A Pre-Birthday Surprise

My husband (H) and daughter (D) recently threw a surprise party for me. I was completely shocked, but in a good way. My birthday, which is best described as a significant one, was still eight days away, and I suspected nothing that evening.

I had never had a surprise party before. I hadn’t had a real birthday party since I was twelve, when I invited ten friends for cake and ice skating. That was somewhat of a letdown, and it made me appreciate my family’s typically low-key marking of birthdays. H’s family, however, takes the opposite approach. They retain a remarkably resilient enthusiasm for celebrating all of life’s events. This includes the birthdays of the middle-aged, which are considered by my side of the family to be, at best, an excuse to go out to eat. While I thought I would be OK with a subdued acknowledgment of this birthday–I had said I didn’t want a party–I was glad to be overruled.

H and D took great pains to organize the event and to keep it a secret. To their credit, they are usually terrible liars. Yet apparently, if justified, they can pull off any number of untruths. They set up a complicated scenario that ended with our wandering, somewhat aimlessly, I thought, into a local music cafe. I heard H say quietly, “Happy Birthday,” but I was still surprised to hear it echoed, loudly, by a fairly large group of my closest friends.

I was still soaking up the surprise when I saw Robin and Linda Williams (and Their Fine Group) on stage setting up their instruments. Their music is an engaging blend of folk, bluegrass and gospel. I had discovered it years ago as a grad student studying for exams. Since then, for nearly every emotion or major life event I experience, there is a corresponding song by Robin and Linda. Their melodies, whether hauntingly sad or exuberantly joyful, are matched by evocative lyrics and accomplished instrumentals on banjo, guitar, fiddle, mandolin and dobro. Their music is the soundtrack of my life, especially now that H and D love it, too. Each year as we cross the Sagamore Bridge onto Cape Cod, we sing Southern Shores, their song about escaping to the Outer Banks; it works for going north as well as south. The presence of the Williamses (who happen to be kind, friendly, and completely without pretense) and the promise of their music brought tears to my eyes.

Both H and D had prepared sweet and thoughtfully comical tribute speeches. As they spoke, it struck me that I am extremely fortunate to share my life with these two caring and admirable people, these two people who know me so well and yet still love me.

It was uplifting to see my good friends representing the various aspects of my life: neighborhood, church, and my daughter’s school. It brought to mind our small wedding, when H and I were surrounded by dearest friends and family. Our families had never met, and it was sort of magical to see, for example, my Uncle Bill laughing with H’s grandfather. I got the same impression as I watched my friends mixing happily together, some for the first time. Throughout the night, I was conscious of a powerful sense of community, a certainty that the issues that divide us are insignificant in the face of those that unite us. I found myself wishing that my parents could have come up from Atlanta to attend; they would have agreed that sometimes, indeed, celebrating in earnest is essential.

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