Finding One’s Voice Through Grief: A rumination on "My Father’s List" by Laura Carney

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"My Father’s List" by Laura Carney

Several years ago I was approached by an editor I was friendly with at a national publication who said, “Hey, you’re the dead dad guy and I have an assignment I think is perfect for you.” The project was a piece on the documentary Life In A Walk and its director Yogi Roth. To quote myself, “In Life In A Walk, we learn how Yogi asked his father, who was battling a second round of prostate cancer, to take a walk through Portugal and Spain along the Camino De Santiago because he wanted to spend more time with him.” One thing that emerged in my conversation with Yogi was that this was not the story of Will (Yogi’s father) the dying guy, it was about Will the guy who was living, kicking-ass, and along with Yogi trying to put as much positivity out into the world as he could. Yogi also wanted to ensure that we all took a moment to call our father’s, to connect, and listen, because at some point we won’t have that option.

I will admit I cried during the interview. I just cried writing about it. I don’t have the option to call my father, he’s somehow been dead for over twenty years now. Laura Carney, the author of the quite beautifully wrought (and fraught for that matter) My Father’s List doesn’t get to call her father either, which I don’t write to make you cry, though if you do, apologies. Not that I’m the dead father guy because my father died any more than Carney would be the dead father woman because her father died. Lots of us have lost our fathers, though I’ll admit even after all these years I remain amazed how few people have that I know. 

Excluding this, not to mention that I write this with Father’s Day but one week away, my own sons meandering around the house, and my chest tightening ever so slightly with each word, the reason I am a dead dad guy and Carney may yet be a dead dad woman, is that we’ve written about our father’s and their love of life even in the losing of it, a reality that doesn’t fade whether they’re here or not.

To read "My Father’s List"...is to read a book that celebrates possibility, hope and triumph, while also experiencing Carney process her grief over a senseless loss in a very public way.

In my case, I tried to write an essay collection about being a father and couldn’t escape my own, his shadow, his loss and presence, his impact, entwining itself with my every thought and sentence. I don’t believe I consciously thought I would write about him at all in that collection, yet it was impossible not to. How does one even father when their own father isn’t around?

Carney found herself in a different situation. Her father Mick was killed by a distracted driver and her brother later found their father’s bucket list. The list included things such as “have five songs recorded,” “drive a Corvette,” visit New Orleans,” and a personal favorite of mine, “Surf in the Pacific Ocean,” something I tried to do myself with the support of none other than Yogi Roth. (Side note: they will never call me the dead dad guy who surfs, or surfs well anyway.) The list itself totals sixty items, some of which Mick had checked off himself. As one does in these situations though, Carney decided to finish the list herself.

I’ll let you read the book to learn how all that goes (spoiler alert: pretty fucking well), though what I want to try and relate here is what it means to read a book like this, especially when one has lost their father, written about their father and will never get to talk to their father again. Grief does not have an end date or shelf life and it doesn’t look the same for everybody regardless of what popular culture tells us about Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief (Denial-Anger-Bargaining-Depression-Acceptance), even if these stages are in fact accurate. To read My Father’s List, a book which also explores the author’s own challenges, her marriage, her efforts to build a career, and family secrets, is to read a book that celebrates possibility, hope and triumph, while also experiencing Carney process her grief over a senseless loss in a very public way.

Which makes it both a journey and an excavation. Carney learns who she is and what is meaningful to her while completing this act on behalf of her father and herself. Carney also finds her voice through this process, and what artist can hope to create the life they seek without doing that? It feels convenient to say that Mick would be as proud of Carney for finding her voice as he would be for the many adventures and fears she conquered when she went on this quest. Wanting our children to be the best versions of themselves is not limited to fathers, or even mothers, it applies to whoever one’s caretaker is, and when the relationship is healthy, we want our children to thrive and breakthrough whatever has them stuck and prevents them from being the people they might yet be.

Carney wouldn’t have even needed to be as successful as she was checking-off the items on her father’s list to figure all that out. That she was, is more about the book being a beautiful tribute to her resilience and her father’s importance to her. Would Carney have found her voice without this quest, much less if her father hadn’t been killed? I believe so. Would Carney trade that loss for all it’s brought her, I’m certain she wouldn’t. I know I wouldn’t. Still, it happened and to quote myself again from my conversation with Yogi, “What Yogi learned is ultimately a story about getting to know those we love so we can better know ourselves.”

Maybe this is a good time to remind us that Father’s Day looms later in the week. I know we don’t all have father’s to celebrate with, or children, and maybe some of us are estranged from our father’s, and they make it impossible to celebrate with. I send all of you my love and warmest feelings. However, if you do have the option to talk to your father, I will also remind you of Yogi's desire for all of us to take a moment and call our fathers (not that you need Father’s Day to do that). It’s possible there are some things that have gone unsaid, or a secret that hasn’t been shared. Or maybe you don’t need any reason at all, you just haven’t called recently, which is of course the best reason to call at all, because you can.

Anyway, think about it, go find and watch Life In A Walk, and read My Father’s List, take the journey that Carney took, and as you do, think about what your journey might look like, it’s waiting for you.

Get My Father's List at Bookshop or Amazon

Ben Tanzer

Review by Ben Tanzer

Ben Tanzer is an Emmy-award winning coach, creative strategist, podcaster, writer, teacher and social worker who has been helping nonprofits, publishers, authors, small business and career changers tell their stories for 20 plus years. He is the author of the soon to be re-released short story collection Upstate and several award-winning books, including the science fiction novel Orphans and the essay collections Lost in Space: A Father's Journey There and Back Again and Be Cool - a memoir (sort of). He is also a lover of all things book, taco, Gin and street art.

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