It was a milestone birthday, one worth celebrating, but what do you do for a man about to turn 90 years old who already has everything he needs?
You give him the only thing he’s never had, along with the thing he loves most: A surprise party, surrounded by family.
This was all supposed to be a super-secret surprise, but I couldn’t very well just show up without an excuse. Fortunately, Thanksgiving fell late in November last year, and my Dad’s birthday is Dec. 1, so I just made up something about wanting to spend the holiday in Buffalo as if it were the most casual thing in the world to travel almost 700 miles for a turkey dinner.
My Dad’s cousin Mary Ellen graciously invited me, my brother and sister-in-law to join her family and my Dad at her house for the big meal. She is a fabulous cook, so that was an invitation I was happy to accept, and in the meantime, behind the scenes, the two of us conspired to plan the celebration.
Mary Ellen secured a reservation at the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site, which was brilliant on many levels, and promised she could line up an Irish band for the occasion. In addition, it turns out that one of my cousins does catering on the side and agreed to provide the food.
What else do you really need for a party?
Well, invitations. Mary Ellen and I teamed up to send those out; no small feat considering how big my Dad’s side of the family is.
And that was about it, really. All I had to do now was show up.
The cost of airline tickets was astronomically high, given the proximity to the Thanksgiving holiday, but how much is a once-in-a-lifetime event really worth?
Patrick and Perri booked a suite at a nearby hotel and I hauled my suitcase into the familiar guest room at my Dad’s house on the day before Thanksgiving, and he and I settled into a comfortable routine of touring his basement and garage, which is how he disguises his museum of military memorabilia, and watching local and national news on TV. We also watched the Buffalo Bills play — a happy victory that was undimmed by the eventual loss we didn’t know yet was coming.
Now all we had to do was make sure Dad showed up at his party.
The game plan was for Mary Ellen to pick me up early — so we could take care of all those last-minute details like cutting up radish roses — on the pretense of attending some kind of event. Everyone else would show up, and then Patrick and Perri would pick Dad up at his house, tell him Mary Ellen and I wanted him to see whatever was supposedly going on at the TR Center, and then swing the doors open for the big surprise.
Except that all day, Dad kept reminding me that he attends Mass on Saturday nights.
“Well, Daddy,” I floundered, “I think Pat and Perri are going to come over
tonight so maybe you can skip church just this once. I don’t think God will mind.”
He peered at the television listings in the newspaper. “‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is on tonight,” he mused. “I think I’ll just stay home and watch that.”
“Well, Daddy,” I fretted, “that movie comes on, like, a hundred times over the holidays. I’m sure you’ll have another chance to see it.”
I seriously considered hiding his car keys before I left, fearful he would take off for Mass or a movie theatre or who knows where, and wow, what a great surprise party that would be without the guest of honor.
As Mary Ellen beeped her car horn in Dad’s driveway, I texted my brother to warn him he’d better get over there quick. Pat did exactly that, went through the same rigmarole about skipping Mass, hustled him into the car at the appointed time under some pretext or another — I don’t know what Pat said and I don’t care — and then a few minutes later, texted to tell me they had arrived.
I shushed the crowd and zoomed down to the lobby.
“Hi, Daddy,” I said, not giving him time to ask any questions. “Come on and take a look at this display they’ve got upstairs. It’s really magnificent. You’re gonna love it.”
Well, he did love it.
There were almost 100 people in the room, all but three of them relatives — and that’s counting the band. This is a bunch who knows how to have a good time, and they like each other, which makes having a good time pretty easy. I was pleased that I recognized almost everyone, and they all knew me too. People who have close families should never take that for granted.
There was music and food and laughter. There was a photo album filled with a lot of old pictures, and I buzzed around taking lots of new pictures.
Everyone held hands and sang together as the band played “When Irish Eyes are Smiling.” I knew all the words.
“Are you having a good time, Daddy?” I asked. “Were you really and truly surprised?”
“Oh! Absolutely!” he exclaimed. “Never had a better time!”
A birthday cake magically appeared and we all sang again as Dad blew out the candles.
I know at least one wish that came true.