The year that Butch was turning sixty, I decided we should have a surprise party to celebrate. He was always very observant, so pulling off a surprise would be nothing short of a miracle. His birthday was in December. It was cold outside, requiring a large, inside venue. People were busy with the holidays, reducing the number of people who could attend. I devised what I thought would be a fool-proof plan to solve all of those problems. We could have the party in the summer instead.
Butch participated in the Eppie’s Great Race for many years. The iron man competition consisted of running, bicycling, and kayaking along the American River in Sacramento. He would leave at dawn to place his kayak at the bike/kayak transition point and then go to the starting line for the run. I would arrive at the run/bike transition in time to place his bike and cheer him on at the finish of the run. I would gather any belongings he shed after the run and see him off on the bicycle. I would then head to the finish line in time to see him arrive in the kayak. His bicycle was safely stored at the bike/kayak transition to be picked up by a friend. At the end of the race there was a celebration in the park with vendors, music, and food. It was a great day seeing all the people and awesome bikes and kayaks. Everyone was enjoying the fun, the competition and the enthusiasm at the park. Friends and family sometimes came to the finish to support them.
The last few years, his sisters put together a team consisting of a family friend who was a bicycle riding enthusiast, one sister who did the running leg, and another sister who finished up in her kayak. The third sister and his mom would post up on top of the foot bridge across the river that was directly above the finish line. After the race, everyone would go back to his mom’s house for a barbeque. They all enjoyed sharing stories about the day. Family and friends came when they could. After he died, our sons and his best friend put together a team for the very last run of the Eppie’s Great Race as a tribute to him.
It was a perfect day to try for a surprise party. His mom’s yard was large enough for lots of people. She lived in an area that was central to the various people who might attend. He would not be suspicious if he drove up and saw familiar cars, as that happened every year. And there was plenty of parking nearby for people who needed to park out of sight. All the prep could be done at her house. While he often went to her house to visit and complete her “Honey do” list, he would be too busy with the race to drop by before the party. What could go wrong?
We reached out into all the parts of his world from our years in Sacramento. I invited the high school friends I could find. We sent the word out to soccer team members he had coached and on which he had played. Coworkers were invited. Friends from his various sporting interests and bicycle journeys were included. Everyone knew it was a surprise and worked very hard to keep the secret. It was not until a few days later that I learned the surprise had been blown by a neighbor who could not attend and had forgotten that his birthday was actually in December. As Butch left home at dawn for the race, the neighbor was out in his yard and wished him a happy birthday. Given that his birthday was months away he immediately understood that we were planning to ambush him with a 59 ½ party. He acted very surprised, so we all enjoyed thinking we had succeeded for the day.
It was a fun and interesting group of celebrants. He was given a ridiculous hat as a gift and he wore it most of the time. The celebratory mood from the race grew with the addition of old friends and family. Everyone was so happy to be together. People told great stories about how they knew Butch and their times together. It was an awesome celebration of his life and the lives he touched. There was no way to know how meaningful that day would turn out to be. It was only four years later that we would see those same people at the final celebration of his life. I am glad to have the photos of that party to remember him and all the guests at the party as they are laughing and enjoying life together.
The greatest lesson we learn as we are thrust onto the journey of grief is that nothing and no one is permanent. There is no going back for a do-over. The naïve belief that there will be plenty of time for all the important things is gone. Life becomes a long series of images of things left undone, words left unspoken, amends not offered, love not shared. The precious gift of a celebration of life on a warm, unhurried, summer afternoon, surrounded by joyful friends and family, with hope for a bright future is not likely to have happened. But the earnest wish that it had can haunt our nights.
Becoming us without them means finding our way from tragedy to triumph as best we can. If nothing else, we can be the voice in the lives of those around us reminding them to appreciate every moment while it is still possible. We can share the stories of our loved ones as celebrations of their lives and invitations to others to say and do all the things they want to say today. We can share our healing in the absence of our loved ones to invite others to make their amends to the living. We can encourage them to heal their relationships while there is still time to find joy and share love while looking into the eyes of the people who are here to receive that gift. It may seem to them that it will be years before death closes the door on those moments. We are living proof that life is fleeting and regret is a terrible price to pay for waiting.
In all these ways, our pain and our lives are transformed. Even this awful chapter of our lives becomes part of a redemptive story that makes us and the world around us a better place. As we focus on the celebration of our lives with them, we gradually begin to find things about our current life to celebrate, share, and enjoy. We know, as only the grieving can, that living each moment as if it is your last, is the most important thing we can do and model for others for the rest of our lives.