Following in her father's footsteps
In an increasingly distracted and impatient world—where inattention reigns on the road and in our lives—Laura Carney sees hope. It’s in her father’s bucket list, written decades before his death as the ultimate love letter to life.
In her heart she’s still connected to him, full of his funny jokes and big dreams. She senses his spirit, one she’s come to understand is so much like her own.
Although Mick Carney, AS71, died 17 years ago—killed by a distracted driver—Laura Carney, AS03, has found a way to connect joyfully with her father every day, to process her grief, and to help others cope with sudden loss.
Laura’s transformation—and her father’s legacy—lies on a few timeworn scraps of white notepaper. It is Mick’s “bucket list,” written the year she was born and found by her brother, Dave, BE02, years after his death. In casual, looping script, it still tells of the things he hoped to do: Speak with a U.S. president. Go skydiving at least once. Correspond with the pope.
When Laura first saw the list of 60 dreams, she was 38 years old and well into her career as a magazine copy editor. The first 10 years after her father’s death, she’d shelved her grief by pursuing her profession. But her pain resurfaced when she realized her father couldn’t walk her down the aisle. “When Steven proposed, he said, ‘You can’t carry this anger into our marriage.’ And he was right,” Laura remembers. “I knew I had to do something.” For three years, she educated others about distracted driving, hoping to prevent further tragedies, but it wasn’t enough. Car fatalities kept going up.
When her dad’s list emerged in 2016, it was the perfect time to find a new way. It was six months after her wedding, and as she held the list, she remembered who her dad really was—a man whose life was hopeful, not one that could be defined by tragedy.
“So when I found the list, it was like my dad was providing me a framework, a way of telling his story through the things he cared about. I knew immediately—I had a gut instinct I should finish it. And I had this image in the back of my mind of my dad smiling, and nodding, ‘Yes.’”
Scanning his ambitious and sometimes whimsical list—“Teach a class about wine.” “Grow a watermelon” —she found he had checked off five, and failed at another, leaving her with 54 to complete for him.
Almost immediately, she launched a blog and website focused on her mission, and zeroed in on her first challenge: “Run 10 miles straight.”
Laura decided to take on the Los Angeles Marathon (she ran half, while her college roommate Kelly Solis, EHD02, ran the other), finishing just before a Good Housekeeping article she authored on her bucket-list quest began to stir national attention. Soon, the media requests seemed to be coming from every direction: Her first big interview on Inside Edition was followed by an appearance on CBS News and a slew of local stations.
“It kind of went viral,” she says.
As she prepped for high-pressure interviews and learned how to keep pace with the requirements of an increasingly busy schedule, Laura found herself sometimes overwhelmed and a bit bewildered.
“I didn’t aspire to help myself,” she says now. “I just wanted to save lives and honor my dad. I had no idea it would draw the interest it did or happen so fast.”
Her days became a whirl of advocacy and adventure. There she was, fulfilling Mick’s dreams by skydiving on TV—and throwing up on herself onscreen. There she was, tackling the tennis challenge—“Beat a number-one seeded tennis player in a tournament”—then badly injuring herself on the court the first day she tried. Hoping to achieve her dad’s dream of meeting a U.S. president, she was foiled at every turn—until destiny kindly arranged a chance encounter with President Jimmy Carter’s biographer.
“People I’ve never met before, I end up staying friends with. What I think happens is while I’m thinking I was fated to meet them, they think they were fated to meet me,” she muses. “Even up until the very last minute I thought I wasn’t going to check the presidential meeting off.”
Through it all, she seems to have sensed her dad’s presence—sometimes smiling supportively, sometimes chuckling at her foibles. Eerie alignments between her dad’s life and hers have emerged: Just as she started to write her own book on the quest (“write and have a few novels published” is a list item), she discovered the old outlines Mick had written for a book of his own. Just as she had reached the lowest point of her surgery recovery from the tennis injury—”Why am I doing this! It’s too hard,” she cried at one point—a letter from Mick’s college roommate appeared, bearing an old sports newsletter her dad had created.
Still, she wonders again and again whether she can do it all—and again and again, some invisible force steps in to help, to push her on. By the end of January 2020, she had managed to finish 31 of the items—and vows to complete the list by the end of the year.
“One in particular is my Moby Dick right now: ‘Be invited to a political convention.’ But then I reached out to the director of the Delaware Democratic Party and he said, ‘I don’t see why you can’t come.’”
To someone who was quickly becoming a student of the improbable, those words were encouragement enough. “That sounded like an invitation to me!” she jokes.
Yet there have been times of self-doubt—moments when she worried that enjoying this effort was revealing her to be the same impossible dreamer her dad often was.
But then she realized, those dreamer parts just might be the best parts. And that while she feared pursuing something so all-consuming might separate her from loved ones, it’s proven to do the opposite. Because so many of them have helped.
So she pushes ahead these days mindful that the mission itself has made her better—a person who’s found her purpose, and is keenly aware of the magical karmic energy buzzing through it all.
“What I’m starting to learn is whenever I’m doing something that’s compassionate and kind, the list works out,” she says. “But whenever I’m doing something arrogant or ego-based, it falls apart.”
The karmic alignments have been good of late: She has gotten a literary agent interested in her story, and has written half of her book.
“In many ways, I think it has made me a better family member, more open, more compassionate,” she says, thinking of her dad, who valued family so highly.
She sees him more clearly now—a man who was not unlike many men, full of imperfections and flaws, but also rich with dreams and purpose. In many ways, she now knows, he was a person much like herself.
“So often people are afraid of becoming the bad parts of their parents,” she says. “But if you lean into it instead, choose to honor their lives, you just might find there’s nothing to be afraid of, that the good outweighs the bad—in them, and in you, too.”