Laura’s father’s bucket list
“I was terrified,” says Laura, who threw up as the ground hurtled towards her while skydiving.
“Surfing the Pacific was also really scary; I must have wiped out 20 times, as was sailing alone: I capsized.”
Laura was 25 years old when her father was killed in 2003 in a car crash by a teen driver distracted by a mobile phone.
Thirteen years later, she discovered that her father, salesman Mick Carney of Delaware, had left a bucket list: 60 adventures and achievements he wished to accomplish in his lifetime, inscribed on folded notepaper. He had only ticked off five of them, including performing stand-up comedy in a club, and being interviewed on the radio.
Laura, by then 38 years old, decided to complete her father’s dream.
“Ticking off my father’s list really changed me,” she says. “I’d been focused on status, my job and money. The list made me realise it’s the journey that’s important, not the destination.
“I was up at 20,000 feet about to skydive, really afraid, when I heard a voice inside my head – perhaps my father’s voice – saying: ‘Let go’. Jumping out of a plane makes you less fearful of everything else in your life. If you let any fear stop you doing something new, you’re hurting your chances to grow, to find out what you’re capable of.”
Pursuing the bucket list brought Laura closer to her father, taught her to believe in herself, and led her to write her mesmerising new book, My Father’s List, which offers lessons for everyone.
“He taught me the value of selfishness – not putting myself first, but making self-growth the focus of life,” she says.
Her father’s list took her to New Orleans, Berlin, Vienna, the Caribbean and England, touring royal venues including Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and the Tower of London. “Visiting Britain was special because my family traces its ancestry back to the White Queen, Elizabeth Woodville, who married Edward IV,” she explains.
DAREDEVIL: Skydiving terrified her, but ticked off another of her dad’s goals
Elizabeth was a 15th-century beauty whose sons by the king became the doomed Princes in the Tower, presumed murdered so that Richard III could seize the throne. She appears in two of Shakespeare’s plays, and Philippa Gregory’s 2009 bestseller The White Queen.
Laura, by contrast, is a 45-year-old copy editor and writer living in New Jersey, who has battled depression and whose greatest ambition was to work on a magazine – until her father’s list consumed her life. “I was devastated by his death, so when we found his list in 2016 I felt I had to fulfil his dream,” she says.
Perhaps Laura was lucky to have a father whose ambitions were not more life-threatening: he didn’t aspire to climb Mount Everest, dive the wreck of the Titanic, or run with the bulls at Pamplona. Instead the list led her to run 10 miles straight, beat a tennis pro, grow a watermelon, learn to play the guitar, record five songs, and start a charitable foundation. She fulfilled her father’s dream of chatting with a US president – “the most impossible list item”, she believed – and corresponding with the Pope.
“Jimmy Carter was president when my father wrote the list, so I went to meet him in Plains, Georgia, where he taught Sunday school,” she says. “I sat in the church pew behind him, and we spoke after the service. He was very gracious.”
Pope Francis sent his blessings to Laura and prayed for her father’s “eternal rest” in response to her letter. But in pursuing the list, she also discovered her father’s darkest secret, and the reason behind her parents’ divorce when she was just six: he liked to dress as a woman.
“He’d lived a double life, and that must have taken so much of his energy,” she says.
“Though I never knew he cross-dressed, his secret affected me. I’d absorbed the feelings his life gave him. I’d absorbed his shame. Which he had for no reason.
“Working on my father’s list made me more compassionate towards him. I realised I was braver and more resourceful than I thought. I worked harder, and discovered I was athletic – by the end I was training for a triathlon.”
Towering achievement: Laura visiting London with husband
Yet chasing her father’s dreams almost bankrupted Laura, with global travel and tickets for top sporting events: her seat at American football’s Super Bowl alone cost her £4,000. “For my wedding my mother gave me money as downpayment on a house, and I spent it all on the list,” Laura admits.
“I apologised, but my mother said: ‘That’s OK – your writing is your home.’ That made me cry. My husband was very supportive, even though money was tight at times. It helped me find forgiveness for my father, who always seemed low on cash.” Part of Laura’s charm is her human frailty: she’s not Wonder Woman, and did not excel at every goal. Surfing, she barely stood upright for two seconds. Sailing solo she had to be towed back to port.
“One of her most valuable lessons was learning to forgive herself, especially when fudging some of the list.
He wanted his own tennis court; she bought a ping pong table. He wanted to “own a large house with our own land”, she bought a three-person tent.
He wanted to ride a fast horse; she barely broke into a trot. He wanted to sell a million dollars worth of merchandise; she babysat her cousin’s kids, which her cousin assured Laura was worth $1million in kind.
Laura and husband Steven with former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rossalyn
But in all her endeavours Laura clearly tried her hardest with an open heart, accepting whatever may come. Along the way she was aided by hundreds of family, friends and strangers touched by her desire to complete her father’s list. She even came to appreciate the teen driver who had sailed through a red light in 2003 was not trying to kill her father. “She had hung up her mobile phone, but studies show drivers’ focus remains narrow for the next 27 seconds,” says Laura, who has become a leading advocate against so-called distracted driving. “Once I knew that, I forgave her in my heart.”
Having completed her own lifetime goal of publishing a book, Laura has written her own bucket list of 100 things to do before she dies, but says: “I feel bad for anyone who finds my list and tries to complete it. It’s more adventurous and involves a lot more travel than my dad’s list.
“I want to see a volcano up close, and an elephant, trek the Himalayas and travel Asia. I have already checked off 21 items on my list, including visiting The Beatles’ Abbey Road studio and the home of AA Milne
“I might not be attempting any of that without having done my father’s list. My father rescued me. He helped me to find my inner adventurousness and fulfilment.
“I believe that loved ones who die are still guiding us, and want us to be happy. I’m so glad that I finally trusted my father.”
My Father’s List by Laura Carney (Permuted Press, £12.99) is available to order from Express Bookshop. Visit expressbookshop.com or call Express Bookshop on 020 3176 3832. Free UK P&P on online orders over £25