It is a testament to how much you love someone when your reaction to his joy is comparable to his firsthand experience. Robert, a man known for being loquacious, was stunned into silence as he entered the Beach Plum Inn and recognized the many faces gathered, as their multi-accented voices shouted, "Surprise!" Ency, her face radiant, followed her husband as, through a choked voice, he greeted his friends.
We had a full day to reminisce about the party, to rehash the speeches that had inspired both laughter and tears, before the unleashing of one final birthday bombshell Ency had planned for Monday night. Monday morning, Robert packed up his birthday cards to make way for the first Christmas card he'd already received. The house was quiet, and David's sister, Michelle, announced that since it was her last night before heading home to Seattle, she wanted to have her mother's kolosvari rakott kaposzta (a Hungarian casserole dish containing sausage, eggs, cabbage, rice, and sour cream) for dinner that evening.
David, Michelle, and I went into town on the pretense of shopping. But the true nature of our secret mission was to collect Gabi -- Robert's childhood friend from Hungary -- from the ferry and bring him home for dinner. Fifty years ago, when Robert immigrated to America, Gabi had fled to France.
The energy was high on the ride home. Michelle, David, and I were trying to imagine what Robert's reaction might be when we unloaded the unexpected cargo we'd acquired while "shopping." Gabi, a pleasant gentleman in a small fedora and blue wool coat, had recently flown to New York (to visit his brother) from where he'd been staying in Japan and made the ten-hour trip to the island in order to spend one evening with his old friend before heading back to the city for work, and then returning home to Paris a few days later.
Gabi insisted on waiting in the car for a minute, so as to wander in naturally and ask to use the restroom as if he were a stranger passing by. When we walked into the dining room, it was Ency's turn to be puzzled. She held a camera in her hand and tried to catch my attention. I could read in her distraught face that she thought Gabi hadn't made it. But 30 seconds later, there was a knock at the sliding glass door.
When Robert glanced up, it was as if a beam of sunshine had sliced through the night sky and fell upon his face. Far from speechless this time, he let loose a torrent of Hungarian words, spoken in a buoyant and booming voice as he bounded across the room to embrace his dear friend.
Once dessert was on the table, Robert looked back and forth from his childhood friend to his wife of 42 years. Shaking his head, an enormous smile on his face, Robert rested his glistening eyes on the woman who had surreptitiously orchestrated these magical moments for him and said, "Thank you."