For the fourth consecutive year, my father, along with the rest of the immediate family, has managed to host quite a special birthday party celebration. The reason I say it’s special is, well … why don’t you tell me if this sounds like a fun and happy birthday party:
First, we rent out a social hall for a couple of hours. Then, we order four five-gallon containers of ice cream with the smoothest, richest ice cream you could imagine, in four delicious flavors: Chocolate Chocolate, Super Vanilla, Strawberry and Butter Pecan – my dad’s favorite – plus all the killer sundae toppings. A choice selection of cookies, wafers and other pastries complement the ice cream sundae station along with two chilled fresh fruit platters. Next, we hire a well-established two-piece band with an emcee to play a beautiful collection of international and seasonal music for the guests to enjoy. Lyrics to the songs are passed around to all the guests to invite everyone to sing along. Finally, the guests arrive, some whom we escort and others by their family members. Everyone is having a fabulous time drinking punch, gobbling up their sweet treats and singing loudly together. Once everyone is stuffed and the entertainment exhausts all the songs in the packet, everyone departs feeling satisfied and in a great mood, but not before a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday” to the birthday boy, who grins and waves to everyone like a kid that just won first place in the spelling bee.
Sounds like a great birthday party, right? Though I’m guessing you wouldn’t have guessed that it was at a senior community.
A few months before turning 60, at a rare moment when everyone was in town and available, my father announced to the whole family one Shabbat dinner that he would like to have a big birthday party and invite lots of his friends. “An ice cream social,” he stated with an excited tone, as a kid would say to his parents when planning an upcoming birthday celebration. “I want to invite as many people that we know, all our friends and family to join us.” We all looked around the table, our eyes wide with excitement. Quickly we exchanged ideas across the table and rattled off all my dad’s favorite ice cream flavors when my dad raised his hand, clearly indicating he had more to say, and we all sat waiting to hear what he said next. “We’re going to host an ice cream social at the Lieberman Home.”
My father wanted to volunteer on his birthday.
“Are you sure that’s what you want, Gregg?” my mom asked, but she already knew the answer. “Let’s get a list of guests and send out a notice, so people can save the date,” she continues, and rushes off to get a pen and pad of paper.
We all looked at each other around the table. I still wasn’t sure how this would go, or who would even want to RSVP to this party. Wouldn’t some people be uncomfortable or awkward at this so-called birthday party? What if people don’t come because they feel awkward volunteering at an elderly home? That notion was quickly put to rest when, a month later, more than 30 of my dad’s closest friends (and our family, of course) RSVP’d yes. My dad smiled, and I could see that – for the first time in as long as I can remember – he was looking forward to celebrating his birthday, sharing in the fun of digging through a make-your-own-sundae buffet and exchanging anecdotes about life, family and celebrations.
Birthdays bring out the best and most loving sides of ourselves and those we care deeply about. My father wanted to celebrate his milestone birthday at CJE SeniorLife’s Lieberman Center for Health & Rehabilitation, not as a preview for the later stages of his life (joke!), but as a way to share in the love and joy. No one at Lieberman knew my father or family personally, yet they felt just as close after enjoying generous scoops of ice cream and singing songs in Yiddish.
This year, on the drive over, I asked my dad why he chose to do this for his birthday when he could’ve easily donated money and just had a quiet celebration with the family featuring our nana’s famous double chocolate cake. He answered, “I’ve had a lifetime of parties and celebrations, and to live a meaningful life, I wanted to start giving back in a more committed fashion.” When I pressed to find out why he chose the Lieberman and not some other organization or charity, he chuckled and said that they were the only one that accepted him and his crazy birthday celebration idea, and they were the only place open the Sunday after Thanksgiving, when we traditionally celebrate.
I then asked him if he thinks celebrating his birthday with these residents makes a difference. He answered that many residents and their family members, even the staff, came up to him after the first year, complimenting him on how wonderful it was and how much they look forward to the next one. Some of them did indeed remember him and our family from the previous year. “It’s the smiles and the heartfelt thanks from the residents,” he said. “There’s no other feeling quite like it.”
By choosing to celebrate his birthday in this way, my dad made the residents feel special too. Despite the fact that we were celebrating his birthday, it felt as though we were there to celebrate the residents, and I think that was my dad’s intention all along.
At the end of our talk, he said, “I know that something unequivocally good takes place, and there are not too many things in life that are that way. Bringing light and warmth and celebration to those that don’t have much is just a very uniquely fulfilling feeling, for me and for them.”
I thought about what he said and realized that my father had found his own place and way of giving tzedakah, trailblazing the way for the rest of us.
Next year, my dad turns 65. Next year, we will be back at Lieberman for another birthday celebration, catching up with old friends (G-d willing) and making new ones. We all look forward to my dad’s birthday now, and for more reasons than devouring our nana’s ooey-gooey double chocolate cake.