A Birthday Party

It was the first time I’d made a party in years. At first, I was not going to be the one to put on a birthday party for Stephen, the leader of the Sunday morning hiking group. But I’d let everyone else do all the entertaining since the time my daughter got sick and died. I’d gone to so many dinners and lunches at others’ houses. Now they wanted to do a surprise birthday lunch after Sunday’s hike.

“Let’s do it at my place.” It just fell out of my mouth. Did I say that? It was long overdue anyway. Twelve people are coming over for a party. Whoa! For days I could think of little else. No work got done as I planned and prepared for the party.

“Barb, will you email Ed and Pat?” Twelve people are coming. “Dennis, do you have an extra bridge table?” I ran around to get extra furniture and enough cheery plates. I found my big bright yellow and blue tablecloth. Considering various food issues, I planned a menu. At Wegmans, I hunted and gathered too much food and then picked out the richest most scrumptious Chocolate Elegance Cake. I located candles and matches and put out the wine and the water. The fridge was stuffed.

The day before, I counted out the silverware and put the tables together and went back to Wegmans for the meats and the cake. Is six pounds of cold-cuts enough for thirteen people?

By Sunday I was totally overwhelmed. I didn’t even realize it until the hike. The plan was to go for only half the hike with Suki and then head back to the house, before the others, to take care of the last minute preparations.

“Susan, I lost the trail, I can’t find my way back to the cars,” I phoned frantically shortly after separating from the group. “Liz, I’m lost. Can you get to my house early? I might be late,” I called another. “Suki, where did the trail go?”

Finally at home, I saw that Suki was a muddy mess and a tick was crawling up her face. So I bathed and brushed her because I couldn’t focus on anything else. By the time Liz arrived my brain was like a stir-fry of scattered wilted spinach. Ohmygosh twelve people are coming here for a party in half an hour. And I can’t see straight.birthday party for Stephen Hess of the Sunday morning hiking group in Ithaca, New York


It was going to be a simple meal. Sandwiches. Chicken, turkey, turkey ham. Swiss cheese. Sauerkraut and relishes, salad and avocado. Lots of condiments. By noon, when the hikers parked their boots in the mudroom, there was little room left on the table for the salad that came in with one of the guests. But all thirteen of us squeezed around the table and settled down to feast.

After the meal, the daughters of my two closest hiking friends cleared the table and lit the candles on the cake. They’d already started to sing the birthday song when they handed the cake to me to place before Stephen. And as I carried the flickering candlelit cake the ten steps, slow down so the flames don’t go out, suddenly my head reeled and my heart bucked. There was a jarring explosion of memories presenting birthday cakes to my daughter. Twenty birthday cakes, each year one more candle, an extra candle added for good luck, Happy Birthday Dear Marika …

“No. I can’t. Don’t go there now. This is now. It’s Stephen’s birthday and there are twelve people here,” I told myself, fighting back tears. I don’t know if I set the cake down carefully in front of Stephen or if I threw it at him like a hot potato.

By the time the birthday song ended I collected myself and clapped cheerfully. The surprised shock of the flashbacks got lost in the commotion to serve coffee.

The party ended with compliments, smiles and hugs. Other than my fast unforeseen flight back to grief, it was successful and smooth. I’m happy and proud. And tomorrow, Liz and Barb and their daughters will come back to help me eat all the leftover food.

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