A surprise to remember

Aug 29

Last week, two of my friends asked if they could take me out to lunch for my birthday.  I checked it with Brad because that’s how we roll, and he gave me the nod and the high-five to go and have fun.  Woo!  I told my friends that this doesn’t need to be about my birthday, but that I’m excited to hang out!

They picked me up at 11:30 Saturday and one picked one of the big brew pubs downtown to eat at.  Great! Good drinks, good food, good river views, good friends.  Life is good.  We drove downtown in her convertible with the top up because it was melting-hot.  We parked underground and by the time we got to the restaurant I was woozy from the heat, but I recovered quickly.  We had a good lunch: real questions, real answers, good advice, and all the things.  And I had framboise (raspberry beer) which is one of my favorite summer drinks that is hard to come by on a menu.  Winning all around!

We got in the car to head back, and between the hot (melting hot) walk to the car, the smelly parking garage, and the stop-start of the downtown traffic, I was feeling my wooziness again and it was escalating to ugh-iness.  I leaned back in the backseat of the car and, though mentally refreshed and energized by the lunch with my friends, physically I was not feeling well at all.  I sent Brad a text from the backseat: “We are on our way back.  I am not feeling too well.  I would like to nap (instead of swim) when I get home if that’s ok.”  (I had told him that I would take the kids to the pool when I got home.)  As we eased our way home along the highway, the heavens opened and we had the biggest rainstorm I’ve seen in a long time.  There were several areas of the road that were covered in four to six inches of water and it was cause for some white-knuckle driving.

Unbeknownst to me, Brad has been planning a surprise party for me for two weeks.  He started his day off by getting up early and covertly staging party supplies all around our house and yard.  One neighbor had coolers on their back patio, another had outdoor furniture in their garage, a third had party decorations in their side yard.  He told me he was going to the gym at 9:00, but in reality he went over to a neighbor/friend’s house and cut up six watermelon’s worth of fruit salad–it was a LOT of fruit salad.  He then sprayed himself down with a water bottle on their back patio so he looked sweaty before coming home after “working out”.  As I prepared to leave with my girlfriends, he said, “Hey, are there any jobs you need done around the house today that I can do while you are out with your friends?”  (*Super husband dude!*)  I told him he could tackle two things that I’d tried-and-failed to fix this week: repair the chair in Maren’s room and snake the bathtub drain in the girls’ tub.  (Poor guy may never ask *that* question again.)  He was very nonchalant when I left, and I had NO IDEA that anything was happening.

I left at 11:44 (he told me later), and by 11:50 there were five people at our house getting set up.  He had made it a beach theme, so there were beach balls to hang, giant monkeys and palm trees to anchor down, decor to string up, food to prep, coolers to chill, etc.  In the 95 degree heat and 95 percent humidity, Brad and several friend/neighbors ran around our yard getting everything set up and staged: folding tables, shade canopies, decorations galore, outdoor games set up, furniture re-arranged, house cleaned up, etc.  I can’t even imagine how hot they were as they did all this prep work.

Just as my friends and I were leaving the restaurant downtown, a storm began to brew in our suburb to the north.  Within fifteen minutes, our house was dumped on with rain and forty party guests escaped the violent weather to jam in our kitchen and try to dry off/out with towels, a lot of the kids were relegated to the basement playspace, and a dozen party guests were outside trying to save the tumble-weeding canopies, wet tables, soaked patio cushions, ruined decorations, and general chaos.  Brad and most of the men were soaked from their efforts to save the outdoors.  Maren, our feely-feeler, burst into hysterics because she thought that the party was ruined and I hadn’t even seen it; there was much effort that went into consoling and pep-talking her.  Next, one of the forty kids in the basement came up to tell Brad that the lightening/power outage blew the TV and all the electronics downstairs; nothing would turn on.  He realizes it’s possible that all of it is nuked from a power surge.  And, he got that text from me saying that I wasn’t feeling well, and just wanted to nap when I got home.  All of that happened within a thirty-minute timeframe.

Can you imagine the magnitude of the craptitude that Brad was feeling in that moment?

He later said that seeing the village rise to the occasion and self-sacrificially join together to salvage and resurrect what they could as the rain storm came in, raged, and finished was something that he would always remember.  The teammate sense that surrounded him was palpable.

Meanwhile, I’m driving north.  Oblivious to all.  My two friends in the front seat (apparently) keep exchanging looks as the driving rain pours on.

We pull on to our street and I think that my neighbors must be having a party because of all the cars lining our street.  This would not be uncommon.  We have a party ‘hood.

We pull into the driveway, and I see one of my friend’s husbands.  He’s standing between our yard and our neighbor’s yard holding the skeleton of what used to be a shade canopy.  Its sideways and wonky.  He’s wearing what appears to be a life jacket (remember the beach theme?) and goggles.  I wonder how he knows my neighbors and am puzzled on many levels.

