Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

The Zoo

The next morning, I was up before Elizabeth. I couldn't wait for her to wake up, so I snuck downstairs for some free coffee. She would have freaked out to wake up and find me gone. Passing through the lobby, I said good morning to an elderly male resident. He was pleasant, but mostly ignored me in favor of his morning TV news.

Returning to our room, I was glad to see Elizabeth still asleep. When I later confessed that I had sneaked out, she said, “Don't ever do that again! Don't worry about letting me sleep. Wake me up.”

She later told my brother Don what I had done, without her permission. Don asked, “How could he get your permission when you were asleep?” She said I should have woken her. Don said, “You're pretty bossy!” She replied, “Well, this is basically my vacation.” It might sound like she's a spoiled brat — because she is — but when she says these things, it's usually with such charm and good humor that you just have to laugh.

I made scrambled eggs and hash browns with what Don had left behind for us. He had the guest room before we arrived. I offered Elizabeth some, but she didn't want any. She wanted to go out for breakfast. No surprise there. She wants to go out for every meal, and Tara and I keep explaining that we would go broke if we did that.

I texted Don, wondering where he was, and could I borrow Dad's car? Trying to save money, I didn't plan on renting a car until Sunday for the trip to Jeannie's ranch. While we walked and texted, I mentioned breakfast, so Don invited us to a free breakfast at his hotel a couple blocks away. And it was a great breakfast! Do-it-yourself waffle iron, cereal, eggs, toast and fruit – all free! It would have cost $10 a plate at IHOP with everything we got. As usual, Elizabeth ate roughly half of everything she'd put on her plates – yes, plates, plural – leaving me to scavenge the remains, knowing I hate to see food go to waste.

Finished with that, Elizabeth was already planning her next move. “Let's go to the zoo!” she said. I had mentioned prior to the trip that it might be something to do in Sacramento. Elizabeth always wants to see the zoo, no matter what town we're in. Good to know if we visit her cousin Michael and family in San Diego, which has possibly the world's greatest zoo. We spent a solid two hours at the zoo, with the last half hour in the gift shop. We had started out in the gift shop, actually, where I bought my obligatory, every-four-years Sacramento Zoo hat. I knew I'd need one for walking around. When I complained that this second visit to the gift shop was taking too long, Elizabeth said, “Well, you know how us girls like to shop!” I don't remember everything she ended up with, but one item was a small tin with some sort of jungle design on it. Inside were little mints looking a lot like TicTacs. She paid $4 for that, even after I said she could get TicTacs for less than a dollar at any dollar store. Oh well.

The Sacramento Zoo is quite a bit smaller than Nashville's, but they do have a fairly nice giraffe enclosure. People can line up and touch a giraffe that has been lured close with whatever type of leaves giraffes like. We skipped that line, though, in favor of a table where kids could color a paper cutout shaped like the knobs on a giraffe's head, then “snap” it together to wear like a hat. Elizabeth's all about the art. Combine art and animals? She's there!

We stopped for some ice cream, then had her face painted with a dolphin design. Basically, whatever she wanted, she was getting. I was purposely allowing her more freedom and indulgence on this trip than we typically give her at home. We took one more lap around the zoo just to be sure we didn't miss anything. We were finally ready to leave, almost to the gate, when she blurted out, “My mints!” She had left her expensive $4 tin at the giraffe drawing table. She ran off to get them.

“Wait!” I said. “I can't run!” I could run if I had to, but my feet were killing me by this point and, well, I just don't generally feel like running. She waited as I had asked, but was making impatient “come on” gestures accompanied with an open mouth as if in disbelief that anyone could possibly move as slowly as I was. I had to laugh at her melodrama, so I gestured that she could go on ahead.

As she got further and further ahead, I jogged behind, dodging pedestrians as best I could, keeping Elizabeth within sight at all times. A father's greatest fear is to lose a child. And, with Elizabeth being such a pretty little girl, she is even more of a target for predators. Someone else's girl just happened to start jogging right next to me, causing her mother to call her back, probably spooked to see me jogging next to her kid as we came upon a turn in the pavement.

Elizabeth had the same fear. While still in Nashville on the drive to the airport, she said she was both excited and scared. “Dad,” she said very seriously, “promise you won't lose me!”

