I was just finishing a blog post when Bob poked his head in the door of my writing casita. "Why don't we go to lunch at the Grille?" he asked. "To celebrate your birthday."
I was puzzled. "But my birthday is tomorrow."
"Well, let's spread the celebration out," he said with a smile. "Tomorrow maybe we'll have dinner out. Live dangerously. Eat out twice in one week!"
We laughed. I finished the post and, five minutes later, walked in the front door of our main house and there was the most fantastic birthday present: my dear friend Mary Breiner, who lives in California, leaping off the couch and into my arms.
Amid delighted squeals, tears, and hugs, Mary, my friend for 43 years, and Bob, my husband of 38 years, told me that they had been planning this surprise for months. Bob had told me that he had a business meeting that morning while he was really picking Mary up at the airport in Phoenix. They high-fived each other, thrilled that they had pulled this covert birthday plan off and we headed out for lunch.
I told Mary that I was especially surprised to see her because she had just spent the week in New York where there was a trial run of a play based on her father's popular novel "Mr. Blue." Mary had been asked to provide a prelude/commentary to the play at each performance that week, a task she carried off wonderfully. Audience members -- like the group of nuns pictured below -- sought her out after each show with praise and with questions about her father -- Myles Connolly -- and his life and work.
After she flew back home to California, she had only had two days to spend with her husband John, who has health problems but a wonderful caregiver named Arthur, before she headed to Arizona. She smiled at my surprise. "I wouldn't have missed this for the world!" she said. "Your reaching 70 is a major cause for celebration!"
We had a great time showing Mary the sights of Florence, AZ: from a derelict tractor landmark called "Whispering Roy" to the incredibly eclectic hardware store on Main Street to the Prison Store offering cookies, crafts and artwork made by inmates of the nine adjacent maximum security prisons. Mary was enthusiastic and gracious and gave me the gift of seeing this area through her eyes -- seeing the beauty, humor and uniqueness of the surroundings rather than dwelling on the desolate.
We attended Mass on Sunday at a beautiful little church I hadn't noticed before and laughed heartily through a three way gift exchange -- since Bob's birthday is three days after and Mary's is exactly a week after mine. They were both turning 71.
Mary's gift to me was meant to be simply lovely and memorable. In the catalogue, it had been pictured as a beautiful sea shell lamp. (Mary had given Bob and me a real chambered nautilus shell as a wedding gift. We had treasured it, but it was destroyed in the 1994 Northridge earthquake.)
The seashell lamp emerging from the box that arrived on our doorstep was something quite different: it looked like a giant, scary sea creature with random spikes and when plugged in, it had a positively malevolent glow. We stared at it, silent, transfixed. Crestfallen, Mary finally broke the stunned silence. "It looked so pretty in the catalogue," she said sadly.
"Oh, Mary," I said. "It's the thought that counts. I really appreciate..." I looked at the glowering gift again and started laughing uncontrollably
"It's wonderful!" I gasped. "I've never seen anything like it."
Mary and Bob started laughing, too. We passed the lamp around, wiping our eyes and giggling. "It makes me laugh whenever I look at it," I told Mary. "It will be my happy place to go when I'm feeling down. Thank you so much! It will make me smile and laugh and think of you."
And it now has a place of honor in the living room. It is one of my all time favorite gifts: it makes me laugh and feel the love of a very dear friend.
It was a wonderful weekend filled with much laughter, good talks, songfests, lovely shared meals both out and at home, beautiful flowers from my wonderful friend Tim Schellhardt and phone calls and cards from a variety of people I love -- from my college roommate Ruth Woodling to four ex-boyfriends from decades ago and a variety of good friends from childhood, college and an assortment of workplaces through the years as well as newer Arizona friends.
There were more great surprises: a singing happy birthday greeting -- complete with Lego cake -- from my brother Mike and his children Maggie and Henry in Bangkok; a lovely card from my dear friend Dr. Chuck Wibbelsman and the news that he had bought tickets to the two Broadway shows I wanted most to see (An American in Paris and Fun Home) during my upcoming trip to New York in June. Our next door neighbors Carl and Judith brought over a beautiful little birthday cake.There was a loving text and birthday dance picture from my ailing sister Tai in Seattle, a Facetime visit with Mary's husband John and caregiver Arthur who sent warm wishes for the happiest of birthdays and a fun conversation with my cousin Caron in Kansas City, who will turn 75 this week and who laughed with wonder at the prospect of us both being seventy-somethings when it feels like just yesterday we were kids running through the fields of our grandparents' farm.
The celebration lingers in my heart with a new understanding of what it means to mark a significant birthday memorably. It isn't about presents or lavish meals. It's about being remembered by people who matter so much, loved ones who are family or treasured, longtime friends as well as new friends here. It's about sharing the celebration with special people who took the time -- in Mary's case, four days out of her busy life -- to let me know they cared.
There is no greater birthday gift than that.