by | Oct 1, 2006 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

There is a reason why I don’t plan surprise parties. I am not very good at them. They’re hard to keep secret.

And, with me, they usually backfire.

My most recent attempt came last week. It wasn’t really the typical party – you know, where everyone jumps out and screams, “Surprise!” and you pray the person doesn’t have a coronary – but it was close enough.

The occasion was my mother’s birthday. Her age, let’s just say she is in her 70s. She was in Detroit for a big benefit that we did to help the city’s homeless people. The event at the Fox Theatre featured, among other guests, Tony Bennett, one of my mother’s favorite singers.

Since the night was tied to a new book I wrote about mothers and sons, I was flushed with the family spirit. So I broke my rule. I got this “great” idea for a surprise. (I put the word in quotes because “great” ideas always seem better in your head.) My “great” idea was that at some point during the night, I could somehow get my mother on stage and have Tony Bennett and the whole audience sing “Happy Birthday.”

Yeah, it’s corny. But I love my mom.

Why not give her a thrill?

A pit stop along the way

So I went through all the planning. I coordinated a secret strategy. I chose the moment, the setting, the key personnel.

Here was how it was supposed to happen. At a “designated” point in the benefit, Tony would get ready to sing and I would introduce him. At the same time, a “designated” person would take my mother from the audience and lead her backstage. Then I would tell a “designated” funny story from my childhood, finish the story and, by that point, another “designated” person would send my mother out, and I would ask the audience to sing along with Tony in a rousing rendition of the birthday song!

We had it so well-planned.

So we reached the magic moment, near the end of the benefit. And I began to introduce Tony. And the “designated” someone got my mother from her seat and led her backstage.


Except that designated someone happened to be my wife. And she happened to ask my mother as they were walking backstage, “Do you need to use the bathroom?”

The sounds of silence

Now, there are certain questions I have discovered you should never ask women. One of them is “do you need to use the bathroom?” They could have just COME OUT of the bathroom, and if say, “Do you need to use the bathroom,” they will answer, “Well, you know, maybe I should, just in case.”

So, by now, you can probably figure what happened. I tell the designated story. The audience is primed. Tony Bennett is ready. And I say something like, “Well, today is my mother’s birthday and it would be great if we could bring her out here and sing happy birthday to her …” and the crowd rose to its feet and I announced, proudly and loudly, “So here she is, my mother …”

And nothing.

And the applause continued.

And nothing.

And the applause trickled down.

And nothing.

And then someone yelled – and this may have been a relative -“She’s in the bathroom!”

And we all stood there, openmouthed. I don’t know how much time passed, but it felt long enough for Tony Bennett to retrieve his heart from San Francisco.

And then, just when I was about to start tap-dancing, out steps my mother, in no particular hurry, walking across the stage as if she were wandering through a department at Macy’s.

And we all sang “Happy Birthday.”

And she was very happy.

The moral of the story is, if you are not good at surprises, don’t plan them. And if you need to fetch a woman from the audience, don’t send another woman. Send Tony Bennett.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or He will sign “For One More Day” at noon Friday at Starbucks at Maple and Lahser and noon Saturday at Borders in Ann Arbor.


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New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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