Earlier this month I returned to my childhood home in Lake Stevens, Washington, for a long overdue family reunion: it was postponed from the previous summer when my older brother underwent cancer treatment. All eight of my siblings and their spouses and children were there. That added up to 18 adults and 34 grandchildren. Add in the spouse of the oldest married grandchild plus my parents and we had 55 attendees—the entire family!
After pulling into my parents’ place, I hopped out of the rental car and was deluged by my brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces—some I’d never met before and some I had, but still didn’t recognize. I turned around to see my dad on his motorized scooter making his way toward me. He hasn’t walked on his own since his stroke in 2008 that left the right side of his body paralyzed. But last February his right leg was amputated above the knee: the leg had caused nothing but pain since the stroke. I hadn’t seen him since the surgery.
“Well, hi!” he said with a big smile.
“Hey, Dad!” I leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. “How are you doing?”
“Go-od,” he said, making two syllables out of one.
“You must be happy to have everyone home.”
“Yes. Very nice!” he said, unable to say more, his stroke not only taking his ability to move freely but also to speak easily.
Then I saw my mother coming toward me.
I handed her a small potted plant, “They’re dahlias. Yours and Dad’s favorite.”
She smiled through wet eyes, “Flowers. You always bring me flowers.”
“That’s because I love you.”
She hugged me and whispered, “It’s been too long.”
Moments after going in the house, my son whispered, “You all fit in here?”
I chuckled. Up until child number seven, I told him, the house had only one bathroom and three tiny bedrooms. We didn’t really have a living room because it had become the dining room. I was teenager before my parents added a living room, master bedroom and bath.
The week passed in a blur: cookouts, swimming at the lake, and floating down a river. Over the weekend, we went to one of our favorite places, an old military fort-turned-state-park called Fort Casey on Whidbey Island. After a walk along the shore, we gathered on the meadow for a family tradition: Hide-n-Seek Tag in the fort. There are concrete tunnels, stairs, artillery holding bays, towers and even a radio tower. It’s a half-mile length of a military maze that my family played in since we went there as children.
With between 40-50 players, ranging in age from two to 47, we were ready to play. The little children partner with older more experienced players and we’re off and running—literally. Jeff and I were “it” and as we tagged people, they joined us to tag the remaining players. The last few players ended up running from 20-30 people.
With so many people playing and so much ground to cover, the first round of the game took well over an hour. By the second round, the chasers had walkie-talkies. The game got serious when we broke the fort up into sections: first, second, and third level; north, south and midway tower. We strategized over our walkie-talkies.
“I’ve got the third level, headed south,” I said to my comrades.
My twelve-year-old niece’s voice came over the radio, “I’ve got the first level.”
“I see someone on the second level, by the mid-tower,” my nephew announced.
“Copy that,” I replied and started running.
We ran until we were winded and sore. We came back with bleeding scratches from climbing through the brush and pulled hamstrings from flat-out sprints not meant for a 47-year-old. Mostly we came back with smiles and happy memories. The only sad part about Fort Casey was that my parents weren’t there. It would have been too exhausting for them so they stayed home that day.
The morning arrived for us to leave. I had already said most of my goodbyes the night before, but my mom got up early and got my dad up so they could see us off. Plus my sister closest in age came to say goodbye along with her family. She and her husband helped us package up 30 pounds of raspberries that we picked in my mom’s garden earlier in the week.
Our bags loaded in the rental car, I kept my emotions in check as I said goodbye to each family member.
Then I got to my mom, and I lost it when she hugged me and said, “Not long enough.”
All I could think was how sad I would be if I saw my daughters as little as my mom sees me.
A few hours later our plane took off from SeaTac. I looked out my window at the countless inlets, islands, and peninsulas of the Puget Sound. Several minutes later I saw Mt. Rainier looking huge, majestic and lonely all by itself above the clouds. Soon Seattle was out of sight and all I could see was the Cascade Mountains rippling off into the distance.
Two days earlier a bunch of us had been at a river. My sister kept asking me to float down the river with her. I kept declining. I remembered how cold rivers in the northwest can be—even in the summer. But finally I gave in. I borrowed some water shoes and made my way into the water, trailing behind my sister.
“You know, “ I said, “ I don’t like swimming in water less than 85 degrees. I’m only doing this for you.”
My sister laughed and guessed that the water temperature was about 60 degrees.
“Oh, boy, “ I grimaced as the cold water hits my waistline, “Then I’d say this is 25 degrees of love.