hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

May 30, 2012

Poor Tom's Almanac: Life is chock full of surprises!

Tom Vartabedian

Tell me reader, is there anything more stunning — or revolting — than to walk into a room totally off guard and see your best friends and family all gathered?

Yes, it's one of life's vagaries to which we're accustomed. The element of surprise can subdue us all and send us into a delirium.

Wish I had a dollar for every time I was shocked out of my trousers, whether it was a surprise anniversary, a birthday party I didn't want, a testimonial I didn't deserve, a moment in time I didn't expect but wish to preserve forever.

There was the time — gulp — I was expecting a quiet dinner with immediate family at a local restaurant. I fussed about it, but in cases like these, the children usually win out. So off we went against my better judgment.

I walked through the door and a chorus greeted me. "Surprise!"

Okay, so it was my 50th birthday, but did people have to make a big deal out of it? Balloons and streamers bedecked the room. My chair — the hot seat — was draped in back with a balloon showing the Grim Reaper. Was this the end of the line or just the beginning?

A root canal would have been a better alternative. "Fifty is nifty," they told me. Not with me. It was that point in my life when I was beginning to look forward to a dull evening at home and not loud, clamorous parties.

Over the years, I've come to believe that the unexpected doesn't always happen. But it happens when you least suspect it. As a kid growing up, I couldn't wait to get my hands onto a box of Cracker Jacks. Not so much for the caramel corn, but more for the toy inside.

It could be anything from a tattoo or a top. No big deal, mind you, but the element of surprise was tempting. Through school, my report cards reflected one shocker after another, whether it was a bad grade when I expected better or a good grade when I anticipated failure.

There was that proverbial knock on the door when an unwanted guest brought me the jitters for a decade. The soft side of me welcomed this relative into my home every Sunday morning, whether I was still in bed or hiding under it.

The "surprise" of it all was not when he would show. I knew that. But when he didn't. I was hoping the suspense would not last a lifetime, and it didn't.

These days, it's a pleasant surprise every time a grandchild calls me on the telephone to relay some good news about school or sports. By the same token, I was surprised to learn that my son landed in a hospital during a recent family vacation to Miami Beach with a pulmonary embolism.

Thank the good Lord, he came out of his illness, went to treatments, and is on the mend, jogging for exercise and glad to be alive. The fact that death came knocking at his door and found it shut was a pleasant surprise.

There was the time I was playing a basketball game and sank the ball into the wrong basket. A demoralizing surprise to say the least, but one which brought cheers from the opposing team.

The world of sports has brought many a surprise for my family, especially the time I had attended a hockey game and made a run to the comfort station, only to come out and see my son being hoisted on the shoulders of his teammates.

Had I postponed that pit stop for a minute, I would have caught the game-winning goal in the tournament. Too bad they didn't invent in instant replay.

Every day is full of surprises, whether it's a telephone call from a distant friend or relative or an unexpected greeting at church or on the street. A winning lottery ticket will not be a surprise. I don't indulge.

It's always a nice surprise to wake up each day with renewed enthusiasm and see the sun shining brightly.

A movie or book with a surprise ending always makes us wonder. Or seeing a Stanley Cup championship with my beloved Boston Bruins last year. Nothing in my world of sports was greater than watching the United States Olympic hockey team stun the Russians 32 years ago, giving rise to that "miracle on ice." Who would have predicted it?

As my 50th wedding anniversary approaches in three years, this milestone will not be a surprise. We'll be celebrating the occasion in Disneyworld with our grandchildren.

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Photographer and writer Tom Vartabedian is retired from The Haverhill Gazette. He contributes this regular column.