We’d been planning this for months, a belated celebration of Mom’s 80th birthday with a proper, joy-filled blast. My sister and I were happy to finally be in one place with our families to focus on the sweet matriarch who has loved us so much and so well through the years.
The night before, we’d sneaked down to the party room in Mom’s complex and splashed it with a plethora of snapshots hung from twirling strings, memorabilia like old typewriters (mom was fast on her manual), peacock feathers (turquoise being her favorite color), dreamcatchers (from our Fort Peck days), and patterned teacups (for her cherished drink), plus apples, rulers and pencil décor signifying her decades teaching. After decorating with my nieces, we collapsed into bed at 1 a.m.
The next morning, we added finishing touches, including balloons and a colorful cake featuring a photo of a young “Janie” from high school, then awaited the guests.
On cue, they began pouring in – fellow condo residents, pals from her teaching days, newer friends from the YMCA and social groups, and a nice collection of family – including her two sisters from afar. Homemade pink and turquoise mints, gingersnaps and tangy sloppy Joes completed the day. After three hours of lively conversation and food, we packed it all up and exhaled.
A Salonen family photo that day sadly lacked our Arizona son, but something else was missing that I didn’t fully comprehend until the next morning. Waking bleary-eyed at Mom’s place, I noticed a treasure my sister had unearthed and displayed in the guest room – a birthday card Dad had given Mom before his death in 2013, with this handwritten note:
“I could tell you what life would have been like had you not become my wife, but I do not like sad stories. So let me say I love you 1 million times to make up for the million times I should have told you and didn’t. Thank you for the happy life.”
Reading it, I immediately fell into a puddle of tears. For in that note, I realized an unexpected guest had arrived during my Mom’s birthday-celebration weekend – grief. But even as I wept, I welcomed the visitor, because through it, I experienced Dad’s piercing love, along with his remindful regret for things unsaid. I allowed myself to feel how very dear and missed he is, and ponder the things I never got to say to, and experience with, him.
The card helped me realize, again, that we have just one brief life to say how much those God has placed among us mean to us, and that the best time to tell them is right now.
Dad, thanks for showing up to Mom’s 80th birthday party. As we near your birthday this week, know that your love is felt and returned.
And Lord, thank you for the grace you brought to my parents’ long marriage, which, despite hardship – and because of your presence – persevered to the end. What a beautiful gift!
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Aug. 2, 2021.]