How To Celebrate a Life
Rich wasn’t a funeral kinda guy. Which is good, because I’m not a funeral kind of gal. But I knew when he was diagnosed that there would only be one outcome, and so I started brainstorming.
How could I celebrate everything I loved about Rich, an everything that everyone else loved about him, and keep it light?
When I think of a funeral, I think sad, somber and all in black. I knew we couldn’t avoid moments of sadness, but the other two I could definitely tackle!
First an interjection: if you attended the event, thank you! This may seem redundant to you — although many people told me later they missed things, so maybe you will learn something new! Plus at the end of this post I have a link to the video tributes, which you might find interesting. A lot of this is geared towards people who may be in a similar planning situation. A lot of people have asked me how I did the party. Hopefully someone can glean some suggestions that might make their own event easier to plan.
My first task was choosing when we would have the party. I needed time to get organized and plan, plus I needed it to be when both the ids could attend, which meant December. We chose the date based on Sailor Boy’s schedule. The Navy allows holiday leave to either start or end on December 28th, so we ether had to do it the week of Christmas or the week after. For many reasons we knew Christmas week was a bad choice. And we had to do the Thursday, because Friday and Saturday were too pricey, and Monday was New Year’s Day, and Singer Girl had to go back to school on the 2nd. So December 29th was the only fit. Mind you, I was more worried about my boy making it on time than anything else: his flights from overseas finally had him arriving mere hours before the party!
Date selected, we moved to the venue. I needed a place that could hold a lot of people, and was easy for people to get to. Ultimately we probably had almost 350 guests, and the venue we chose, the Metropolitan Ballroom, was a great fit. Light and bright, with lots of levels and nooks and crannies to space things out and create pockets of fun. I also liked that it was easily accessible by freeway (and lots of free parking!). We accessorized the very stylish room with our own touches. I’ll talk more about that later. As for sustenance, I tried to keep things like Rich would’ve liked. TBH, when we discussed what he would like to see, he wanted it to be in our front yard with food trucks supplying burgers and brats. Since we were doing this in December, that wasn’t going to work (plus, I really didn’t want 350 people using my bathroom). So there were sliders, and tater tots, and Vegas themed desserts, among other options. Oh and the bar was a cash one, as I knew these people. If I paid for all their liquor, I’d have been washing dishes for weeks. However, we did have a specialty drink feature: the RT G & T: Bombay Sapphire, tonic, and a badly cut lime. If you know, you know.
During the course of Rich’s illness, I learned many things about my husband, even though I had known him for almost 40 years. Primarily, I learned about who he was a work — a mentor, friend, leader, coach, resource. I learned from his coworkers that he was known for “Richisms,” little nuggets of one-liner wisdom on subjects as diverse as work, marriage, life and dogs. I typed them up, and scattered them about the room. They were nuggets of gold, and I will be blogging about them later! When learning these things, it dawned on me that we often only know one or two facets of a person. So I set about revealing the many sides of Rich through “stations” set up around the room.
We had a table dedicated to Rich as a family man, with photos and mementos (people loved the wedding album!). I had Sailor Boy and Singer Girl pick their favorite pictures of them with their dad and displayed those prominently.
Folks who knew Rich only as an adult, needed to know his beginnings, so there was a table featuring Rich as a young guy, with baby pictures and prom photos and certificates from his days as an alter boy and newspaper clippings from high school sporting days.
Folks not knowing who he was at work needed to know his passion and commitment there. So there was a work table, featuring a binder with his certificates and awards and even the resume that got him hired at Cargill.
Folks thinking of him as always cool and collected made me want to show off his fun side. There was a table that was just silly, with various desktop toys and knickknacks that revealed the fun-loving guy I was privileged to love. The running table had all his marathon medals, as well as his favorite running t shirt.
We also decided to have a table honoring his brother Tito, who sadly died 7 weeks after Rich (yeah, 2022 was a real winner.) I was glad we are able to do that. Rich’s family created a beautiful photo montage display for that, which I appreciated.
The main rule for the evening: no funereal clothes. Rich was well known for wearing what Singer Girl called his “pimp shirts”: fun garb that bordered on the outright loud and tacky. I encouraged people to dress like they were in Vegas — or like they were Rich in Vegas. The kids and I, as well as other family members and friends, wore some of his wardrobe. For example, I wore his “dogs playing poker” shirt — a classic. I think people had a lot of fun with it, and it meant there were lots of smiles and laughter as different outfits appeared. The place was sparkly and flashy and cheerful!
One thing I knew I did NOT want: photo boards. We’ve all seen them at funerals: fantastic collections of family photos, meant to initiate walks down memory lane. They are great, but often overwhelming. I get that they are the easiest way to share such memories, but since we had time, I wanted to do something a little more. So, I asked a friend to help me make video slideshows (links to the slideshows are posted at the end of this blog post).
I spent weeks collecting, scanning and organizing photos. We had one main montage, that was just pictures of Rich. That played in the background on large video screens throughout the evening. The second show was more curated. Split into 4 parts, each part introduced a speaker. The first section was photos of Rich at work, and led into the speech by one of his former colleagues. Next up was the family section: first, Rich as a brother, uncle, son, etc., then clips of him as a dad. Sailor Boy spoke after that (thankfully he kept it short and irreverent. I was grateful I didn’t have cause to bawl like a baby!). The third section was Rich as a friend. We divided this section into Rich as a friend to many, then Rich as a member of the Unicorn Squad.
The Unicorns are Mike, Erika, Sandi and Kurt, our closest friends. These are our ride or dies, the ones with whom we travel, party, or just hang out. They got on stage collectively, three lining up behind while the fourth was the spokesperson for the group. I loved the symbolism of that. We are a team at all times.
The last slideshow was mine. It was all pictures of Rich and I in all phases of our relationship — from our days in college to our travels and date nights and up until the last. Then I spoke — very briefly. It was just a thank you for coming thing. But it also served one last purpose.
This party had a lot of goals. Obviously, I wanted to honor Rich. But I also wanted to thank everyone who had been there for us through the long days of a very short year. So it had to be fun — upbeat music, colorful clothes, good food, lots of comradery, etc. Originally when I was planning things I wanted there to be craps tables and make it really something we would have loved, but I guess you cant do even non-gambling craps tables in Minnesota (lame). So I had to do the next best thing: puppies.
At the end of my spiel, I revealed that there was a litter of puppies waiting to be cuddled. Surprise! As the Puppy Party Coordinator for Secondhand Hounds here in Minnesota, I felt it was fitting. People loved it (of course). It gave folks another reason to mingle and smile Rich would have approved.
There was one final goal for the evening: I wanted his family, especially his mom, to feel what I had felt for all those wretched months: the outpouring of love and support. When we moved to the Midwest decades ago I never could have known what an amazing world we would create here. People have literally come out of the woodwork to help in ways big and small, and I still get people reching out, asking how they can help.
I am so lucky.
We were so lucky.
This is the link to the video tribute of just Rich.