by Laura Carney
“I’ve been watching you on social media, and I don’t know how you have time to do all that you do,” my childhood friend Drew said. “I hope you are taking care of you.”
“Well, I don’t have children,” I said. “And that helps!”
It was the first time I’d said something like this, and yet I knew it was true.
I was talking with Drew from a table in front of a room of 50 people, in my home state of Delaware. I was signing for him a copy of my first book, My Father’s List: How Living My Dad’s Dreams Set Me Free, about my six-year journey to complete the 54 items my dad left behind on his bucket list when he died.
In 2003, a teenager ran a red light while on her cell phone and killed him. My dad was 54. I was 25.
I spent the next 13 years determined not to die in a car crash—but making sure I’d made my mark on the world if I did.
When my father died so suddenly, I was certain he’d died unhappy. He was creative, a writer like me, yet it seemed most of his plans hadn’t come to fruition. He was restless, always moving from one idea to the next. I wouldn’t give up on things like he had, I decided.
Spending most of my waking hours focused on my career in women’s magazines wasn’t conducive to having kids—an irony, as I worked for the seven sisters, publications that lionized motherhood. And my first national magazine job, at a celebrity tabloid, wrote about the Kardashians’ million-dollar baby showers each week.
As I climbed the rungs of the magazine ladder, I pressured myself to climb what I considered the rungs of womanhood, too. I had to get married—what was taking so long? I had to buy a house! I had to have kids!
What was I as a woman if I did not do these things?
But my now-husband “wasn’t the marrying kind,” which my dad often called himself (my parents divorced when I was six). The three years we spent planning our wedding (a decade after we’d met) were the most stressful of my life. Steven became another person, a teenager steadfast on derailing things. I tried to adhere to American wedding traditions, the plans he resented most. Once he said we should hire a Theremin player for the reception, because “at least it would be something cool.”
Our small destination wedding, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, ended up being one of the most beautiful our guests had ever attended. We held it at a historic inn known for hosting famous writers and artists in the 1920s. New Mexico was where we’d gone for our one-year dating anniversary. Our first year in New York had been hard, and not for the normal reasons it is for 20-somethings. We’d had to cope with my father’s sudden death. We’d had to cope with my sudden phobias. I was scared of growing up, scared of being in love, scared of living. What life would this be, now that I knew how precarious life was?
As I walked the wedding aisle, a flagstone path lined with century-old pinons beside my mom and stepdad, missing my dad’s arm in mine, I tripped on my gown’s hem as we climbed the flagstone steps. Moving to New York, meeting Steven, my father dying…my stumble through adulthood after. It had been like this trip. But this time I didn’t fall.
My mom and stepdad held me up, just as they always had. I’d fallen many times in their household. A man waited for me at the end of that aisle, who’d similarly help me stand if I ever fell again. Who’d kept me vertical for 13 years.
My reading in Delaware—where I’d confessed it seemed easier to go on this book tour, write this book, even finish my dad’s bucket list because I didn’t have kids—was attended by all of my dad’s old friends, including my godfather, Dan, my father’s best friend. We’d stayed in touch, mostly at Christmas.
“It’s like I’m looking at Mickey,” Dan said, holding back tears. I hugged him—what my father would have done.
Dan came back later with a photo of himself dancing with his daughter at her wedding. He smiled with excitement in the photo—the look my dad would have had if given the chance to dance with me at mine.
The next day, Dan texted me the photo.
If he’d sent this even six years earlier, I would have struggled with envy—it was a moment I’d thought I was supposed to have. I now felt this way when I liked photos of kids’ birthdays online—moments I’d convinced myself I was incomplete without.
“Thank you for coming. That moment we shared meant a lot to me! Lisa is beautiful!”
“In case I didn’t mention it, so are you. I talked to Mick last night and told him all his efforts had finally come to fruition. I know he is beaming.”
The week after the reading, I walked to the park with my husband to check on a list item: “plant an apple tree.” I hadn’t known why my dad wanted to do this, but recently learned he’d climbed apple trees in his yard as a kid.
As Steven filled our pitcher, a man with his bike and small dog and a woman with her small dog approached me.
“Is that your tree?” he asked.
Angelo wanted to know how I’d been able to plant it, why I’d planted it, for whom it was dedicated. He’d planted two cherry trees for his wife, he said, who’d died in August.
“’And if you saw my love, you’d love her too, and I love her,’” he said, quoting the Beatles song on the stone at the foot of the cherry tree with her name: Carol.
“That was one of my dad’s favorite songs to sing,” I told him.
This led to talking about the book I’d written about my dad’s bucket list, which had been featured on CBS Sunday Morning on Father’s Day, and how cool it was to see a segment about Paul McCartney next to mine—how my dad would have loved this.
“OK, what’s your email address?” Angelo asked. “I need to order your book; I’m going on a trip this week and telling my friends to order it, too.”
As we walked to the grocery store, my husband laughed.
“I can’t take you anywhere anymore!” he said.
When I told a friend about what happened in the park, and then again at the grocery store (a man stocking shelves shared about his mother passing, unprovoked by me), she said, “Your path is lit. Now all you have to do is walk it.”
My dad didn’t die unhappy. He’d raised my brother and me. That was his path.
It might not be mine.
But my path is turning out to be one of service to humankind.
I think it’s a good one.
Laura Carney is a writer and copy editor in New York.
She's been published by the Washington Post, the Associated Press, The Hill, Runner's World, People magazine, Guideposts, Good Housekeeping, The Fix, Upworthy, Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper and other places, and her book My Father’s List: How Living My Dad’s Dreams Set Me Free was published by Post Hill Press in June 2023.
Her work as a copy editor has been primarily in magazines, for 20 years, including Good Housekeeping, People, Guideposts, Vanity Fair, and GQ.
She’s @myfatherslist on Instagram, @lac30 on Twitter, and her website is bylauracarney.com.