Fool me twice…it must be my birthday!

Birthday week continues…

One day, I’ll relate to you the odd, head-scratching way I progressed up the ladder in my last company, but for today, let’s just zoom forward to a point roughly in the middle of my “climb”.  This was near the tail-end of my time in Financial Analysis and my boss and I determined I needed an analyst to support my area, which was expanding into new requirements.

Interviewing is a mixed bag.  You can meet some interesting and entertaining people and, if you’re fortunate, you can end up with too many qualified candidates –even in the then boom times (seems like so long ago, now, eh?).

I had settled on one candidate who was solid in her interview with me and made a strong impression on my boss in her interview with him.  But her salary requirements were high and we had a couple other pretty strong candidates.  My boss and I chewed over it for a while, discussed options with compensation and finally made an offer south of her request (significantly) but higher than anything compensation previously registered for the position level.  Basically, we were trying to hire someone qualified for a higher position into our lower one.  The company’s reputation and benefits made it a place where many sacrificed to join and she ultimately became another “casualty”.

Being a firm believer in hiring people who are smarter than me to support me, I quickly realized that the least of my job was going to be managing her on technical knowledge.  I recognized that the best method of management for her would be guiding her through the interpersonal and communication challenges of a company with such a rich and highly developed unique culture.  So our staff meetings spent more time on qualitative subjects and general chit-chat about life.

Over time, we became good friends, to the point that she invited me to her wedding a couple years later.  In another of those coincidences that pepper my life, she was getting married in Las Vegas, which afforded me the opportunity to not only visit my best friend, but invite my best friend to the wedding with me.  The wedding was beautiful, as much as the bride herself.  It was a special pleasure to see her, truly glowing with happiness.  I think that event cemented the transformation of our working relationship into a friendship.

Time passed and soon May was here again.  By this time, our staff meetings had become mostly Monday morning updates on how the weekends went and what we had planned for the week ahead.  During one meeting early in the month, she asked me what I was going to do for my birthday.  I said probably nothing, since it wasn’t a “milestone” (I was turning 45).  We talked about birthdays and I related about my best friend’s surprise for me at 40 and joked that I expected something huge for my 50th.

In the company at that time, the department would celebrate someone’s birthday by paying for a cake and a gang of friends would take the newly older person out and treat them to lunch.  One day, I’ll relate to you the rubber chicken story.

Some of the department people did a great job decorating my office for the day (it was a big challenge because I was still at a point in my working career where I worked late and came in early…later, when my hours changed, decorating became easier).  During one pause, as I was sitting in my office eating some cake, my friend came in (now quite large with her soon-to-be-arriving first child) and asked me what I was going to be doing on my birthday weekend.  I told her no one seemed to have any free time to get together, but one of my friends had invited me to play in a softball game and that had me very excited (as you all know, I love baseball in any form).  She commented that it was strange no one from my family at least was going to get together with me, but I said that was actually normal (only Mom really made a big deal about my birthday and she was a few years gone by now).

I have to tell you, I was really pumped to get a chance to play softball.  The only thing that made the offer curious is my friend who made the invite had a chronic back condition and I couldn’t understand how he would even get asked to play in a game, let alone be able to play.

He picked me up at my house because the park we were going to was only about five minutes from where I lived.  He talked softball to me as we drove (many years earlier, we used to substitute in some softball leagues together).  As we got to the big county park, though, he seemed to be confused about where to go.  He was looking for a specific pavilion, so we both spent time looking at the signs on the winding roads.

I noticed there didn’t appear to be any baseball fields in the park, just a couple soccer fields and a whole lot of picnic pavilions.  As we drove around, we passed a couple pavilions where parties were being thrown for little kids.  I was impressed how big the park was, for we seemed to be driving for a long time.  Finally I noticed a sign for the pavilion he mentioned and we turned down another snaking road.

I thought we might have made a wrong turn when I saw this pavilion, too, was set up for a birthday.  Then I saw a silhouette that was unmistakably someone I knew from my department.  The “aha” hit me and I looked at my friend and told him I didn’t realize he had it in him to pull off such an effective deception.

Turns out, my pregnant friend had set this thing up weeks ago, contacting friends, co-workers and family and making sure they all at some point made an effort to stop by and make an excuse as to why they weren’t going to be free for my birthday.  The “cover up” was as airtight as it was impressive, for until that moment 30 seconds before parking, I had absolutely no suspicion of the surprise party.

And what a party!  She had thought of everything:  one of the guests had trucked his big barbecue grill there to do the cooking; she had picked up a lot of toys for the little kids to play with and a “whiffle ball” set for us big kids to play with (so I did get my ball game in after all).  The guest list was huge and included family members in a similar manner as my best friend’s party for me five years earlier.

And just like that previous surprise, the most heartwarming moment for me was when I simply took in all of these people coming together.  To be able to inspire that much effort simply to sing me the happy birthday song; it was an emotion-choking realization and validation of how people recognize and reward what’s in your heart, even if your mouth can occasionally get in the way.

I didn’t know how I could have earned such special loyalty and friendship to be the beneficiary of such wonderful moments, but I vowed I would find some way to make everyone realize how much these times meant to me.

And you’ll find out how I finally decided to do that in tomorrow’s post!

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