For Dad, on his 75th birthday

Dad is 75 years old today. This doesn’t mean much, as dad will always be young, and for as long as I can remember says he still feels 19. Naturally, he and mom are spending this weekend with their oldest friends. Dad, Lynn, and Brian went to high school together. To say they’ve known each other for a lifetime is an understatement. They’ve been buddies for three generations, starting in their own magical, Midwestern childhoods and spanning the corporate ladder/baby-making years to the current era with adult children (who are so close we call each other cousins) and grand-spawn (ditto).

Dad never thought he’d see this birthday. At least he didn’t twenty-five years ago, when we were on the screened porch swapping stories and refilling our wine glasses. I was home from college; he had just completed some workshop about financial planning. When asked to estimate his final year on the planet, Dad guessed we’d be arranging a big celebration of life event for him at age 74. (He always says the worst part of dying will be missing the party.)

It sounded far too young to me. But Dad was being practical, and theoretical way-off-in-the-future death is easier to discuss than the realer kind. Still, the idea that he had only another quarter century to do ALL OF THE THINGS had made an impression on him. But anyone who knows John Stockton knows he’ll do all of the things, recognize their importance and impermanence in the very moment, and regale us with the details. Dad has never been able to make a long story short, but excels at the opposite.

As I was thinking about Dad this morning, my phone starting binging with a dozen texts from my cousins.

“Uncle John’s birthday is today!”

“75! Make sure you remind him he’s closer to 80 than 70!”

“Tell him congratulations on his 76th year!”

“Think I can get a Jersey shore liquor store to deliver wine to the house?”

“Sweets on the way!”

Then Facebook reminded me what Joe Burke said about Dad on his birthday three years ago. And as usual, Joe says it better than anyone could:

Your mom raised you best. She just did. She raised you for the long haul. She gave you the dual and mutually supporting gifts of outrageous humor and graceful endurance. She built in you loyalty and integrity. I’ve never known you to equivocate. I’ve never known you to give up on important tasks or people. People may slide but you don’t. You may get exasperated certainly and appropriately — but only to allow for time for things to come around. You are a gifted easy rider with ups and downs. And ride them both with balance and realism and anchored humanity…always with your brand of just barely breath stopping, two feet out in space – appropriately inappropriate humor. You are stunning John Stockton. You are the best friend I ever had. And I hate the space and time and life details that have separated us. Happy Birthday.

I agree with Joe. Grandma Mid raised you best, Dad. (Kinda fun to imagine heaven with those two in it.) I know that the warmth, hospitality, and humor that was classic “Mid” was inherited and even amplified by you. So when my walkway is a tangle of bicycles, our wine rack is depleted, our guest rooms are rarely empty, and the ‘fridge is full of bacon just in case… that’s you. When I can’t tell a story without all of the funny details, that’s you, too. From my oddly-firm-handshake-for-a-girl to a tendency to stay up too late without switching to alternative beverages (which led to a no uncorking after 2am rule), I’ve learned from the best.

At 75, you’re officially off the clock, Dad. The party at the Jersey shore has already started and you’re not missing a single minute of it. Can’t wait for the stories.

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Dad and me, circa 1978

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Dreaming

In the dream, Joe picks me up like a little girl… high over his head… beaming at me with an imp grin like he might toss me up to the ceiling.

“Put me down,” I tell him. “You’re going to pop my implants.”

Joe laughter. Loud, unbridled joy guffaws from Joe. I’ll miss that the most.

Joe’s last will and testament directed The Stockpeople to join the extensive Burke clan and other good friends to celebrate his life. So we did just that, meeting in gorgeous Shoreham, his childhood home. We came from all four corners of the country to live like nuclear Stocktons before there were any husbands or babies or faraway jobs. The only thing missing was a golden retriever. It was exhilarating and exhausting, full of giggles and tears, ocean panoramas and pink skies. It was perfect.

My favorite eulogy was from Nancy. With classic Burke humor and love, she reminded us that Joe’s bigger-than-life persona included a larger-than-human ego. Joe was quite aware of his handsomeness, seductiveness, magnetism, and crowd-wowing abilities. He wasn’t perfect (who is?), but we adored everything about him. I read The Joy Vacuum out loud. I couldn’t get through that without ugly, gasping tears. But Joe appreciated things that were real… even if they were messy. So there was that.

I miss them already: Erin’s not-aware-how-stunning-they-are daughters, the overtall boys, the staggering beauty that accompanies the Burke genes. Why didn’t we do this sooner? We kept asking ourselves that. Joe probably had, too, as he traveled thousands of miles to visit everyone– one last time. Did he know we’d do it? Did he know we’d quit work early, board planes and ferries, rent houses, and buy cases and cases of wine? Maybe not. But if he knew we did (and we think he knew), it was just what he had imagined. We loved each other all over again and for the first time.

It was supposed to rain. Instead: this.

Joe's Sunset

One thing Joe did beautifully in his later years was to live soberly, with purpose, mindfulness, awareness, and kindness. In the past five years, Joe had introduced me to a handful of people I now call friends. If Joe thought you should probably know so-and-so, he’d broker the introduction, and then watch with great satisfaction as it all played out the way he knew it would. At his own memorial service, we could feel him mayonnaise-smearing his joyful love all over us, forcing us into a huge Dagwood sandwich of piled up people—messy and delicious.

*          *          *

At least an hour late, the Burke family pulls up to the Stockton home, noisily spilling out of the family car. Joe’s body fills the frame of the doorway, and announcing in his made-for-radio voice he bellows, “THE LOUD FAMILY IS HERE.” I’m 11. He picks me up, beaming at me with an imp grin like he might toss me to the ceiling.

I don’t want him to put me down.