We had our father’s 89th birthday celebration over Memorial Day weekend this year. My brother, three sisters and I had planned on a 90th birthday bash, but our stepmother suggested this year might be better. There would be a better chance of Dad being able to enjoy it.
This might not be a foreign concept for many families with 89 year-olds. But the idea of Dad not being able to enjoy a gathering, particularly of his adult kids, is hard to fathom. He is one of the most indefatigably enthusiastic people I’ve ever met, with a sunny disposition that practically killed his five kids during their sullen teen years.
Parties and family gatherings have always amplified this happy sociability. He loves making cracks, often at his own expense, punctuating them with a bark of laughter that you can hear across the room. As my sister, Jodi, wrote in the book she painstakingly created to honor him: “When you’re near him, and you hear that trumpet laugh, you know you are having a wonderful experience that Dad is at the very heart of.”
So we gathered in Beaufort, SC., adults aged 47 to 61, but still children beloved by Pete. As we and our spouses and children and grandchildren chatted and laughed in a shady garden, Dad stood in the center. He mistook wives for adult daughters and nieces for wives. He repeated himself, asking the same questions, with the same keen interest in your response. He carried a cane in one hand. But he was trim, with a vestige of West Point training still visible in his bearing. And for most of the party he had a huge grin on his face.
He took every chance he could to clasp one of his children close and tell them how much he loved them. It was an emotional wringer.
My stepmother says he’s been slowing down a little bit more every day since the reunion and party. Nine months ago Dad had clients and went to the office every day. He still goes to the gym five days a week. But she says he rests most of the day now, content to look at their beautiful western view over the water and marsh.
Like most parents, I have been amazed by the fantastic size, yet utterly pedestrian nature, of my love for my kids. How can something so relentless and magnificent be so common? I used to think that you never get that kind of love back from your kids. That kind of love is what your kids will give to their kids. But I’m hoping I’m wrong. I’m hoping that as my father gazes out at the tree, the river and the honey-colored marsh in his treasured vista that he feels our love washing over him, relentless and magnificent.