“Elizabeth,” I said, “you are the most important thing in my life. I won't lose you.”

Tara added, “Just make sure you always hold Dad's hand when you're in a crowded place.”

By the time I caught up with her at the giraffe exhibit, she was coming back down the ramp with a satisfied look on her face, clutching that tin in her hand. She told me she had said, “Oh no, it's gone!” when she got back to that table. But one of the teenage girls there smiled, pulled the tin out from behind her, and said, “Are you looking for this?”

The Party

Our reason for being in Sacramento had finally arrived. Well, Elizabeth's reason wasn't until the following day. Anyway, because I was already driving, I kept on as I first picked up Dad, then Don. Our brother Doug and family (Jana, Milan, Natalia and the newborn little Dougie) were hosting it in their back yard on the northeast side of town, near where we used to live as kids.

Approaching Doug's house, I spotted my nephew Michael behind the wheel of his rental car, parked and smiling wide when he saw us. It was almost like he was glad to see us. In the car with him, of course, were his wife Evelyn and 12 year old daughter Bijou. The rest of the partygoers were either already there or not far behind us: Greg and June; Lucy; Steve and Sherri; Jeannie, Matt, Tiffany, Thomas, and the kids Shayden, Skyla and Finnegan; and even Jonel, Lucy's high school friend from the old Folsom neighborhood. Jeannie disappeared again, however, and stayed gone for at least half an hour. She was supposedly at the grocery store getting last minute items, but we really have no proof of that.

Almost immediately, Natalia led Bijou, Elizabeth, Skyla and Shayden out back to bounce on the trampoline. That thing was a lifesaver, keeping the kids occupied most of the time. At one point, the girls were all chatting while bouncing. It made for a funny picture: kids having a chat while, oh by the way, bouncing on a trampoline.

Other than me, everyone brought something to the party. Steve and Sherri brought a couple of portable canopies, which I helped setup. I had planned to run to the store for any last minute items, but Jeannie beat me to it. We ended up with too much food, anyway, so I didn't have to bother. Michael and Evelyn brought professionally-prepared deli sandwiches, which, not counting Jana's homemade birthday cake, were the hit of the party.

Like all family gatherings, old stories were swapped, most of which we'd all heard a hundred times before. There's always some new twist or secret detail revealed, though, after unspoken family statutes of limitations have expired. None of that, however, can be revealed here. Hey, family secrets are still family secrets. Suffice it to say that almost everything bad that ever happened was blamed on the eldest, Greg. Jeannie and Tiffany told a few new stories about their experiences taking care of troubled teens. Doug showed off all the work he and Jana had done inside the house and out.

At one point with Dad right next to me, he took a spill when he stepped into a depression in the grass where a tree used to be. He was right next to me, but I wasn't quick enough to keep him from hitting the turf. He was uninjured, luckily, not even embarrassed. That's Dad. Almost everything rolls off him like water off a duck's back. It's probably why he's lived such a long and healthy life.

After everyone ate their fill, the cake was brought out for a rousing birthday song. And then we sang it again, this time in a slightly higher key, because Skyla () missed it the first time around. No problem.

It's a long-standing family tradition (starting this year) that if the birthday boy is 94 and up, we'll sing happy birthday as many times as it takes to get it right. It actually sounded better the second time.

Michael and Evelyn brought birthday gifts for all the kids because, with all of them so far from San Diego, they didn't know when they might see them again. Group photos were taken, and then everyone started leaving with various excuses. The next thing I knew, Dad and I were shutting that party down! He and I were, after all, the only ones drinking beer … well, Coors Light, if you can call that beer. I only had one, actually. I almost never drink these days, so all it takes is two and I'm feeling it. With Coors Light it might take an entire six pack. Anyway, it was time to go home, or at least “not stay here,” as the song goes.

That song, by the way, is “Closing Time” by Semisonic, in case you didn't get the above reference. If you're like me, it would have nagged at you until three days later in the checkout line of the grocery store, you shouted out, “Closing Time by Semisonic!” I don't want that to happen to you.

Michael, Greg and I made arrangements to meet up again in Old Sacramento, the most touristy part of town, after I dropped Dad and Don off.

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

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