Smoke detectors blaring, popping confetti-filled balloons, barbecuing outdoors in torrential rain and the noise level of a Chuck E. Cheese would minimally describe this last three-day weekend celebration with my family.
The reason for this annual event?
My daughter Nikki and son-in-law Carlos celebrated their 24th wedding anniversary on Jan. 16. The date is also the nine-year anniversary of my wife Susie’s passing. The day is a poignant convergence of epic highs and lows. The most blissful parental joy collides with the most catastrophic emotional low. I have no other way to describe Jan. 16.
True to my wife’s spirit and life’s lessons she ingrained in our children, our family celebrates Nikki and Carlos’s wedding anniversary each year with the joy of Susie’s memories. We do so in the company of family who have also lost a parent in January. My daughter-in-law Yvonne’s dad, Eric, passed three years ago on Jan. 10. My niece Tish’s dad, Francisco, entered heaven six years ago on Jan. 20.
This year our traditional beaches of choice were under severe weather warnings. We decided to stay at Aaron’s northeast Bakersfield home. It was christened as Aaron’s Chateau Getaway for the three-day weekend celebration and a quasi-campout was planned for four families. Aaron’s dining area, kitchen and living room were quickly transformed into a mini-movie theater complete with a snack bar, popcorn and drinking amenities that would rival any Studio Movie Grill. His bedrooms were transformed into sleeping dorms filled with blankets and pillows.
The three-day weekend included way too much food, out-of-control laughter and a bazillion conversations all happening at once. There was the hot jacuzzi filled with family and a Polar Bear Plunge into the 50-degree water of Aaron’s pool. We also watched my son Sean’s San Francisco 49ers win and move up in the playoffs.
We ended the celebration Monday afternoon at Tony’s Firehouse Grill. They sat my large family in their empty banquet room. We were reminiscing and sharing favorite stories of our wedding days.
Halfway through our brunch, they sat four men several tables away from us.
The young children were fascinated by the wedding-day stories, which included a hearse parked in front of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church at the exact time when Nikki was arriving to get married, to Yvonne dancing with her dad for the Father-Daughter dance, and to Tish having her dad walk her down the aisle to the altar.
We were finishing our stories when the four men walked up to our table and said, “We hear there is a wedding anniversary today. May we sing the love birds a song?” By happenstance, the men were having a Barbershop Quartet meeting that morning and overheard our conversations. In perfect four-part harmony, they sang “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” to Nikki and Carlos.
As I gazed around our table, I saw the awe and fascination in the wide-eyed faces of our children, who I don’t think even blinked during the song. Tears began to well up for Yvonne, Tish, Nikki, Carlos — and me. It was a perfect and unexpected Disney-like wedding anniversary gift from four total strangers. Although I did not ask them, I believe my family’s tears were because the song reminded each of us of the spirit of our loved ones.
As we returned to Aaron’s Chateau Getaway and started to say our goodbyes, we saw a double rainbow outside Aaron’s sliding glass doors. We stood on Aaron’s patio and quietly admired God’s gift of his rainbows and felt the warm blessing of family together and wished the weekend wouldn’t end.
I asked Nikki how she felt and what she wanted people to know about Jan. 16. She said, “It may sound strange to others but I enjoy sharing this day with my mom. Having family together is a tribute to mom and is more important than diamond rings or any other anniversary gift we could receive.”
As our family friend Phil Rudnick said, “Those we love are never lost. They continue to reside in each of us as our life is enhanced by their memory.”
Thank you, God, for this blessing of family and friends. Susie is smiling in heaven as I am on earth.