Life's Surprises

  • Barbarella

People always overdo the matter when they attempt deception.

-- Charles Dudley Warner

'I f you can boze, please give me advice. I am sinking vee are have a problem," said David's mother, Ency, in her Zsa-Zsa-ish Hungarian accent."We're all ears," I said into the phone, miming to David that he should grab his cordless and follow me to my office.

Ency was in the throes of planning a surprise party for her husband's 70th birthday. This latest call was the most recent in a series of conversations about averting this crisis or sidestepping that obstacle on the path to a perfectly executed party. The last wrinkle we'd helped to iron out occurred months earlier when Ency's local printer produced invitations that would be acceptable only to a colorblind dyslexic. The problem was easy enough to fix -- David had them reprinted by Moebius, the same company he employs to produce his photographs, and they came out looking great. But, as we listened to this new pickle she was in, we realized the solution would require more finesse from Ency in order to finagle the soon-to-be septuagenarian into unwitting cooperation.

Planning a surprise can pose a moral dilemma -- does the good of making someone feel happy and loved outweigh the evil of the dishonesty required to do so? David's mother does not have a duplicitous bone in her petite body. This is the same woman who, after inadvertently bribing a cop in Chicago, tried to report the officer (until Robert stopped his goody-two-shoes wife by pointing out her culpability in the matter).

Any progress Ency makes toward developing her Devil-given sneaky side is quickly eclipsed by the God-given guilt she feels for deceiving someone she loves. In her attempt to avoid the trauma of being caught in a lie, Ency instead chose to avoid discussing Robert's birthday with him altogether. It was this avoidance that created the "big problem."

Because no one seemed interested in celebrating his milestone birthday, Robert took it upon himself to organize something. And because no one wanted to accidentally clue him in to the secret, they resigned themselves to go along with whatever Robert said he wanted to do. While Ency fretfully listened, Robert made plans to leave the island of Martha's Vineyard and celebrate on Cape Cod with his brother, their 92-year-old mother visiting from Hungary, and a small family posse. Robert was making plans for Friday while the big surprise had already been scheduled for Saturday afternoon, back on Martha's Vineyard.

"Vell, vee just going to have to do boze, I sink," Ency said, after explaining the situation to us. David and I shared a horrified look, and then he gestured for me to take this one.

"Ency, you have to lie ." I paused long enough for her to gasp. "You need to take back control. Tell him you want to take care of everything. Even if he knows something is going to happen, he'll think it's only a few family members, and he'll still be surprised when he walks into the Beach Plum Inn on Saturday and sees all the people there. And if that's not enough to convince you to lie, think of how annoying and stressful it will be to take care of any last-minute details from off-island."

David's agreement was enough to seal the deal, and Ency let out a long sigh of relief. We coached her on just what to say and emphasized the importance of keeping Robert out of the plans. That way, not only would he not interfere with the grand plan, but he would also feel cared for.

Robert's birthday was on a Tuesday. As with most Tuesdays, it came and went with little fanfare. Most of his friends, knowing they'd have an opportunity to shower him soon enough, withheld their cards and well wishes. Ency (who would take home the gold if "worrying" were an Olympic event) watched her husband closely. After Robert purchased flowers for himself, Ency went out and got a bouquet of seven long-stemmed roses, one to commemorate each decade of Robert's life. When David and I arrived on Wednesday, Ency told us of how she had watched helplessly as Robert arranged the few cards he'd received around the roses and began taking pictures. Hours later, she reported, after she'd run errands and returned home, he was still at it. The idea of her husband's grief over being forgotten had left David's mother in a perpetual state of hand-wringing.

Meanwhile, Robert was distracted by the one task Ency had allowed him, which was to hire a professional photographer to take family portraits. As far as Robert knew, his mother would be escorted to the island by his brother's family for the historic documentation, after which they would all stay for a late lunch in honor of the birthday boy.

From 30 to 100, landmark birthdays seem to be the catalyst for introspection and reflection. November 2006 not only marks 70 years of Robert's life, it also signifies 50 years since he escaped his home country during the Hungarian Revolution. On the day of the surprise, even though he was distracted with the arrival of his mother and brother and preoccupied with the family portraits, Robert was less boisterous than usual. In a voice of quiet disappointment, he pointed out that one of his closest friends had not remembered to call. We were all eager to get him to the party, where that person and many others would be waiting to show their friend how much they really cared.

A few hours later, my stomach fluttering in anticipation, I stood poised with a camera to record Robert's reaction when he walked through the door. Ency was a jumble of nerves; she was half-convinced that Robert somehow knew about the party, just as "the thief doth fear each bush an officer." But, with a growing confidence in her own sneakiness, she had prepared even for that possibility, and harbored a backup surprise up her sleeve.

It is a testament to how much you love someone when your reaction to his joy is comparable to his firsthand experience. Robert, a man known for being loquacious, was stunned into silence as he entered the Beach Plum Inn and recognized the many faces gathered, as their multi-accented voices shouted, "Surprise!" Ency, her face radiant, followed her husband as, through a choked voice, he greeted his friends.

We had a full day to reminisce about the party, to rehash the speeches that had inspired both laughter and tears, before the unleashing of one final birthday bombshell Ency had planned for Monday night. Monday morning, Robert packed up his birthday cards to make way for the first Christmas card he'd already received. The house was quiet, and David's sister, Michelle, announced that since it was her last night before heading home to Seattle, she wanted to have her mother's kolosvari rakott kaposzta (a Hungarian casserole dish containing sausage, eggs, cabbage, rice, and sour cream) for dinner that evening.

David, Michelle, and I went into town on the pretense of shopping. But the true nature of our secret mission was to collect Gabi -- Robert's childhood friend from Hungary -- from the ferry and bring him home for dinner. Fifty years ago, when Robert immigrated to America, Gabi had fled to France.

The energy was high on the ride home. Michelle, David, and I were trying to imagine what Robert's reaction might be when we unloaded the unexpected cargo we'd acquired while "shopping." Gabi, a pleasant gentleman in a small fedora and blue wool coat, had recently flown to New York (to visit his brother) from where he'd been staying in Japan and made the ten-hour trip to the island in order to spend one evening with his old friend before heading back to the city for work, and then returning home to Paris a few days later.

Gabi insisted on waiting in the car for a minute, so as to wander in naturally and ask to use the restroom as if he were a stranger passing by. When we walked into the dining room, it was Ency's turn to be puzzled. She held a camera in her hand and tried to catch my attention. I could read in her distraught face that she thought Gabi hadn't made it. But 30 seconds later, there was a knock at the sliding glass door.

When Robert glanced up, it was as if a beam of sunshine had sliced through the night sky and fell upon his face. Far from speechless this time, he let loose a torrent of Hungarian words, spoken in a buoyant and booming voice as he bounded across the room to embrace his dear friend.

Once dessert was on the table, Robert looked back and forth from his childhood friend to his wife of 42 years. Shaking his head, an enormous smile on his face, Robert rested his glistening eyes on the woman who had surreptitiously orchestrated these magical moments for him and said, "Thank you."

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