The problem with the surprise parties had started with their father’s 76th birthday when their stepmother Fran had not been able to keep the secret, and their father had not been able to keep the secret that she’d not been able to keep the secret and showed up primed to be toasted and celebrated. He’d never been able to feign surprise. “Old George,” his friends would say, “transparent as a freshly squeegeed window.” After all of the work creating a believable ruse, and parking their cars behind neighbors’ garages, and hiding behind sofas and doors, it had been a downer.
The next year Ken, the oldest and most prosperous of the five, cajoled them into a different kind of surprise. They told Fran that they were going to have another surprise party. But they didn’t. When George and Fran showed up, no one was there. Surprise! (Oh, they’d taken them to dinner later, but they’d had their fun.)
Next year they decided things were back on track. Fran was duly informed. Everyone assembled at Ken’s house and cars were secreted and people tucked themselves behind the usual furniture and doors, crouching and lurking and poised to leap forth crying, “Happy birthday!” Coiled like springs, they waited for George and Fran to come and “feed the dog while Ken was out of town.” No one ever came. Fran had had her surprise. They should have known when she hadn’t laughed at last year’s dinner.
The next year they’d discussed whether the surprise birthday thing wasn’t a flawed concept, whether it wasn’t as defunct as a dodo in the wake of the last three years, but finally, Mary Beth, the youngest, prevailed upon them not to trample tradition. Everyone felt they’d made the right decision. No one was quite sure how the confusion about the dates came about. George’s actual birthday was out because one of his old army buddies was going to be in town and having dinner with him. But how had Fran gotten the impression that the party was the Saturday before George’s birthday rather than the Sunday? Surely no one had told her that. Fran was getting kind of confused but no one expected she’d get that wrong. They’d smoothed it all over and had a party later. But, obviously, not a surprise party.
The next year the whole concept of a surprise party seemed frayed at the seams and fraught with peril. Besides it would be their father’s 80th and not having a party of some kind for such a milestone was unthinkable. Surely, after the history over the last several years and the fact of this significant birthday, a surprise party was just not possible. But Kevin, the lawyer and the arguer, lobbied endlessly for another go at it and the rest of them reluctantly agreed. But how could they possibly bring it off? Kevin had the answer. They all listened and laughed. Yes! When George and Fran arrived “to celebrate a great career move by Mary Beth,” the rest of them huddled in a back room. They remained huddled there for what seemed a very long time awaiting Mary Beth’s cue—a beep from her cell phone that she was going to dial from the kitchen. When the beep never came, and there was sound of a commotion from the kitchen, they all streamed forth to find George red in the face and coughing. “Had to do the Heimlich,” said a flustered Mary Beth. “He was choking on a Swedish meatball.” After that they decided a quiet birthday dinner at Kevin’s next week would fill the bill.
The next year the pressure was off. George would be 81. No big deal. They all decided the conditions were perfect for a surprise party. Easy peasy! They would each individually tell George that they were so sorry to have plans they couldn’t break on his birthday. They would all have to get together later to celebrate. Then Fran would bring George to his favorite Italian restaurant on his birthday where they would have reserved a big table and “Ba-ba-boom”—party time! It was a brilliant plan—the best ever. Unbeatable in its simplicity. But they didn’t pull it off. It was George’s turn to surprise them. Ken told them they shouldn’t be sad. Their dad had been happy. At the funeral Ken even told those in attendance the tale of the surprise parties to lighten the gloom.