This weekend, my brother-in-law achieved an incredible feat.
He managed to plan a surprise birthday party for my sister which includes a hog roast, a small folk band and 120 guests all arriving at their house by 2pm on Sunday and my sister had ABSOLUTELY NO idea.
” Don’t let my wife hear,” says one of my friends when I tell him.
“Too late,” says her voice from the background.
And that has been the reaction from every husband or partner I tell. An apprehensive fear that somehow a bar of impossibly high expectation has now been set.
” How do you top that?” I hear them whisper, glancing nervously over their shoulder to make sure their wife or girl friend is out of earshot ” Whatever you do, don’t tell her…”
While the women I tell stare at me, checking that I am not joking.
” He planned a surprise party for her,” they say, ” I have to buy my own birthday present and give it to my husband and remind him to wrap it…sometimes, if I he reserves a table for dinner if I drop enough hints. Are you sure it wasn’t actually your sister’s idea?
But I am absolutely sure.
Because when I had asked her what she was doing for her birthday the week before, she told me she was very relieved there was going to be no fuss.
For Nevil’s sake, I was hoping she didn’t really mean it so that she wouldn’t be disappointed when there really was no fuss.
“I’m not sure about turning 50,” she said, ” it feels very old.”
“It’s not as bad as you think,” I said reassuringly with all the one-year-your-senior certainty of the older sister.
As the guests streamed into the house on Sunday afternoon, my sister was sitting at a friend’s house discussing gardening.
In the 3 hour window between her departure and return, the hog was roasting in a neighbour’s garden, 2 gazebos had been set up on the lawn, large containers of ice and alcohol had been lined up next to the kitchen, overflowing bowls of crisps and homemade ( by my brother-in-law of course ) hummous had appeared on every table, a barbecue to roast halloumi had been lit and food brought by guests efficiently divided into savoury and sweet areas.
Gradually the lawn was hidden under the feet of guests from as far away as Scotland and as close as next door. Anticipation grew palpably as alcohol was expectantly consumed.
“SSHh,” ordered my nieces and nephew, ” She’s 1 minute away.”
Glasses frozen half way to our lips, we all stared expectantly at the door through which my unsuspecting sister would arrive. Conversations turned to whispers, children screaming on the trampoline were hushed, even Pip, my youngest niece, Molly’s, care dog, was forced into stillness with a firm hug.
We waited, anticipation oozing from every pore….
“Oh, no, sorry,” says Matty, “they’re 10 minutes away, not 1. Soz.”
With groans of disappointment we resumed our drinking and growingly drunken conversations and with at least one more false alarm, by the time my sister really did arrive, we had the silence of 120 people down to a fine art.
She stepped through door and froze…and if anyone had doubted for a single moment that she had no idea, her expression said it all.
“You said a barbecue for a few people later tonight.” she half laughed, half-cried when she could talk again.
But it turns out she was fine with a fuss.
Nevil placed a glass in her hand and she began to circulate, greeting each unexpected guest with her warm smile and a hug, everything accompanied by the gentle notes of mandolins and violins from the 3 man band.
There were guests from each part of her life, school, university, time spent in Australia and New Zealand, friends from work, neighbours and, of course, family.
We left as a damp, dusk began to cloak the garden and guests in an hog roast tinted mist. And as the many Whatsapp messages the next day told us, it was an evening of warmth and laughter, fireworks and fun.
The unending hosting generosity of my sister and brother-in-law made sure of that.
Food and alcohol flowed, the band played, and memories were made.
“So?” I ask my sister when I phone her on her actual birthday tomorrow, ” Is it so bad being 50?”
And I remember a conversation we had a few weeks ago.
Abbey and Nevil and Molly had been on holiday with a friend of Molly’s and her mum.
The mum spent much of her time reading self-help books on how to become successful.
“So,” she asked my sister and brother-in-law, ‘ how would you define success. What do you think would make you successful.”
Abbey and Nevil looked at each other.
They have been happily married for many years, they have 3 children, a beautiful house with an amazing garden and an art studio. They both have succesful jobs as doctors which they mostly enjoy. They have enough money not to have to worry too much and to mostly buy themselves more than they need. They go on amazing holidays and mostly manage to achieve a pretty good work-life balance.
” We didn’t know what to say,” said Abbey. ” So in the end we just had to admit that we were probably about as successful as we have ever hoped to be.”
The mum stared at them.
“No, but I mean, what would it mean to you to be truly successful?”
” In the end we just gave up,” laughed my sister. ” I don’t think she wanted to believe that we were happy with what we have.”
And it is true that being successful means something different to everyone.
But there is something about the Britain’s Got Talent/X Factor search for fame and the Made in Chelsea lifestyle aspirations of people today that leads to a constant sense of lack of achievement , the belief that success can only be measured against the most famous and the richest.
Striving to be successful has become synonymous with desiring what everyone else has, aspiring to be the richest, the best, the most fashionable, the most beautiful.
But I prefer to look at success the way my sister and Nevil do.
Not everything about their life is perfect but they always make the best of what life has given them.
They share a sense of adventure, a sense of humour, mutual respect, a love of good food and gardening …and most importantly their love for each other … a fact that was proved this weekend by the throwing of a surprise party that will make history amongst their friends ( and cause extreme anxiety for his male counterparts. )
And if that’s not success, I’m not sure what is.
Happy birthday Abbey…never stop smiling!