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I found my dad's bucket list 13 years after he was killed. I set off to complete the 54 items in it.

Laura Carney   

I found my dad's bucket list 13 years after he was killed. I set off to complete the 54 items in it.
  • When I was 25, my dad was killed by a teenage driver who was on her phone.
  • Over a decade later, I found my dad's bucket list at my brother's house.

The year I got married, a woman whose book I was supposed to copyedit said, "I'm a psychic medium, by the way, and your dad's spirit has a message for you. Is it OK if I share it?"

I told her to go ahead. The message: "Don't compromise yourself."

I was 38 years old, about to marry the man I had been with for 13 years. I'd been working as a copy editor in magazines for almost 20 years. I was supposed to rise in the ranks at work, settle down, and raise a family. That's what everyone said I should want. I wasn't sure if I did.

I found my answer a year later, in November 2016, on a visit to my brother's first house.

While unpacking, he'd discovered what appeared to be our father's bucket list. My brother had unknowingly had it for 13 years, since our dad's death.

I didn't have any closure when my dad died

I was 25 when my dad was killed by a teenage driver who was on her phone. I didn't have a chance to say goodbye. Finding this list, one my dad had written when I was a baby, felt like he was saying hi. Though he'd never told us, it was clear he'd been checking it off his whole life.

In an instant, I resolved to finish the remaining 54 items. The first said he'd hoped to live until the year 2020, so I made that my deadline.

My experiences reminded me of lessons my father had already taught me

The first year of list-checking, I finished 14 items, including "visit Los Angeles," "run 10 miles straight," "swim the width of a river," "skydive at least once," "ride a horse fast," "talk with the President," and "surf in the Pacific." I was shouting my father's name from the hilltops. Working through this list was a detour from the well-established routines in my life.

But in year two, I lost my job. I injured myself checking off a list item, needed surgery, and couldn't walk for two months. I ran out of money.

"This is too hard!" I yelled out from the couch one night.

An hour later, I heard from my uncle; my dad's old roommate had been cleaning house and found a newsletter my dad created in 1978, the year he wrote the list. He said he'd get it sent to me.

When I received the newsletter in the mail, I couldn't get over what he'd written on the first page: "The point is to have fun."

I realized that all I'd needed to do was ask for help, and it would be offered to me; I started to think if completing the rest of the list might be like this, with each item reminding me of lessons my dad had already given me. He was still parenting me from the beyond.

Completing the list made me embrace change

I enjoyed completing the list, and it taught me so many lessons — all of which I felt like my dad was teaching me directly. These were the most important things I learned:

It's important to spend time in nature.

My father was most at home in the wild. He regularly took my brother and me on hikes through the woods.

As I satisfied the list's travel items, I found myself hiking more often — the list was expensive, and this was the only adventure that was free! I reconnected with my memories of my father goading me on, teaching me to navigate.

Life is about choice.

Completing the list required that I put aside what I thought my life was supposed to be and embrace what it could be, instead.

As I made these unusual choices, I developed more awareness of the other choices I made in life. We are always choosing things. Modern life can make us forget.

If everything in life is a choice, why not make loving ones?

It's the journey, not the outcome.

Now that my book is about to launch, well-meaning people are telling me things like, "Remember to enjoy this."

It occurred to me soon after my list-related injury that if I was committing to anything, I was committing to it for the sake of doing it, not the results — whether I finished the list or whether I wrote and published my book, it was about putting my heart into it. I didn't care what the world thought.

When you are doing something you love so much that you don't care where the journey ends, that's when you are on the right path.

The summit will find you on its own. Keep hiking.

You have to be mentally strong to be physically strong.

My father coached my brother and me in sports equally. When I took up running at 35, I remembered this.

I didn't know it then, but I was preparing. I couldn't have said yes to the list if I hadn't said yes to a marathon first.

We are always preparing ourselves, whether we know it or not. When we learn we can keep our own promises, we are ready to say yes when opportunity arrives.

Maintain relationships with friends.

My dad compared all the people in one's life to the players on a chessboard. He called the pawns his friends. I thought this seemed insulting, but then he explained: your bonds in life enrich you and protect you. You have to choose them wisely.

Completing my father's list brought so many new friends into my life. The reason this changed was because I did. I let myself be vulnerable, I showed people the real me. The happiest people are people who love their friends.

Always build people up.

My dad was a comedian as a side hustle; he had a joke for every situation. He made an effort to elevate even the most mundane situations. He asked how people were. He told long stories, but also often lectured me on starting too many sentences with the word "I."

Seek to lift people up, ask how they are. You will be lifted in return.

Have fun.

Whether I was jumping out of an airplane or sailing by myself, I remembered what a thrill my dad would be having living out these list items. I stopped focusing on what could go wrong. I leaned into the thrills, just like he did.

We stay young when we prioritize having fun.

Set intentions.

My dad studied the philosophies of Napoleon Hill, a prolific self-help author — a fact I didn't know until I discovered his old notebooks the year I started the list. Napoleon Hill learned from interviewing entrepreneurs that successful people are those who set goals.

When you write something down, your energy changes. It takes courage to do that. It's okay if you don't know yet how you will do it. Just jot down what it is you yearn to do. It puts you one step closer to it.

Read everything.

The kinds of books I felt inclined to read while checking off my dad's list often surprised me. No matter where I was going or what sport I needed to understand (golf was a new one), I became less discerning. In so doing, I expanded my mind.

My dad was a jack-of-all-trades; he followed his curiosity. When we open ourselves up to learning things we think we won't like, we expand our capacity to communicate.

We're here to expand who we are, not diminish it.

Follow your heart, not your head

In the middle of the first year I started following the list, I began seeing heart shapes in nature at least once a day, like breadcrumbs sent by my father. They dispelled my fears of foolishness — and I always noticed them more after I'd made a compassionate choice.

Following my heart and not my head was difficult for me. But over time, it got easier, and I learned to listen to what my heart was saying over what my brain was telling me to do up until the day I completed the list on December 27, 2022 – in fact, I'm still allowing my heart to overrule my head.

Parents can still teach you from beyond the grave

My father was unpredictable in life. As a teenager I learned to stop relying on him. But in death, he is freed of his human hang-ups — he wants my happiness, and he can do anything to help me find it.

All of our parents can, if we listen hard enough. If we follow our hearts, not our heads.

It's what we did as children. It's what we can still do now.

Follow the breadcrumbs.

Laura Carney's book "My Father's List: How Living My Dad's Dreams Set Me Free" is available for purchase (Post Hill Press).

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