The day before dad’s 90th birthday party, I had to buy some things at the Dollar General. Many family members were flying in from all over the country, many tasks to be done, much anticipation and excitement.
As I waited in line, a woman stood before me with three helium balloons — two silver and the other, a red heart that read: I love you.
“What beautiful balloons,” I said. “I’m sure the person getting those will love them.”
She turned to me, her face changing from a smile to sadness.
“They’re for my son’s grave. Today is the anniversary of his death.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
“That’s OK. I’m going to put these on his grave and we’re going to have a nice chat. He was only 26 when he died,” she said, her eyes tearing up.
I asked his first name and told her I would pray for him if she would pray for my dad.
When I got home, I checked the closed Facebook group for my 50th high school reunion. It had been scheduled for the same day as dad’s party and as much as I wanted to attend, I knew I couldn’t.
Early Saturday morning, after a deluge on Friday, family began to set up outdoor tents, tables, chairs, decorations, while food was being chopped, prepared and cooked in the kitchen.
We had sent an invitation to one of my parents’ friends whom they’ve known for at least 50 years. I wondered why she hadn’t responded. I know her well and it was unlike her.
As I was preparing food at one of the tables, I heard someone say she had been hospitalized. With cancer. It had spread. I felt as if the wind had been taken out of me. How could this be, I thought, as I kept peeling and chopping, preparing for a joy-filled event.
The party began. The skies that had been cloudy and uncertain had cleared. The musicians played Latino music, the Mexican food was plentiful, the drink flowed and dad smiled again and again, as friends from his church, his past workplace, and others attended and wished him a happy birthday.
Guests kept arriving when we saw a young Asian man walk down the driveway. No one knew who he was. But I had often seen him biking past my parents’ home to his job at the local grocery store where he gathered the shopping carts.
He seemed alone when I would see him at the store and I wondered if he had any family in this country.
He stood there and I asked if he was OK. He spoke little English but from what I gathered he said he had heard the music and liked it. He planted himself on the spot and my sister and I looked in question at each other. Mentally, we must have agreed on the same thing, the only loving thing to do.
“Are you hungry?” we asked. He nodded. So we made him a plate and he sat down and began to eat, listening to the music. Then left.
When the party was over that night, I was exhausted, but checked into the Facebook group to see what had happened at my reunion. I saw photos of the event, of adult women I remembered as young girls with bangs and long hair flipped at the ends, and smiles filled with promise.
And I saw a photo honoring six of my classmates who had died, too young.
That night, I couldn’t sleep. Perhaps too much excitement. Too much food and drink. Too many memories. I kept thinking of the woman at the Dollar General store who had lost her son, of my classmates of so many years ago, of my parents’ friend with cancer, and of the Asian man so far away from his homeland.
Of dad, celebrating 90 years of an amazing life.
As I finally drifted off to sleep, I realized that the last few days had shown me this:
Life takes us on many paths, some joyful, some we’d rather not take. Many unexpected. We cry, we celebrate, we love. That, as Joni Mitchell sang “something’s lost, but something’s gained in living every day.”
And each second is precious.
Live it now. Celebrate it. Now.