Surprise and friendship are two words that do not come together that often; but they did for me earlier this month here in London. It seems appropriate to write about on this last day of 2011.
My beautiful wife Judith turned sixty-five on 26 December. In July I started to plan a surprise birthday party for her in spite of her specifically mentioning that she didn’t want one. Of course I didn’t listen. A great time was had sneaking around: arranging a date among a far flung group of friends, picking venues, planning menus and wines, party favors, developing a little slide show of Judith’s past, and lots of other small details.
Judith is a very perceptive and curious person; she notices things, so it was hard to keep this secret. A few times I was a whisker from being found out, a mouse click from being caught.
For the night of the party I had dreamed up a ruse supported by a few co-conspirators to get Judith to the party; to be held in the Mall Room at the Royal Automobile Club on Saturday, December 3.
About a week before, friend Phillip helped by inviting Judith and me to a fictitious art showing at the Club. With another friend’s support, I arranged to be called out on the day of the party to a last minute business meeting. This gave me a chance to finish setting up and to greet guests that had been instructed to arrive at six o’clock.
My wife is a fastidiously punctual person; and Philip had asked us to arrive at six thirty for the hoax art show. Carole, a longtime friend, was staying with us; we had coordinated her trip, unbeknownst to Judith, to coincide with the celebration. So as the final step, Carole was charged with the herculean task of slowing Judith down, which she did courageously and much to Judith’s mounting frustration. In spite of Carole’s valiant efforts, they still arrived to the club five minutes early; I met them at the door. After a few more vaudevillian near-encounters with a guest or two near the cloakroom; I escorted Judith and Carole upstairs to the Mall Room.
Judith was completely taken aback upon entering the room to a thunderous yell of “SURPRISE!” She relates that time switched to slow motion, trying to figure out why Paul, from the States, was standing next to Philip; and other incongruities: Eileen was just in London, less than a month ago, what was she doing here, François and Regine should be in Mexico; Lilla, Portugal. Her right hand came up to her chest, she only could say “oh my God.”
Eventually things sunk in, and Judith was greeted by about twenty wonderful friends from around the globe. This was a priceless moment for me.
The room was conducive to conversation; friends met other of our friends for the first time; all fell into an easy exchange. Connections continued among the canapés, toasts and champagne, impromptu speeches, graceful service, nice food and good wine. Looking around it was a varied group: ages from mid-thirties to mid-seventies; different nationalities and native tongues, varied economic circumstances and political stripes. Sadly a few friends couldn’t make it because of last minute colds or other emergencies; and sadder still, our dear and departed friend Himanshu could only watch from the heavens.
Although spilled out from some cosmic puzzle box, people fit together perfectly.
The power of friendships has already been constrained in literature by too many metaphors, written by many so much more polished; I won’t try to add anything here. But I know all came together to honor Judith, and I remain awed by the richness of that blissful evening. It ranks among the top days of my life.
There was a second luncheon party the following day. It was more relaxed, conversations picked up from where they had left off the evening before. There was more champagne, wine and food (and as François jokingly pointed out, a bit too much crème brûlée).
As the year ends I have a lot to be thankful for, not least of which is friendship; and perhaps, surprise yet to come.