Celebrate Good Times..Right?
We throw parties all year-round to celebrate everything and nothing. We have birthday parties, holiday parties, graduation parties, you name it. Hell, New Orleans alone has over 130 festivals a year – it’s clear that humans all over the world are champing at the bit to celebrate anything.
Many of us have received a pastel-laden invitation in the mail requesting our presence (presents?) at a friend or colleague’s Baby Shower and never blinked an eye – it’s easy to imagine the desire to celebrate new life, right? But what about death? Can you imagine what your first thoughts would be if you opened up that envelope to reveal an End of Life Party invitation? I can’t say that I ever had either, until the day it became a reality.
As you may know I’m a bit of a jack(ass) of all trades, so in between blogging, science-ing, housekeeping, and masturbating, I also do a bit of DJing. A couple of months ago I got a call from a friend of a friend of someone in desperate need of a good DJ to orchestrate a last minute End of Life Party.
With my thoughts reeling and emotions surfacing which I’d never had to face before, I listened to my friend explain more details about the party. She told me that it’s for a man who has terminal cancer and wants to celebrate one final time among his loved ones. After a quick glance at my calendar to verify availability, I couldn’t accept fast enough because I knew this party and I were destined to meet.
So Many Questions
She didn’t have many more details, and it wouldn’t have affected my feelings on accepting anyway, so we hung up and my mind started wandering. I’d never done a gig quite like this before and I began to have questions: How old is this person? (And please tell me he’s at least 100 years old and lived a full life.) Is this going to be somber, or will everyone be in a celebratory mood? What music should I play or avoid so I’m not insensitive or insulting? And most importantly, as an empath, do I even have the physical and mental capability of coordinating such an emotional event? Some of my questions were answered soon enough when I spoke to the man directly.
I was relieved when he talked about his grandchildren because at least he’s been around long enough to enjoy another generation. He told me he doesn’t want this to be “some Goddamn pity party,” but light, fun, and happy instead. I felt a little better after talking to him because I got a better sense of what he was looking for – just a celebration of life.
Well, I happen to specialize in celebration.
Right off the tip of Cape Cod, just beyond the giant white party tent stretched the ocean as far as you could see. Fifteen large, round tables with light gray linens and white chairs were strategically arranged under the tent surrounding the dance floor and DJ booth. Another twenty high tops were scattered around the outside edges of the tent, clearly intended for folks to soak up the rays while enjoying a cocktail by the water. Each table was modestly decorated with a small arrangement of assorted flowers, all lime green in color.
With the naked eye it looked like any other event I’d ever been to, but as I sat in the Mustang after I pulled into the driveway my heart grew heavy as I remembered why I was there. His wife met me and told me where to set up. Eager to see the rest of the oceanfront property, I walked around after I tested my gear and took in the view before his guests arrived.
It was a beautiful sunny day on the water and his friends and family started filing into the tent. He’d asked for a variety of music, so I adorned cocktail hour with popular speakeasy-style tunes with a dash of 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s hits. His guests were immediately toe-tapping and grooving, and there wasn’t a teardrop in the place. After the guest of honor and his wife made a welcome speech, I stepped things up with some disco favorites and found my dance floor packed before dinner was even served.
He has dozens of loved ones so several people asked to make speeches, and I encountered many props stashed under my booth. A guest book was passed around at each table for people to write something personal to him; and just about everything was photographed or videoed by someone. Framed, old pictures of him dating back to the 1940’s embellished the various accent tables. His caterer served several hors d’oeuvres and small plates because he didn’t want a traditional, formal, sit-down dinner to weigh down the party – he hated the idea of people being chained down to their chairs. More high tops lined the dance floor to house the drinks of those busting a move all night.
People told stories. His friends choreographed an absolutely awful dance to their group’s favorite song. Family made scrapbooks of their lives together. A grandson wrote him a song. Daughters read a poem together. His tennis club showed up wearing lime green bracelets that had FUCK LYMPHATIC CANCER written on them. Memories were shared. Memories were made. People laughed. People cried. It was a true celebration of life.
He expected people to go home early and I thought he was right when I experienced a lull in dancing – but I think people were just off somewhere refueling and peeing. Twenty minutes before I was scheduled to leave, the dance floor exploded and I couldn’t step away for another forty-five minutes to ask my client if he’d like me to stay another hour; which I ultimately did. It was as if no one wanted to let him go.
And I’ll be damned; he spent a solid 75% of the night dancing, aided in remaining upright by whoever danced with him at the time. That’s pretty incredible for someone given a death sentence.
