A couple months ago, my family and I attended the funeral of a lifelong friend. He was the father of three beautiful young adults, who my sister and I have known since childhood, and he was also my dad’s partner in crime for more years than I can remember. By day he was one of the state’s top attorneys and by night he was a family man and one of the most avid soccer fans and gurus who has ever lived.
He and my dad, together, saw all of us kids through countless soccer seasons of sprained ankles, bruised knees, and fractured fingers from our occasional goalie stints. Through both wins and losses, undefeated seasons of glory and 0 and 14 seasons of frustration they supported us all the way. On each and every game day, they diligently wore our team colors proudly, regardless of whether we were the Pink Cadillacs, the Purple People Eaters or the Teal Terrorizing Terminators. They were our biggest fans.
The last time I saw Dan was at my Persian wedding ceremony last July. I remember introducing him to Danny for the first time and giggling, “Dan, finally meet Dan!” They embraced like they had known each other for years. I remember looking up at Dan during the ceremony and thinking about how fitting it was that he was standing next to my dad. I watched them hug it out when the ceremony was over and through the corner of my eye saw them share a “Can you believe our kids are all grown up” moment with only their smiles.
When we recently heard that Dan passed suddenly, I felt sick. I felt sick and I felt helpless and I remember trying hard to remember.
Dan’s memorial service was beautiful beyond words. The Stanford Memorial Church was packed to the brim and my family and I sat, hovered together, on the edge of a pew in the back. Other than feeling the warmth of my dad’s hand on mine, I was pretty numb. My eyes fixated on the bobbing heads of Dan’s family in the front row and sheer sorrow pumped through my veins like an IV. Countless thoughts flooded my mind and leaked out of my eyes and down my cheeks. I wished that our families had gotten together more often as us kids grew up and started our own lives. We should’ve never gone a year without a visit or two. I looked over at my Dad. I wondered what he was remembering when I saw him smile in the middle of hearing Elton John’s “Daniel” and I longed to know what he was thinking about when he wiped his eyes halfway through The Beach Boys’ “Make it Big.” “Make it big” was Dan’s anthem.
I wanted, more than anything, for Dan to have been there, right then, in that church, in that moment. I wished he could have been there to see the incredible turn out, to hear the touching eulogies, to feel the immense amount of love and respect that radiated like sunlight from each and every seat in every row. The stained glass windows of the church glistened almost majestically, and it didn’t seem right that he was missing it all.
I thought back to the first, and only other, memorial service I had attended. A good friend of the children I nannied, a bright young third grader, lost a long battle with cancer on one fateful day and we attended his service with extremely heavy hearts. Regardless of how natural the circle of life is, that sweet little boy’s death seemed more unnatural than anything I’d ever experienced. I thought back to how, on that grave day, I had also wished that he could have been there to see the thousands of people who had showed up to bid him goodbye. To see how many hand written letters his friends had addressed to Heaven for him. To hear about how many lives he had touched during his short stay on Earth. I wanted him to know all of it. It, again, just didn’t seem right that he was missing it all.
As I sat solemnly, leaning my head on my Dad’s shoulder, I couldn’t help but aknowledge that the post-mortem funeral only serves those who lose loved ones. What about the loved one himself? How could we commemorate them before they pass so that they know just how much they’re loved? Shouldn’t celebratory gatherings be held in honor of our loved ones while they’re still alive to witness them? Doesn’t everyone deserve a day of respect, a day of celebration, on which they can actually hear the personal testimonies of love and friendship from the special people in their lives? Wouldn’t it make more sense for friends and family, both near and far, to make the trip to see their loved one rather than make the trip to remember and miss him once he’s gone? We’d never again feel the agony of wishing he was there to see it all…wishing that he knew…
As my family and I somberly made our way to the reception area after the funeral, I began thinking more and more about the idea that we should lift up our loved ones while they are still with us rather than after they’re gone. It just seemed like such an obvious thought. I sat down at a table with my sister and took a deep breath in preparation for a photo slide show of Dan’s life.
As I became somewhat mesmerized by the rotating pictures, rotating moments, that I relived with those around me, I suddenly gained an understanding that resonated in my heart. Beautiful photos, beautiful experiences and beautiful people were captured over and over as each slide faded into another. Snapshots had been taken during every phase and turn of Dan’s life, but the biggest smiles and the happiest moments were so perfectly captured in photos of Dan’s birthdays. So much laughter, so many smiles, so many hugs and kisses. They were all frozen in time forever. Dan had 58 “I’m so happy that you’re alive” parties, 58 “I’m blessed to have you in my life” parties, 58 “I’m celebrating you and the life you’ve led” parties. Each photo was evidence of the commemorative gatherings thrown for Dan each year and each day was celebrated with joy in the name of love.
As I watched the photos dance on the big screen like shadows, there was no denying that Dan had been surrounded by affection and admiration through out his entire life. His birthday had unfailingly arrived at some point during every year of his full life, and when that day came, he was blessed enough to be celebrated. It was then that I realized that Dan didn’t miss a thing. He didn’t miss one single thing by not physically being there with us that day. He knew how much he was loved and appreciated. He knew how we all felt about him. After seeing a picture show of his amazing life, there was no denying that.
Birthday presents and Hallmark cards are tokens of appreciation and records of your personal testimonies in love and friendship. Birthday parties and gatherings are celebrations of life and the best excuses you’ll ever have to live in each moment together. Birthdays should always be cause for a “You’re alive and I love you and I’m celebrating your life” party. Birthdays should always be special. Because when the time comes for us all to move on to the next phase of existence, we all wanna go like Dan did. We all want to know.