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Surprise Party

December 23, 2011


On a plane flight back from Dallas to Detroit, I tried to imagine a surprise party for my brother. Cramped against the window in the 31st row, wrapped in a Tempur Pedic neck pillow, I imagined my wife, children, and parents on our family room couch, waiting for Kenny to arrive. A 40th birthday party is a big event as it usually symbolizes the moment in a person’s life, smack in the middle between birth and death.

When I got up for the bathroom, I waited in line and turned to the front. As I stood there, I became mesmerized by a magazine article read by a man in an aisle seat. The top of the page read, “Surprise Party,” which was all I needed to signify the importance of this omen.

Before my brother’s 40th birthday, I still hadn’t done anything about it except donate to the JCC of Detroit’s Kenny Goldman Athletic Fund for a basketball league for children, named in his memory. I wasn’t sure whether to mark the donation, “In Memory of Kenny Goldman” or “In Honor of Kenny Goldman’s 40th Birthday.” I chose the latter and had the acknowledgement sent to my parents.

I have only been to a few surprise parties in my life. I vaguely remember 22 years ago when I went to dinner with my wife, Judy, and two good friends. Clueless, I entered our first home and was stunned when “Surprise!” rang in my ears. My sister, Leslie, and her husband had driven to Livonia from Ohio to join many of my friends and family for my 30th birthday.

Eight years later, I nearly ruined a surprise 40th birthday party for my friend, Jeff, when I told him I’d see him at his party. “What party?” he asked and I stammered a fictitious answer in response. His wife has never forgotten my carelessness and is still suspicious to invite me to any parties, surprise or other.

For my 40th birthday, Judy sent me to a yoga retreat in Western Massachusetts. For my 50th, we rented a limo bus and invited some old high school friends, ending up at a dance at my high school. We were given a scenic tour by the principal who showed us the new Media Center and we were honored with Grease, the only music the deejay could find from the 70s. I was thankful he chose music about high schoolers from the 50s rather than play the top selling single of my graduation year, 1975. I still try to forget that the Neil Sedaka song, “Love Will Keep Us Together,” sung by Captain and Tennille, won the Grammy as 1975 Record of the Year.

In my brother’s last year of life, Kim Carnes won 1982’s Record and Song of the Year with “Betty Davis Eyes,” even though John Lennon and Yoko Ono were expected to win with their song recorded before John’s slaying, “(Just Like) Starting Over.”

John and Yoko weren’t shut out that night. When their album, “Double Fantasy,” won Album of the Year, Yoko and her son, Sean, got a standing ovation. Yoko, teary-eyed, murmured, “I think John is here,” and six-year-old Sean shook his head, no, when his mom asked him if he wanted to say anything.

A few years later, Judy and I bought a John Lennon painting in California of red-haired John holding baby Sean. The painting, still hanging above the piano in our living room, is numbered 297/300, and has John’s words, “once upon a time there were no problems,” written on the right side of Sean. Sean Ono Lennon, born after I graduated in 1975, is now 33 years old.

Kenny would have been 40 years old, two days before 2008’s Christmas, but he never made it past 13. On the way home from a Detroit Tigers baseball game in July 1982, my father’s car was hit by another, less than one mile from his home. My father survived but Kenny was pronounced dead a few minutes after midnight.

On the flight from Dallas, I talked to Kenny in my mind and invited him to join me on his birthday. Hoping he was listening to me and praying that he made certain I saw the magazine article, I talked to him as if he were nestled in the overhead compartment. I still have my doubts about the afterlife but after 26 years, I have grown to believe that the dead circling the living may be more than just fantasy.

Before his birthday, I tried to stay away from sadness and thought of Kenny in his bar mitzvah video with the cameraman following him around, viewing his practical joke on our cousin. I imagined his smile as I asked him to give me some sign he was still here.

The weather on his 40th birthday was bitterly cold. I drove my wife and parents to the cemetery and after we slowly walked to his section, we found every headstone buried in white. After sweeping the snow off dozens of stones, we finally found his name and my father placed a rock with the word, “Remember,” on top of his gravestone. My mother wept as she tried to read a prayer.

The frigidity outside couldn’t stop my tears. No matter how many years go by, the loss of the life of my only brother is still unbearable.

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One Comment
  1. This is a wonderful story. I enjoyed reading every word.

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