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  • Writer's pictureJoan Fernandez

Game On – When Birthday Parties Become Family Subterfuge

An epic birthday subterfuge when the entire family galvanizes to surprise a suspicious older brother.

An epic birthday subterfuge when the entire family galvanizes to surprise a suspicious older brother
Game On

A memory of an epic birthday surprise with a twist

This is a good week because it marks my daughter’s birthday and, though she is far, far away (OK, Kansas City, just a few hours), thinking of her is making me smile.

Birthdays naturally bring to mind time and its passage through different life chapters. Today I thought about times over the years when I’ve given Cristina very important advice. For instance, when she was a teenager, driving independently with a new license, out with friends and making her own shenanigan decisions, I thought about what I could possibly say that would give her guidance in a clutch situation. Yes! I decided a rhyme could do it.

The next time Cristina was headed out to meet friends I was ready. I told Cristina if she’s faced with a tough decision that evening to trust her instincts if something didn’t feel right and so remember:

In the face of doubt, take another route. (Rhyming “route” with “doubt”) 

Cristina paused. Her face showed…maybe surprise? I felt good about that one, a good mom moment. Then, warming up, I recited another: 

When the way is not clear, know that love is near.

Cristina was quiet a moment, then replied, “Or what aboutWhen the way is not clear, have another beer?” OK, OK, my parental wisdom needed some work. She laughed, “Thanks Mom!” and sailed out.

And, you know, Cristina did manage to navigate her way safely through her (somewhat tumultuous) teenage years. She is our first-born. She was first to chart a course that rebelled and insisted on her independence when I wasn’t ready to let her be ready. In this regard her brother had it easier. Later he skipped lightly on the path of curfews and cellphones and car rules she’d cleared.

Though I am the older sister, I don’t have this experience of being the first-born. Over time sibling roles ease into equity. But I do remember when I first saw what being the oldest kid can mean in a new light. This occasion took place around another birthday.

Acts of Espionage When I was growing up our parents believed in loosening up the age-identity so rigorously represented by birthdays. Abilities (and inabilities) should not have age as a boundary, they taught. After all, a birthday simply marked a swing around the sun, not a day when – ta da! – a new maturity or skill sprung up. 

As a result our family re-named birthdays “Celebration Days” – a day to celebrate the individual but de-emphasize the specific age. In fact, one outcome of this idea was that everyone’s birthday cake had the same number of seven candles since seven is a symbol for completeness. This inspiring idea sparked lots of great conversations about talent and ability over the years. But, as kids -- let’s be honest -- our real focus was on the party.

First for several years our Celebration Days were pretty typical affairs of a fun dinner of favorite foods (my brother Dan asked for shrimp every year and I had to help mom peel and devein about 100 of those slippery things).

Next we decided Celebration Day had to be a surprise, so party preparations took on a top-secret tone. We’d plan furtively for a date near the birthday. We’d stealthily tape up streamers and balloons. Then, when Mom gave the signal from the kitchen, we’d stalk and at just the right moment --  pounce! -- capturing the birthday victim, triumphantly leading them to the party and ceremonial seat at the head of the dining room table. Being the oldest (and strongest) my brother Ben naturally took the lead in each birthday ambush.

These deceptions worked great for a while. I remember my younger siblings Meg and Dan as being captured pretty easily. Honestly, I was super gullible so fairly effortless to mislead. Even my dad got hoodwinked with some excellent acting, “Dad,” I yelled down the stairs, “Come quick! The toilet’s overflowing!” When he arrived at the bathroom out of breath, clutching the plunger and swinging open the door, the hiding family jumped up, “Surprise!”His face relaxed with relief.

One by one each family member was either fooled or played along with the joke. Finally, the year came when we had just one stand out: my older brother Ben. His was the last birthday of the calendar year (literally, it’s on December 31). The year felt like an eternity. After each Celebration Day he’d taunt us kids, bragging that he remained the only family member who could not be tricked into a birthday surprise. And it was true. Each year, despite the three of us banding together with high stakes plotting, Ben had always spotted the ruse, laughing at every inventive attempt to surprise him, boasting, “You will never get me!”

Clearly, the time had come to expand Celebration Day to a new epic level of shock-and-awe. After much pleading on our part, Mom announced new rules. Celebration Day could occur on any day from 30 days before to 30 days after an individual’s actual birthday.

Game on.

