I always thought I wanted a surprise party, as I’d never been on the receiving end of one. I always wondered how it felt to be surprised like that, and if I would know it was coming. I’d mentioned this thought to my wife more than a year ago, when someone on the block made a surprise party for their spouse. And what I found, once she made me one, was that it’s a moment of shock followed by an intense amount of guilt as to what you put your wife through beforehand to almost mess things up when all she wanted was to do something nice for you behind your back. And every decision you made in the days leading up to it actually made her job more and more stressful.
Unless you did figure it out, in which case her work was for nothing.
And why do the party as a surprise? The sneaking around makes it so much harder, and all for the two seconds it takes to surprise him? After that, it’s basically a regular party. It’s not like he’s going to keep forgetting.
“He’s in the bathroom! I’m going to turn off the lights again. Everyone hide!”
No, after that first second that everyone yells, “Surprise!” it’s just a regular party. Except that you get to have a whole conversation, over and over, about whether you knew all along, whether you figured it out, how hard it was for everyone to keep the surprise from you because you’re such an idiot who kept almost blundering into it. I was such an idiot.
But at least this gives you something to talk about at the party. It’s not like you prepared something.
And the good news is that this conversation gives the guests the opportunity to make the guest of honor feel like an idiot again.
“When did you know?”
“I had a feeling like two weeks ago.”
“That’s funny; we’ve only been planning this for a week.”
I guess the sneaking around does make it a game. Planning a regular party is a lot of work. But planning a surprise party is actually fun, though also slightly more work. But it’s still less work than planning, say, a wedding or a bar mitzvah. You’re not making anyone a surprise wedding.
My wife did it right. First of all, she invited friends, not family. For one thing, no one else in your family is your age. I’m the oldest of ten kids, and the party would have devolved into everyone making fun of me for being the first to get old. Like this isn’t something they plan on doing. Also, there was no danger in my friends spoiling the surprise beforehand, because I almost never talk to them. We’re all busy. These are my best friends she invited, and we sometimes go for years at a time without talking, and none of us figure that we must have done something to upset the others. My wife was the only person in my entire regular social circle who knew anything about the party.
It also helped that she invited very few people – just 3 friends, plus their wives, whom I never talk to. Even to ask if I could speak to their husbands. In fact, the last time I called one of them, his daughter picked up, and I thought it was his wife so I asked if I could speak to Chaim. And then I realized it was his daughter when she said, “Ta, I think it’s a friend of yours. He said your name.” I should have figured, because half the time I call home from the store, I’m not sure if I’m speaking to my own wife or my daughter or even one of my sons. Point is, the fewer people that knew about this party, the less chance they would blow the secret.
The other idea she had – which I think I read somewhere too – was to make it nowhere near the person’s birthday. For example, if your spouse’s 40th birthday is in November, you want to make the party the April after he turns 42. Because anywhere near the birthday, everything becomes suspicious.
“Wait. Why are none of my friends talking to me all of a sudden?”
It wasn’t all of a sudden.
I mean, you basically have an entire year, give or take, before he turns a different age. He’s not getting any younger. It’s not going to be like, “You missed it! He’s 39 again!”
“So how did it happen?” you ask.
Well, I was on the floor of the living room doing my back stretches, because I’m old, which is not the most flattering of positions to be in when your party guests show up. And then there was a knock at the door, so my wife opened the door and stepped outside, and then I didn’t hear anything for a minute, but she was whispering something like, “Okay, everyone come in really quietly – he won’t actually see you – and once you’re all in, you can yell, “Surprise!” or whatever.” She also told them beforehand, “Don’t talk outside our house, because I don’t want him to wonder why he hears, say, Menachem’s voice outside.” Or what sounds like Chaim’s daughter. Because I’m going to think, “Hey, that sounds like my friend who lives in Manhattan and doesn’t own a car. I bet it’s him!”
It took a second once I even saw them to realize why my friends who live like an hour away might be showing up in my house on a Motzaei Shabbos really, really quietly. Were they in town for some other reason? One was from Far Rockaway and another lives in Manhattan. There’s way more stuff where they’re from. There was also no yelling of surprise, I don’t think. I mean, they weren’t going to yell surprise from outside. They had to first file in as quietly as possible – one of them with a stroller and a newborn. It wasn’t coordinated beforehand, like, “As soon as his head pops up from behind the couch, you all yell, “Surprise!”” One of my friends wasn’t even there yet. He was picking up the pizza.
So there was no good time to yell, “Surprise!” which is usually when the guest of honor figures out it’s a surprise. For a second there, I wondered if my wife had even been in on this, or if my friends suddenly showed up on their own. I was just wondering why my wife opened the front door on the first knock, why what I thought was my teenage son was walking in with no noise for the first time in his life, and why the front door was open for so long on a cold night for one kid to come in.
Actually, my wife took a video of my reaction, and it turns out that someone did say, “Surprise,” but it was a little bit delayed. And it was more of an awkward statement than an announcement. And I remember thinking, “What’s the surprise? Because it’s nowhere near my birthday. How come I didn’t know we were surprising someone?” Technically, it was like 2 days before my anniversary, so that was weird. Why do they care so much about our anniversary?
And then my teenage son came home later, and boy was he surprised.
It happens to be that the other way to do a surprise party is to not yell surprise all at once. It’s a legitimate method. A couple of years ago, my siblings and I threw a surprise party for our mother, in our parents’ house, and we were trying to figure out how to coordinate eight separate families with little kids arriving at the same time, parking far away, and walking in at once. So the way it worked was we just showed up at her house one at a time. The first couple of families said, “Oh, we’re just visiting,” and then the next ones said, “Oh, we were in town anyway.” And then another sibling came and another sibling came -- all the while she’s letting us in one at a time every five minutes or so, saying, “You won’t believe who else is here!” And we’re like, “Whaaat? What are the chances?” and then it slowly dawned on her that – wait a minute, this has to be coordinated. Right before the last person showed up with the cake.
So that wasn’t a one-second surprise. It took like 45 minutes.
Anyway, one thing I realized about surprise parties is that it’s awkward being the guest of honor, because you feel like everyone contributed to this party but you. And it’s for you. So that’s worse. You don’t know who bought what and whether you owe people money, or if your wife covered that, or what. And it’s definitely not a good time to ask.
“Did you know about the surprise?”
“No! So do I owe Sholom for the pizza, or what?”
So I kind of spent some time feeling like I should go find something in the kitchen to feed them, like I had to go find drinks and ice and so on. Ask if anyone wants a tea. I also quietly hoped I wouldn’t be asked to speak.
The other thing I learned was that if you don’t know a party is coming, it almost seems like you’re going out of your way to mess it up. Next week, we’ll talk about how I blundered around, almost destroying my party before it happened.
This article is dedicated l’zecher nishmas Sholom Mordechai ben Tzvi – a friend of mine with an incredible laugh – one of the guests at the party who was niftar from Corona.