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A few weeks before her demise, which at the time was evident to all, I was reading my mother a story. My voice choked when I came to a passage about death, and I could not go on.

Mom, in the way that mothers do, knew exactly what to do.

She gently placed her hand on my arm and spoke in a steady, matter-of-fact voice. "I will always be with you," she said.

That was nearly nine years ago, and of course I now know that she was exactly right. She has never left my heart or mind, and she has been with me since.

That's the way that families work. The connections between mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, brothers and sisters are immortal.

By virtue of birth, we all get a family. If we're lucky, it is one that is nurturing and loving, and one in which the inevitable quirks and flaws are tolerable, perhaps even endearing. It becomes one in which memories are made, cherished and passed along, creating the stories that are the foundation of self.

And if we're very lucky, we sometimes get the chance to also mold a second family, one that is the progeny of choice.

Having just returned from a summer reunion of such a pseudo-family, I count myself among the very lucky.

There are five of us men who once were boys together in Ohio, and our wives who somehow — miraculously, really — have embraced each of the others as something akin to beloved brothers-in-law. As for the five of us, among the great many things upon which we agree is that each has been extraordinarily lucky in love.

This is the year we all turned 60.

To celebrate, we rented a spacious beachfront home on St. George Island, a sparsely developed barrier island off the Florida Panhandle. It is a hard-to-get-to place with sand dunes, pelicans and the funky vibe of a classic beach town.

Years ago, we pulled off these summer sojourns regularly, at campgrounds in Canada and upstate New York and at rented vacation homes in Cape Cod and the Great Smoky Mountains.

After that, we had real families to attend to — children to raise, careers to pursue, memories to make with our own sons and daughters.

Now, at 60, it seemed time to rekindle the sojourns.

Very quickly, the shared stories began spilling out.

The Class of '71 homecoming float decorated with a stolen outhouse. The college parties at the apartment complex we called the Blue Zoo. The days when our pockets and cupboards were so bare that we dined on creamed corn sandwiches.

That memorable spring break in the Florida Keys. That week in Tennessee when we were energetic enough to consider it a vacation to spend seven days in a house populated by three 3-year-olds.

Through all the high school high jinks, the college adventures, the sojourns and at the annual winter golf outings in Las Vegas, all or most of us have been together.

As with actual families, there have been great highs and unspeakable lows.

Weddings, births, graduations, divorces, economic hardships, the aching sadness of an accident that left one couple's beautiful teenage boy permanently brain-damaged.

Now there are new highlights: two couples among us are grandparents and, just last month, the first retirement in the group.

How to Report

Report concerns about the well-being of an adult living at home:

Adult Protective Services Hotline
Available 24 hours per day. Calls are confidential.

Report concerns about an adult living in a nursing or residential care facility:

Sonoma County Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program
707-526-4108 or 800-231-4024
Learn more about the Ombudsman at Senior Advocacy Services. Calls are confidential.

Despite what we surely believed when in our 30s, 60 is hardly ancient. We took long walks, tossed a football on the beach, splashed in the waves, danced into the night to '70s rock tunes.

Still, at 60, a sense of mortality does begin to creep in.

On our last night together, while our wives were upstairs preparing a birthday celebration, the five of us indulged in one more round of stories.

It was then that Ralph raised a question that had been on my mind all week.

"Is it time," he asked, "that we buy a $200 bottle of wine and form a Last Man's Club?"

The majority reaction was instant and negative.

"I don't like to think about it either," I said, "but I do like the idea of one of you toasting my memory after I'm gone." Mick was offended by the suggestion that such sentimental reflection would require a prearranged ritual. "You know we're going to do that anyway," he said.

At that moment, he was channeling the wisdom of my mother. "We will always be with you," is what he was saying.

And on that night before this family-by-choice dispersed again, there may have been no better way to lighten the melancholy of another goodbye.

<I>Timm Herdt is a columnist for the Ventura County Star.</i>

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