Victory with a Twist I remember that it was a Saturday. The day had that crisp, breath-fogging chill in the air that hints snow will come soon. The sky is a clear blue and the sun’s warmth feels wonderful. Casually, over bowls of Cheerios and plates of buttered toast, that morning we’d each unraveled stories in front of Ben. That afternoon Dan was headed to a Cub Scouts meeting. Meg was going shopping with Mom and Dad. I was to be dropped off at my best friend Nancy’s house. Ben would be staying home alone, and Dad admonished him to do homework and not just spend the hours in front of the TV.

The morning goes by sl-o-o-wly but finally, it is time to leave for our fictional destinations. We almost blow our cover with an uncharacteristic, “Bye Ben!” chorus as we leave the house. Thankfully I think he was already reaching for the remote.

We take off in the car. But instead of traveling towards a highway, Dad turns into the front entrance of the local college campus to head to his office, a 10-minute distance from the house.  Dad was an economics professor at the neighboring college, but he’d temporarily taken a leave from teaching for a three-year stint as Dean of Faculty. He works in a dignified brick building named the School of Government in the center of campus. Down a long hallway, his office is off of a shared reception area. It’s behind one of these closed doors that we gather in dim light around Dad’s desk.  A few minutes later my grandparents arrive, and we greet them excitedly. Dad shushes us, picks up the phone (this is before cell phones) and dials.

Ben,” he said, “I need you to do something for me. I forgot that I have someone calling my office this afternoon at 2:00. I need you to go to my office and be there for the phone call. Tell him I’ll call him back on Monday.” We hear Ben’s voice rise in protest. “Now Ben,” Dad said sternly. “I need you to do this. My office key is on the bedroom dresser. Just ride your bike. Remember: two-o’clock.” He hangs up.

The clock in Dad’s office reads 1:40.

We wait. We whisper and move around nervously, bump into each other and tiptoe unnecessarily. Dad goes out into the reception area and closes the door to the hallway. We nod. Good idea. One more barrier for Ben. At 1:55 Dad locks his office door and our whispers stop. Seven people are absolutely silent. It’s at 1:58 that we hear him.

First, rapid footsteps sprinting closer and louder as he races down the hallway. Then the rattle of the outer door to the reception area as it bangs open noisily. We hear Ben panting, breathing loudly and gulping air. He fumbles the key in the lock. We stare at the doorknob, see it turn and as the door sharply opens yell, “SURPRISE!”

Ben steps back, stunned.

Amidst the high-fives between us younger siblings and laughter, Ben recovers and tells his story. After Dad’s call he’d returned to watching TV, waiting until the last moment to hop on his bicycle. Halfway to campus his bike got a flat. With time now really short, he’d had to sprint for two miles in order to make the 2:00pm deadline.

“Good job, son!” Dad congratulates him. Mom murmurs delight; Grandma cradles Ben’s face between her hands. Grandpa proudly slaps Ben on the back.

What?! Meg, Dan and I stare at each other. Our victory, so fleeting, is slipping away. Our win was clear; we had fooled Ben. But his story is so heroic; once again, he is the victor.

Suddenly, there it was. Behind the impenetrable boasting and relentless teasing, my brother – oldest child -- had to carry a heavier load. He was still a pain, I reasoned, but maybe it wasn’t so easy to always be expected to step up. I didn’t feel sorry for him. After all, he was getting lots of congratulatory handshakes and hugs. But maybe I understood him a little better. For one of the first times I glimpsed the insight that comes from empathy -- “walking a mile in another’s shoes” -- and what it would be like to always be the one that had to lead the way. 

Besides, I could afford to be generous, we had still won! 

There was another change that came about as a result of that day. After Ben’s shock Mom announced our high stakes Celebration Days were over. The day had tilted toward too much lying, she decided. From then on Celebration Days continued but never again with the same elaborate webs of creative deceit.

Beyond Birthdays The hierarchy between us siblings has ebbed away. Our generation’s circle has expanded to include spouses and now we each have kids of our own...and some of those kids are having kids.  

Yet, amidst all of this change, lots of things stay the same. I think each of us carries the legacy of thinking of birthdays as markers to celebrate the individual rather than a biological big deal.

Also we have the shared experience of being parented by two role-models that chose to challenge lots of assumptions, including their own. Raising a family in the 1960s and ‘70s, a time of radical challenge against traditional ideas about authority, race, gender and the environment, meant they had to walk a new line between being open to our demands for a different childhood from theirs, and teaching us a decision framework of integrity and empathy that could serve us timelessly. 

Thinking of decision-making brings me back to Cristina and my counsel composed of rhymes. I think poet Ralph Waldo Emerson did a little better with the advice he gave his daughter. He told her:

Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.

Game on!

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