I mentioned my fear of crumbling inside of my sensitive empath skin being faced with such sadness, but I actually surprised myself. I managed to stay composed throughout the entire event from beginning to end, and only teared up a few times during some of the more sentimental moments. I believe that knowing I was making such a difference in so many lives is what kept my composure in check, and gave me the strength to push through with a big smile on my face.
Helping others is something that has brought me joy since I was a small child. I’ve always always had a sense about sharing, helping, and being kind. I felt so good giving him the party he dreamed of and making him happy. His family was beyond thankful for my contribution to the day, and I had many intimate conversations with them.
His wife was the very last person I spoke with that night before I left, and she inadvertently answered my final, initial question that I wasn’t sure I even wanted the answer to. In conversation, she told me that her husband likely has only four to five months to live. Though I had been curious about the timing of the party and his prognosis, I wasn’t convinced I wanted to know exactly how long he has. Part of me wanted to pretend that I wasn’t found last minute for a reason; that possibly he has a few years left and they just want the party now. Another part of me wanted to pretend it was just another birthday party and that death is not whispering his name.
But no; now I know that he may be gone by the end of this year.
The entire journey certainly had me thinking throughout. I think about death and mortality every day of my life, and it affects me when it gets close. Of course his End of Life Party wasn’t anything revolutionary, in fact many cultures throw a big bash to celebrate death such as the Irish Wake, New Orleans Jazz Funeral, and Día de los Muertos. It’s just that usually the person is already dead. This person has only been given the promise of death.
We never know how much time we have, but sometimes you get a chance to know your own expiration date. And isn’t that the way it should be? Shouldn’t we be granted the opportunity to celebrate our own life, instead of our loved ones assembling in our absence? Or is it something we should have no knowledge of?
Would you celebrate your life?
If an End of Life Party is ever something you’re interested in planning, this is what I observed:
Elements of an End of Life Party
- Joy: Before planning a party of this nature, it’s important to keep a positive mindset or the true meaning of the celebration will get lost. It’s easy to become sad and depressed preparing to lose a loved one or facing death yourself, but letting sadness overwhelm the task at hand will delay progress and make it feel more miserable overall. Try to remember that party planning is actually supposed to be fun! And what better way to bond with those you love than organizing an epic bash?
- Simplicity: One thing I noticed about this particular party is how absolutely uncomplicated it was. Tent. Tables. Chairs. Dance Floor. Music. Food. Drink. Humble decorations. Certainly enjoy the time you do have to spend planning the party, but avoid making it overly complicated and wasting any time you don’t need to between planning and actual setup on the day of. You aren’t going to remember (or care) if the balloons were the exact same tint of the napkins when you look back, you’re going to remember the memories you made.
- Outstanding Food, Drinks, & Music: No life-hack here, just the basics of any great party.
- Sentiment: This party had a guest book and old pictures, but feel free to add in a simple slideshow or collage to show guests some nostalgia.
- Speeches: Just like at a wedding where the best man shares embarrassing stories of the groom – so people from all facets of a person’s life can get to know them better. By having people make toasts and give speeches, everyone learns more and they’re usually the best stories. I’d never met this man in my life before, but I feel like I know him a little through others’ eyes now.
- Honesty: Of course you want good spirits at an End of Life Party – everyone did enough crying upon hearing the prognosis – but it’s not necessary to completely ignore the reality of it. It’s perfectly alright to include a short timeline or synopsis of the person’s journey; whatever they are comfortable sharing.
- Lack of Formalities: A traditional event typically follows a strict timeline and is packed with activities and announcements. Mirroring the simplicity guideline above, having a rudimentary and relatively loose timeline is less stressful and leaves little room for disappointment. By skipping a formal, sit-down dinner, you don’t lose an hour where people are forced to sit at their individual tables whether they’re done eating or not. Just keep it a non-stop hullabaloo!
- Capture the Important Stuff: Bust out your still or video camera when something awesome is happening like a speech or special dance to document the memory, but make sure not to hide behind your camera the whole time! It’s just as important to experience the moment while it’s happening as it is to remember it through a picture. Even better – hire a photographer so you can be footloose and fancy-free all night long.
- Never Lose Sight: Planning the details of any party can be daunting, so do your best to not get caught up in it and lose sight of the goal, which is to celebrate a life. Keep it uncomplicated, nostalgic, positive, and fun, and try not to allow yourself to be disappointed by any snafus because shit happens. So if the caterer serves corn instead of wheat tortillas like you ordered, try to remember that quality time with loved ones is way more important than any taco.
Have you ever celebrated death before?