I get out of the car and it’s a mild 77 degrees and slightly misting… perfect outdoor temperature, really.

Maren and a few more people come around the corner from the backyard to the driveway, and I can see that there are more tables set up decisively in my yard, all the cars appear to be parked at MY house, and there’s definitely some hulla-balloo going on.  My brain, however, is failing to comprehend.  Maren begins talking a mile-a-minute.  (There is no evidence to me that she was recently crying; she is AGLOW with excitement.)

“Mommy!  Happy Birthday!”

“Mommy!  Are you surprised?”

“Come see Mommy, come see!”

“It’s a party!   It’s a beach party!”

“Everybody’s here!”

I’m still standing by the car, holding my purse and trying to get my brain to process what Maren is saying.  She drapes me in a straw beach hat and a series of leis.  She takes me by the hand and leads me to the backyard where I see more friends on the patio, Brad grinning, and finally round the corner to see about forty people underneath our back patio roof.

That’s the moment I got it.

I literally jumped in surprise/shock.

(In hindsight my reaction time to all this was embarrassingly slow!  Super slow on the uptake, Jen!  As best I can recall, I’ve never been surprised with a big party nor even been to a big surprise party like this.  And it was worth the 37-year wait!)

Brad, Maren and Greta pulled off an epic surprise party for me.  Obviously, I had no clue whatsoever until that last round-the-corner moment.

WOOOO HOOOOO!  THIS IS SO FUN!  Those were my first thoughts once I actually realized what was happening.  I hugged Brad, and blinky-started at him like, “How in the heck did you pull this off?  What?  When?  Who?  How?  And all the things?”

But there was no time to ask all the questions.  It was time for fun.

I began talking to folks, someone came and took my purse and put it inside.  Someone found Greta (who had been playing with fifty of her friends inside) and we did a family hug and woohoo!

Within fifteen minutes of my arrival the rain had completely stopped.  Within twelve minutes of my arrival, corn hole and volleyball games had started (these folks started playing in the rain.)

Every one of the guys I hugged during the first hour was soaked from the rain… I can’t even imagine the chaos that bloomed during that storm, but many of the guests shared with me how resiliently amazing Brad was during that cluster of disaster.  He was calming and sweet with Maren, he kept is cool, he shrugged off the loss of the epic party decor that got ruined, and made the most of it.  After the deluge Brad brought down a stack of t-shirts from his closet for anyone who needed them to change into… they were that wet!  The indoor folks had found towels and dried everything off inside.  By the time I made my entrance, the place still looked amazingly festive, and the atmosphere was full of good energy.  That’s a huge credit to Brad for leading the charge and keeping a cool head, and all of our friends for rallying to make the best of things!  The beauty-from-ashes nature of my life is a theme that keeps coming around.  I love that the coolness that the storm brought in was exactly what I needed to be able to enjoy the party.  If it had not stormed, and been sweltering as it was when I walked to/from the restaurant, my body would have collapsed and I would have had to leave the party.  The storm was actually mercy for me.  Brad’s favorite part of the day was the Rally Moment when everyone went all in to save the party and did so self-sacrificially.  They villaged up.  (I have have so much empathy — and a few giggles — over what a wet, hot, mess that must have been for everyone!)  No one left.  No one was grouchy.  No one let it dampen (pun intended) the mojo of the day.  So much of my strength is drawn from the people who love me, and this day was a great testimony to the grace, love and fortitude of my friends.  I’m so humbled and grateful.  And as they refused to be discouraged, the worst moment became the best moment.  Maren, too, learned the lesson of looking for the good in all things.  Brad’s tenderness with her was noticed by many and shared with me; many took turns consoling her as the storm raged.  There are so many gifts in the story of the day… I wish everyone reading this could have been there, but I share the story because I want to write it down while I remember the delicious details and am still teary-eyed-smiley over it.

All afternoon and evening party guests rotated between the basement kid zone, outside games, cleaning/prepping/serving in the kitchen, talking, socializing, eating, drinking.  I moved around, lifting not a finger, took no time to eat anything (I was too excited), and drank something whenever someone filled up my cup.  I didn’t get nearly enough time talking with everyone, such is the nature of a big party, but I felt SO VERY LOVED that people came, and stayed, and hung out.  Some came with the beach theme amped up: zinc (aka diaper rash creme–ha!) on their noses, goggles and life jackets.  Some wore swim suits.  There were some pretty epic flamingo, palm tree, tropical shirts that I secretly covet.  There was a constant stream of guests acting as caterers and kitchen help: grilling and cleaning to the point that at the end of the night, it was all cleaned up.  As Brad gathered everyone to sing, I looked around at all the singing, smiling faces and thought: I want to remember this forever.  My friends are fun.  I didn’t even realize that some came with cards and gifts and I cried as I read them Sunday morning.

