Today you would have been 67 – and since it’s your birthday I’m taking a rare glimpse at what might have been. Given our mutual love of champagne, I’ll pop the next cork in your honor and enjoy a glass or two for you.
I can’t even imagine what you’d be like at this age, and yet I have a feeling you’d be so much more vibrant than what your last two decades allowed you to be.
I bet you’d still be running; perhaps even have some personal bests to feel proud of. You probably would have wrapped up your career by now, and be reveling in retirement – obsessed with the yard and working on one project or another outdoors. I confess, no one would ever mistake our yard now for one that was maintained by a professional. It hasn’t looked that way since it had your care.
We would have had a trip in the works this fall, maybe several in the year ahead. You always loved to travel and with more time to make plans, you would have been full of ideas of where to go next. Sometimes when I’m exploring someplace new, I can’t help but wonder what you would have thought. I keep thinking about going to Montana and know it’s an adventure you would have loved.
Mostly, I think about our kids. I’m so lucky with who they all turned out to be, especially after all that’s gone down. You, of course, would be crazy in love with all of them but you’d also really like who they are. They’re good people, but you knew that from the start. They’ve created good lives. You’d be amazed by all they’ve accomplished but, more important, grateful at how close they’ve remained, to each other and to me.
They would have such a good time with you, giving you a hard time, laughing at childhood stories and building new memories to share down the road. And, you’d still be telling them at the end of each day at Newfound Lake, as we all sat down for dinner, that it was time to reflect. You’d be excited to think we still go to your beloved lake.
This family, you know, it’s grown so much. There’s been marriages, grandchildren and good relationships across the board. So many graduations, vacations, family dinners and holidays. You’ve missed so much, even when you were still physically here.
I think back to Marissa and Justin’s wedding, 10 years ago now. Although you were in rough shape, you were able to grasp just how special the day was. I think about you dancing with her, bent almost in half, your daughter holding you up in a way that you once did for her so many years before. But your smile was so bright; you were beaming on the dance floor with your little girl. This was a moment you anticipated long ago, almost from the time she was a baby, and it’s one of the last times I knew you were really there, present in the moment and sure of what was unfolding around you.
By the time Sean got married, you were there but in so many ways, you were not. When Michael got married you weren’t even well enough to be able to come, and it was easier not to focus on you not being there then to let it sink in exactly why you couldn’t be.
And then there was Logan’s birth, a bit more than 5 years ago now. You knew what was up and while you were rapidly declining, thank god there are photos to still see the connection that sweet boy made with you. When he was a toddler, you wanted to hold him up high on one hand over your head, the way you did with each of our kids, and we had to gently discourage you away from that idea – you had no clue how precariously weak you now were and how dangerous that would have been. He delighted you and even when you weren’t quite there, you somehow became more lucid when you saw his little face.
When Skyla arrived, it was too late. We put her in your arms and her presence didn’t register at all. Another much older man at your facility took special joy in seeing her that day and I kept transferring his reaction in my brain to somehow attribute it to you, all the while holding back tears. I knew how much you would have loved her.
Now you have two more grandchildren, who will never know you by more than the stories and photos from some time ago. They’ve only joined our family recently, fostered by Michael and Hannah, now to be legally their children early next year. You would have wept at the kids’ experience in their younger years and been so proud to see your son becoming their dad – and such a good one, too, even when it’s especially challenging.
I couldn’t help but think of you last weekend, watching him at the soccer field with his kids. He’s as patient as you were and right there when they needed him, just like you were once upon a time. I remember you working on Saturdays but taking a later shift so you could coach one of the kids’ soccer teams in the early morning hours, never caring that you’d be working until mid-evening as a result.
I see you every day in the kids. I see your physicality so much in Andrew. He’s running his first marathon in a little over a week, in your honor and your memory, as part of the Parkinson’s Foundation team, raising money to help find a cure for the illness that robbed you of so many years. Most of us are going out to Chicago to cheer him on, just like your family always did for you. I’m not even going to pretend it’s not going to be emotional. I’ll probably be a mess.
He’s been reading your old running journals, seeing how you used to train. He has a picture of you running next to his bed and on his fundraising page he said he’s getting to know more about you through his training. He’s beginning to understand some of what you experienced as he experiences it for himself. Unlike the others, Drew mostly knew you while you were sick, first the Parkinson’s and then Lewy Body Dementia.
I see your love of travel in all the kids but especially in how Marissa has incorporated it into her kids’ lives. She loves the element of surprise, just as you did – you loved nothing better than surprising the kids with a weekend getaway – and she and Justin are already instilling the importance of family and fun into everything they do with their kids. No matter how hard or long Justin works, he’s always there for his kids – and is such a good dad. You’d love that about him.
Marissa carries on the traditions she loved best from growing up and you’d get such a kick out of her with her kids. She’s an incredible mother and still the most organized person in the world. I picture her teasing you a lot these days and you loving every minute of it.
Michael has your love of yardwork, with projects in the works constantly. Sean’s a fairly new homeowner and discovering all kinds of outdoor work to take on. I can see you out in the boys’ yards with them, surveying what’s new and what still needs to be done, and volunteering to come give them a hand with whatever they have going on. You’d take so much pleasure in that, and I imagine you out on Sean’s deck when a project was through, the grill going and each of you with a beer, feeling good about what you accomplished that day.
Your oldest son is a lot like you. He knew you the most and had you the longest. He took on so much responsibility for your well-being and was at your side, by himself, when you passed. Your illness changed all of us but perhaps Sean the most since he was on the brink of young adulthood, a time that should have been far more carefree, when your illness took such a grip. You somehow knew it, I think, and regretted it – regretted all of it, especially with regard to each of the kids. You’d be especially happy to see the lives our kids have created and the people they share them with.
As for me, had you never gotten sick, I don’t know how much of my life would be as it is today. There are some things I believe would be true. We’d be married (39 years tomorrow) still. We’d be kickass grandparents together because we absolutely loved having our kids, and grandparenting is even better. I’d be a writer, but not necessarily in the same capacity I am now.
There are so many things that I’ve done over the last 20 years; most were a direct result of doing anything I could to take care of my family and especially the kids – the decisions I made, the plans I created and the work I took on when I realized I was all our family had.
Just as your illness defined what your life became, it defined who I would become, too. It allowed me to believe I was strong, tenacious and capable enough of handling whatever was to come and to take full advantage of the opportunities offered to me.
While it hasn’t always been easy — although so easy in comparison to what you went through — my life is good and I have far more blessings than I ever imagined. I’d trade any number of them, though, to wish you a happy birthday in person and be able to share this day with you, the kids and our ever-growing family. Man, you’d sure love them all.
When I think back, I don’t think of the hard times. I think about the beginning and the middle and the fun we had. We built a life, a family and had so many good times along the way. Life didn’t exactly bring us where we thought we might go, but we had some fun nevertheless and shared a lot of love throughout.
Happy 67th birthday, John—while you aren’t here with us any longer, you’re in our hearts every single day. Your memory will be eternal.