
As I described my plans to him over lunch before my move to New York, my dad was the only person I knew who understood and approved of what I was doing. I was moving for an internship at an art magazine for only ten dollars a day. I was moving with only $1,000 in my bank account. I knew only one person, a cousin, who lived there already.
But something in me knew I could handle it.
And I think something in him did, too.
A month after finding my father's list, my brother's wedding was a snowy affair in New Hampshire—as cold and wet as my New Mexico wedding had been hot and dry. Dave and Jaime gave me the list framed as a wedding party gift, meaning anyone could now read it.
There were plenty of opinions to go around. My brother said he would help me with some of the items but not all.
A few weeks later, at Christmas, my mom and stepdad gave Steven and me a monetary wedding gift. It was meant to "invest in our future."
My mom hoped this would be a down payment on a house. She knew I might spend it on the list instead.
"That list was for a twenty-nine-year-old, not a thirty-eight-year-old," she said. She worried I'd go bankrupt pursuing this. Or even worse—jeopardize starting a family of my own.
I knew what I was doing seemed impossible.
But it was the main reason I had to try.
Excerpted from My Father's List: How Living My Dad's Dreams Set Me Free (c) 2023 by Laura Carney. Published by Post Hill Press. Used with permission.