Yo.  I am loved.

At the end of the night Brad said, “I know you said you didn’t want to make a big deal of your birthday.  But I did.  I wanted to make a big deal of you.”

How awesome is my man?  Wow.  Who would have that that birthday number thirty-seven would be so memorable.

Thank you to everyone who made it special.


  1. Kim Rourke /

    You hit the hubby jackpot!! What a wonderful day for you, the family, and your village!

  2. ❤️❤️❤️❤️

  3. Lisa Smith /

    What a great story Jen. Wish I could have been there. Love you.

  4. Wow. Just… WOW. I have tears in my eyes after reading this. I’m grateful that you are loved so thoroughly and well. I’m so glad that Brad got to have that village experience for himself, and that so many were able to see his calm in the storm, the way he comforted Maren, and how all of you — everyone! — had an incredible time at the party despite the storm, the “ruined” moments, and more.
    God is so good! (I can imagine God smiling while others are thinking “OH, NO!” about that storm that brought cooler weather and incredible working-togetherness for your tribe.)

  5. Diana Gibson /

    David and I have had a really good laugh and a few tears, of joy and empathy and laughter as our imaginations ran riot at your description of the situation and people – you make it so alive!! What a star is Brad and how blessed to have your village people around your special family. Power on Jen, as we live vicariously with your highs and your lows and pray for your health and ease of mind.

  6. Lisa M R /


  7. Carli /

    Your village rocks. Happy belated birthday lady!!


  8. Melody Smith /

    Great story for a great person – happy belated birthday Jen!

  9. Angela /

    What a lovely, lovely story, start to finish!!! SO GLAD you all had that day together! I am wiping away tears, praising God for the mercy of the storm (Who’d have thought? Seriously!!) and for being Brad’s rock in the chaos! What a lesson in beauty and groundedness, patience and faith he could be to everyone there, and all of us! And you, of course, worthy of celebration and love, and of seeking the quiet lesson in everything. Thanks for sharing this and HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!

    Hugs from Michigan!

  10. Mommaj /

    Through my teary eyes I’m rejoicing over your Huge Birthday surprise. You are Loved beyond measure? Funny, we were in Cleveland on the lake, and a Huge storm blew in with magnificent clouds…… Then the rainbow over the lake? that must have been at the time of your celebration Jen.. For You!!

  11. Tanja /

    You are so loved! What a wonderful way to celebrate 37! I laughed out loud imagining you seeing your friend with his scuba gear on in your neighbor’s yard. HAHA. So glad the rain came and let you enjoy your party!! Happy Birthday Jen!!

  12. Kathi Roth /

    Love is good❤️ Brought tears to my eyes reading this. Thanks for sharing your special day
    Special man and special kids with us!

  13. Marlayne /

    Good Morning Jen ~
    WOW, WOW, WOW !!! What a Grand Surprise !! I Love Surprise Stories & Yours is the Best !!!! All your Family/Friends/Life Lessons, Under the Direction of Your Loving Husband Brad ~ Memory Makings for All ~ Thank you for sharing :-)Happy Birthday ~ Hugs 🙂

  14. What a great day you had!! YOU ARE worth celebrating! So glad Brad didn’t have an aquarium to clean, too! 😉

  15. Mary Ann /

    The exuberance emits from this post. Always, always a good read, but this post takes the cake! Happy, happy belated birthday!

  16. Marsha Vonderwish /

    WOW! Just a wonderful WOW!

  17. Sweet story. I’m praying for your family Jen. Thanks for sharing.

  18. Shari /

    Awesome!!! You are loved by everyone who knows you! What a wonderful gift Brad, your girls, and friends gave you. So happy for you all!❤️❤️ Happy birthday!!!

  19. Aunt Annie /

    You are blessed! When Brad’s ship was taking on water, all his crew came to the rescue! The shipmates who wore swimsuits certainly dressed appropriately! Glad you were able to dive in and have a splashing good time! Oh what a birthday to remember!!!

  20. annie /

    Happy, happy birthday, Jen. Cheers to another year of love and memory-making!!

  21. BEST surprise party story ever! Thank you for sharing it! LOVE that you were able to drink in that love!

  22. Cindy Mitchell /

    Jen, this is the most amazing story of a surprise birthday party.. Brad did a great job. Love your story, and you were so detailed that I thought I could have been there and seen everything happening… You are amazing and so is your family.. Happy Belated Birthday Jen.. take care

  23. Jennifer /

    Happy Birthday! Sounds like a magical day in every single way, even sideways! Congrats to Brad & your girls for pulling off a true, and epic, surprise – it is a miracle when a mama gets try;y surprised for we usually know about all.the.things! Hope this memory is treasured for another 40ish years.