Editor’s note: Marvin Arnold, a retired Fresno stockbroker who chose to have his celebration of life services before he died instead of afterward, died of leukemia Saturday, July 30, at his home in Fresno. His children said their father, 84, was in good humor and pain-free up to the end, and he passed away in his sleep.
“Join us in celebrating a Marv-elous Life!” the invitation reads, cursive letters swirling around a blue sky.
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“A fun evening by the river has been planned, complete with barbeque dinner, music and the company of our special guest of honor, Marvin Arnold, River Center, San Joaquin River Parkway; casual dress is encouraged.”
The card is decorated with a red balloon flying above the clouds. No strings attached.
Sounds like a blast, doesn’t it?
Yes, and it was. But there was one string attached. You had to be OK with saying goodbye forever to Marvin, who at 84 is terminally ill with acute myeloid leukemia. There is no cure for him. There also will be no funeral. But a few weeks ago, he hosted one joyful, unforgettable “going-away” party.
And boy, did he and his kids pull it off, most every detail just as he wanted it. The weather was perfect under the shaded gazebo at the San Joaquin River Parkway River Center house. Delicious barbecue from Famous Dave’s – he especially liked the brisket; his favorite fine wines, ice pops for dessert from Donna Mott’s Ooh De Lolli cart. There was even a bawdy tune from the movie “Blazing Saddles.”
And when it was over, everyone agreed that Marvin’s crazy idea wasn’t so crazy after all.
“More than happy” the honoree said of having the privilege of attending his own wake.
This all started when Marvin, a retired Fresno stockbroker at Merrill Lynch, went to a memorial service for his cousin, a lovely affair with a delightful gathering afterward at Pardini’s. There was just one very big thing missing – his dead cousin.
Marvin had an “aha” moment right there about his own funeral. He wanted a nice party like that after his memorial services one day. With one big exception. He wanted to be there.
Later on he announced to his family that he was putting away money for this party as part of his estate, and though they were surprised at the very idea of the thing, they made note of it. Hoping it would never happen.
Things got real, however, the first week in May when Marvin summoned his children for a family dinner. At one point in the evening, he stopped and announced that it was time to plan that “going-away” party in earnest. He had been diagnosed with leukemia. There was no treatment.
Marvin couldn’t say how long he would live, but he wanted that one big, joyful party to say goodbye. You should know that this family takes immense pride in throwing parties. As Marvin says, “It’s always a love fest.”
The children had reservations about the idea. How would people respond? Would they really attend? What would keep this from being so very sad?
Turns out, they weren’t alone in asking such questions. These “living tributes” are becoming part of the fabric of American life, says Denise Carson, a blogger and the author of “Parting Ways: New Rituals and Celebrations of Life’s Passing.”
“I’ve come to realize,” Carson says, “that these pre-death rituals that seem rare are on the rise from the east to west coasts. People are toasting and roasting family members and friends with limited time left. The gathering becomes a stage for people to (say) thank you, I love you, I’ll remember you. And goodbye.”
Carson encourages people who know death is near to lean into the celebration.
“Your 15 minutes have arrived. Roll out the red carpet,” she writes. “This gathering of family, friends, neighbors and colleagues is a ceremony or party to celebrate a person with a life-limiting illness. If you know your time is short, why wait?”
She reminds folks that the concept isn’t new. Mark Twain, she points out, revealed a fascination for eavesdropping on his own funeral in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”
The doctors did not give Marvin a firm idea of how long he had to live. Just to be safe, everyone figured, the sooner the better for the party planning.
Marvin has a personality that each of his family members defines differently, but when you mix it into a punch it comes out as a charming, bold, fascinating, festive, crowd-pleasing cocktail.
He’s an adventurer, a political progressive, an avid collector and passionate about food, wine, Oriental rugs, fine watches, sailing, aircraft, history, philanthropy and public service. And he is quite the optimistic, motivational leader, definitely born to be in charge.
For example, when Marvin was diagnosed years ago with neuropathy that made it difficult for him to walk, he pushed aside any idea of a wheelchair and got both a motorized scooter and a tricked-out van. Then he started a support group for others with the same condition so they could help each other out.
I learned about all these things during the party and in the weeks after through stories shared by his friends and his children: Sara Hubert, Charlie and Peter.
Of course, many of the stories were told at Marvin’s expense by people with microphones in their hands and an audience, which is always a dangerous combination.
They told of the family Airedale eating the steaks they planned for dinner. Adventures with worldwide travel. And of Marvin’s close calls piloting airplanes. And of the sailboat races that he (almost) won. Once, before he could afford a real sailboat, he rigged a sail to a canoe on Hume Lake, scaring the daylights out of his daughter.
But what kind of guy is Marvin, really?
Alison, his first wife and the mother of his children, attended the party, along with his current wife, Nadia. They have always gotten along as one big family, Marvin said. Not many men live to say that.
Sara said that for days after the party, they all just basked in the glow of their father’s bliss on that wonderful night.
And now she says she is grateful they had the party so quickly, because her father isn’t feeling well. He’s contacted hospice.
As I admire the colorful invitation to Marvin’s going-away gala, I cannot help but think of the charming French children’s book “The Red Balloon” by Albert Lamorisse. It’s about a little boy who finds a wonderful red balloon – a balloon with a mind of its own.
Gail Marshall is associate editor of The Bee’s opinion pages. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.