Of Birthdays and Surprises



“Don’t think too much about your sister’s death,” my wife whispered before the start of Sunday service. “It’s your birthday today.”

I was actually thinking of Far Rockaway where we were heading to after service. I was anxious. The family was going to surprise me with a birthday party, and I didn’t like the idea.

Surprises make our lives interesting, of course, and life is full of them. Some are pleasant, others are not. But I’ve had my share of unpleasant surprises in life to the effect that I haven’t been too keen on having them anymore. I wanted my universe to be deterministic.

That is why a few days before my birthday, when my niece invited me to a buffet at DJ Restaurant in Garden City, Long Island, I “hit the roof.”

It started when I overheard her tell the waiter that it was my birthday.

“It’s not my birthday yet!” I rebuked my niece. “I don’t like surprises.”

I was not always like this. When I was in third grade back in NPS I envied my friends who celebrated their birthdays at home.

I had always importuned my mother for a “surprise” birthday party. I remember working extra hours helping her in the house to deserve one. When the day came, it was a pleasant surprise. We had heapings of spaghetti, fried chicken, cheese pimiento and liver spread sandwiches, baduya, leche flan, and cookies. My neighbors Boy, Oro, Beda, and Poe were there. It was a grand party which lasted through the early evening, and included the usual games of baradilan, darakopan, and taragoan. I liked my surprises to be like that.

But as the saying goes, just when you thought you knew all of life’s answers, life suddenly changed all the questions.

Back to our buffet: When our seats were ready, the waiter escorted us to our table. To my vexation, balloons with printed “Happy Birthday!” on them were attached to the chairs and place mats. I did not hide my annoyance. I exuded it in every word and gesture, and I made sure all my lunch companions got the message.

As a result, the room was bland, the jokes were bland, the food was bland, the weather outside was bland. Nobody was smiling.

Except Noah, my seven month old grand nephew, who kept smiling, despite the gloomy weather.

And then he stretched out both hands to let me carry him. I did.

Something strange happened. Gradually, all the blandness disappeared. And I was sure this was not because my niece surprised me by footing the bill. There is something in a little child that brings out the magic in you. Suddenly the balloons were beautiful, the jokes were funny, the food was delicious, and the sun was shinning bright.

On our way home I felt guilty for raining on my own parade.

I had a change of heart. And all because of a little child.

On the day of my birthday, the surprise greetings from my friends overwhelmed me. I was too absorbed in the unpleasant surprises to appreciate the blessings right under our very noses.

Today I am simply amazed by the many surprises lurking everywhere. I am surprised by a beautiful sunset, a smiling face in the crowd, the goodness of others, the face of a little child.

I am surprised that the love between wife and husband would not wear off. There will be good days and there will be bad days, but the surprise of my life was that the good days would eventually outweigh the bad. And if worse came to worst, Love would see you through, as the balladeer Marco Sison puts it.

Surprise is the key element to a good story, and when it came to our life story and the story of our Faith, the greatest surprise is that sin is forgiven.

As I write this, we have just come from my niece’s house in Far Rockaway Beach, where I celebrated my birthday. Noah asked to be carried again.

In my threescore years and ten, I think I’ll go by the words of the author Frederick Langbridge: “Two men look out the same prison bars; one sees mud and the other stars.”