Janet Sheridan: No surprises, please

When I hear about surprise parties, I experience vague feelings of dread, shortness of breath, and hives.

It’s the surprise that alarms me, not the party. I like celebrating important events with friends and family members. But what’s to enjoy about normally dignified people yelling “surprise!” and leaping from drapes and houseplants, while I stand agape, wishing I’d brushed my teeth?

When surprised, I’d like to respond with a ladylike exclamation of astonishment and glee before trilling, “Thank you. Oh, thank you so much!” I’d like to work my way around the room, hugging and cooing, with appreciative tears making my eyes glisten fetchingly.

But I can’t.

Instead, I squeak and squeal and turn redder than Rudolph’s nose.

The only thing worse than being surprised by a group of party animals is knowing their plan in advance. This happened to me on my 30th birthday when coworkers arranged a surprise party for me at a local restaurant.

As a friend left work one afternoon, she poked her head into my room and called, “Bye, Janet. See you tonight at the Mint!”

Her horrified expression as she realized what she’d said aroused my suspicions, and her attempted cover-up verified them: “No, I mean…see you soon! Like tomorrow!! For a minute!!!”

I went home, stood before a mirror, and tried to act surprised.

I’m no Meryl Streep.

I think my dislike of parties involving surprises started when I was in first grade.

During reading group, we read a Dick-and-Jane story in which Mother, Father, Dick, and Baby Sally surprised Jane by hiding her birthday presents. They then cheered, laughed, and gave useful hints — Spot barking along merrily — while clever Jane found her presents, each and every one.

That night, I mentioned the story to my family at dinner.

A few weeks later on my birthday, I blearily entered the kitchen, trailing the school clothes I’d pull on in front of the heater. Without warning, annoying cries of “Surprise!” and “We hid your presents; you have to find them!!” assailed my fogged brain.

For several minutes I dutifully wandered around in a confused stupor, finding nothing, as my family indulged in teasing and merriment devoid of helpful hints.

I burst into tears and said I hated all of them. How gracious.

But my real problem with surprise parties is the celebrant’s inability to anticipate them.

Anticipation can be the best part of an experience: a Caribbean cruise, the arrival of a sweater ordered from a catalogue, a new haircut. As we look forward to these events, we picture perfection, not flies in the ointment.

Then seasickness confines us to our cabin on captain’s night; the new sweater verifies our weight gain, and the asymmetrical haircut makes us look strangely lop-sided.

A few year’s ago, Joel’s large family planned a surprise party for a beloved aunt’s 80th birthday.

Folks assembled from near and far in a lodge at an Illinois state park to pay tribute to Aunt Rene, a dynamic lady with a cloud of white hair and a cascading laugh that felt like a reward.

We parked in a distant lot, corralled rambunctious children in the lobby, and checked the time compulsively. Finally, she entered, arm-in-arm with the niece who lured her there for lunch.

“Surprise!” 40 voices boomed.

We thought we’d killed her.

She gasped, faltered, clutched her chest, had to sit down. Several minutes passed before she regained her equanimity.

Later she asked, “Why didn’t you tell me you were planning a party for me and everyone was coming? I would have anticipated it for weeks: planning what to wear, getting my hair done, and looking forward to seeing everybody.”

After that, Joel and I vowed we’d never take part in planning a surprise party for one another.

We don’t want to make our exit gasping and flapping in a balloon-decorated room full of loved ones wearing party hats.

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