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Making a Milestone

I love my father as the stars — he’s a bright shining example and a happy twinkling in my heart. — Adabella Radici

Dad sat on my red couch, his left hand clutching his right. Surrounding him were a few cherished companions, all gazing over his shoulder at the laptop on the coffee table. Dad was transfixed by the screen, on which photos of him as a child — many of which he’d never seen before — cross-dissolved, one into the next. I’d already viewed the slideshow, which Aunt Diane (Dad’s sister and our family’s historian) had compiled. Watching it earlier in the day — seeing my father as a boy, his parents and siblings as young adults — brought on a lump in my throat. But this time, while Dad’s chestnut eyes were glued to the monitor, mine were darting between the door and the phone in my hands. With the moment I’d been planning for months finally upon us, the anticipation was killing me.

The occasion of Dad’s 60th birthday was the perfect opportunity for me to demonstrate my devotion. I’ve always been a daddy’s girl. Many of my decisions have been made with consideration as to where they might fall on Dad’s spectrum from Disappointed to Proud. I speak to my father at least once each day and see him almost as often. As he was bound to take stock of his life on this landmark day, I wanted to be sure Dad understood how appreciated he is, and I wasn’t the only one with this objective in mind.

Before he could make other plans, I told Dad his birthday weekend was set — that I was hosting an intimate soiree for his friends at my place on Saturday night, and that the family celebration would be on Sunday (his actual birthday) at my mother’s house. What Dad didn’t know was that Aunt Diane had contacted me months earlier to make arrangements for his New York–based siblings to fly out for the festivities.

A week and a half before the big weekend, Aunt Diane fell off a ladder, shattering her heel bone. Even more upsetting to her than the doctor’s instructions to keep her leg elevated for eight weeks was the fact that she would be unable to come out west. So it was that three rather than four New Yorkers hovered in the hallway outside my front door as Dad watched the presentation.

It was David’s idea to make the clan wait until after Dad had settled into the evening. I was glad for the chance to catch up with my aunts and uncle before they headed off to their hotel, where they would relax until the appointed hour. Most party surprises are unleashed immediately, not an hour and a half in — Dad would never expect them to casually wander through like friends popping over for a drink.

David often recites the two ingredients of a pleasurable and memorable experience: surprise and delight. When Dad glanced away from their photos and beheld his family walking toward him, he seemed more stunned than anything. Noticing his brother first, Dad shouted his name — “Jimmy!” — before adding, “Carol! Susan!” He stepped back, placed his hand over his heart, and stared at them as though they might cross-dissolve into another image on the screen. For the rest of the evening, which went well into the wee hours, Dad remained pleasantly flummoxed.

The following afternoon, the East Coast crew had a second opportunity to surprise when they showed up at Mom’s. After Mom got over the shock of the unexpected guests, she embarked on a bit of small talk. Once seated, she asked Aunt Carol, “Was it a straight flight?”

Aunt Carol took her time answering, first looking to Susan, then Jimmy, and finally, back at Mom before responding in a deadpan tone, “Well, it was a little gay.”

Usually quick on the uptake, Mom scrunched her brows together and said, “I don’t understand. Why would that make it longer?” When her question was met with amused stares, Mom suddenly comprehended the joke; her laughter was louder and longer than normal. Her daughters’ explanation (“Our teetotaler mom indulged in a margarita”) and the subsequent nods of understanding spread throughout the house like fire on Santa Ana winds.

There was still one more surprise for Dad, a sweet and thoughtful idea that my sister Heather had come up with. It made sense that the English teacher in the family would conceive a writing assignment to suit the occasion. All of his daughters were tasked with creating a David Letterman–esque “Dad’s Top Ten” list.

In Mom’s backyard on a picture-perfect San Diego afternoon, Dad’s four grandchildren laughed and splashed in the pool as everyone gathered around the birthday boy for the presentation. Jane, the eldest and therefore first to speak, had selected ten memories. Some were solely hers (like when Dad told her he was proud of her cunning creativity when she convinced her children the pet store was the zoo), but most memories were shared (such as Dad’s first rule of life — life is not fair — and having to pee in a blue pot while driving cross-country because Dad wanted to “make good time”).

Heather’s ten thoughts of Dad made everyone smile as we recalled our own, similar experiences, like being rescued by Dad when each of us, at some point, found ourselves broken down on the side of the road. Heather highlighted Dad’s Hindu chanting and his “truly sick sense of humor,” which had somehow found a peaceful coexistence with his prevailing “attitude of gratitude.”

I had chosen to roast my Republican father with my list, which I’d titled “Top 10 Facts That Prove Dad Is a Liberal.” I’d included his not owning a gun, hugging dudes, attending more gay wedding ceremonies than heterosexual ones, and capped it all off with “He eats Grey Poupon.”

Jenny, the youngest, was last up with her list of “10 Things I Miss Most About Living with My Dad.” It began with light ribbing about Dad’s taste for Hunt’s tomato sauce and his excessive vitamin-taking, but ended with a poignancy that choked up Jenny as she tried to read the words she had written. Unable to continue, she passed her carefully designed and framed list over to Dad so he could finish reading for her.

Dad, whose eyes had been brimming over all day with astonishment at his fortune, cleared his throat and read Jenny’s last point in a voice that cracked with emotion: “Being surrounded by peace and love and knowing no matter what, everything was going to be okay.”

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