Last year, Elizabeth put together an epic birthday weekend for me:
This year, I had to return the favor. Only a few problems. First of all, where to find the money? It didn’t necessarily help that I have a brand-new auto loan and rising expenses in the face of inflation. That one solved itself in the face of an absolutely incredible run of sports betting between myself, Justin, and Riley, when we netted over $3,100 combined in the month of October. It made scraping the money together for something big a lot easier, which was good because I’d already gone full steam ahead with plans.
The second issue: what to do, and when to do it? By a chance collision of mid shifts, Veteran’s Day, and somebody swapping me out the following week without my knowledge, I ended up not working from the time I got home at 6:00 a.m. on Thursday, November 10 til I had to be in at 5:00 a.m. on Tuesday, November 15. That was more than enough time for a weekend getaway somewhere. I ruled out a national parks weekend (narrowly) due to the costs and logistics involved. However, the undefeated (at the time of my planning) Oklahoma Sooners were traveling to Morgantown, West Virginia to play the Mountaineers in what would likely be their last visit as a member of the Big 12. West Virginia was a top Big 12 destination I still wanted to visit before OU’s stupid-ass move to the SEC. And – I started connecting the dots – it was only 3 hours from DC, so for Elizabeth’s birthday we could visit her family and then travel to the game. And – more dots – her best friend Gianna is a big WVU fan who lives in Richmond, not far from DC. So not only could her birthday present be a trip to a fun college town to watch our beloved Sooners, but we could do it with family and friends. That could be a fun birthday trip! (Ignoring the fact that it would be a full week before her birthday).
Once I figured it out, I just had to get the rest of the characters onboard. Winston and Pam were enthusiastic about it – easy sells. Gianna was a little more skeptical about pricing, but I offered to pay for tickets (pre-car-wreck) and that got her and her boyfriend Jordan on board. Doubly cool: Elizabeth would get to meet her maid of honor’s boyfriend before the wedding. Always a good thing.
The hardest part was trying to make sure the plan stayed a secret birthday surprise. Some people (not me) are very not-good at keeping secrets. If Elizabeth had wanted to, she certainly could have cracked the plan out of Pam. Pam did a great job of walling up when needed, and got to the finish line (barely) intact. Even Gianna got in on the action, trolling Elizabeth by saying she knew where the birthday trip was going to be. That took some creative work on my part to explain without busting the whole thing. By some miracle, when we packed to leave for our trip the night before (this was an adventure) Elizabeth still had no idea where we were heading. I gave her two hints: “West” and “Mountains”. That kind of threw her off the scent.
When we got to the airport on Friday morning after some Whataburger honey butter chicken biscuits, I had Elizabeth stand off to the side so I could get the bags checked and get boarding passes. The boarding passes went into one of three specially prepared envelopes for the situation: the first of three birthday surprises.
You can see her reaction to surprise one here:
More miffed than excited? Maybe. Did I know she was excited anyways? Yes. Elizabeth had been talking for weeks about how she would miss out on seeing family for Thanksgiving. In a way, it was like we were heading to an early Thanksgiving. But also, maybe I shouldn’t have put thoughts of Zion National Park or something in her head. I may have been setting myself up for a letdown spot.
The nice thing about flying to DC is that Southwest flies direct right to Reagan. You can actually make it across the country in a startlingly short amount of time, especially with the wind at your back. It seemed like no time whatsoever until the plane was beginning its initial descent into DC. I texted Pam to let her know we’d be on the ground soon, and found out that she was busy. Literally unknown to me, surprise 1.5 had been plotted. Newly married Hunter and Katie, who we had just been in DC celebrating the month before, would be taking us back to Pam’s house. Which was fine by me: they had a cute dog and a lot of honeymoon stories to regale us with on the way back. The sun was going down by the time they dropped us off in the Fairchild driveway and headed off on their way to the Virginia Tech game the next day (they lost).
While Pam wasn’t home yet, Winston was home finishing up a remote workday. He and Snowball provided us some company after the short flight (and for me, a buffer against just flat-out falling asleep – getting back into the right mindset to stay up after midnight shifts is not easy and you shouldn’t knock it til you try it). He and I chatted while I filled out my maps with update race calls from the 2022 midterm elections (also a great way to stay awake through a week of midnights). We didn’t have super long to wait before Pam was home from her appointment and positively buzzing with excitement about Elizabeth’s surprise birthday dinner. I had not planned the birthday dinner, which was at a hibachi restaurant they had all frequented many years ago. However, I did share the excitement and hunger – and the thrill of knowing that Elizabeth would soon have her final birthday surprises in hand.
Surprise number 2 beat us to the rest – Gianna and Jordan had driven up from Richmond as early as they could, but got delayed by work and literal tornadoes (I had Gianna turn off her location since Elizabeth was constantly checking on her through the tornado event). Surprise number 3 might not be a surprise – Elizabeth had started to piece together what we were doing at the airport earlier when she asked me how long the drive to Morgantown was. I tried to play it off, but probably not super convincingly. The good thing was that pure ignorance about the whole weekend kept Elizabeth from cueing in on the piling-up hints.
It was a muggy, tropical night in DC. Winston drove us through the pitch-black night into old town Alexandria. Elizabeth maintained a delightful aura of confusion about the destination until we were almost upon the steakhouse itself. Then her excitement at visiting a core childhood location was also delightful. Winston went to park the car in the street while I prepared her surprise, who were waiting for us inside. You can see for yourself how she reacted to the blindfold.
You want to talk about a reaction that could make several tortuous weeks of coordination and almost $1,000 invested worth it? That’s the reaction. That’s the one.
Gianna and Jordan may have been slightly overwhelmed by dinner, particularly when Garrett and Cami joined us. It was a pretty standard boisterous Fairchild affair – tame, even, by the standards of some of the stuff I’ve seen over the years. But for them, this must have felt like jumping straight into the deep end of the crazy pool. It was pretty amusing to see the reaction that I’ve had a billion times play out on someone else’s faces.
The food was… fine. I’ve had better hibachi, which isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement given that all hibachi places in the United States taste roughly the same. The chef was personable and unfazed by the crazy show in front of him. That’s all you can ask for, really. Everybody had a good time, which is also all you can ask for.
After Elizabeth opened a birthday gift bag from Pam, it was time for surprise number 3. Check out the triumph in her eyes as the hints come together.
We were going to the West (Virginia) Mountain(eer)s. It wasn’t a lie. What didn’t sink in for Elizabeth until we were about to leave was that she was holding 6 tickets. Gianna had come to Norman to see the OU/WVU in 2021. Now we were seeing the other side of the matchup with everyone. And the look on Elizabeth’s face when she realized that we were all going once again made it all worth it.
Unfortunately, the game kicked at 12:00 the next morning, and to answer Elizabeth’s question, Morgantown is almost 3 and a half hours from DC. So once dinner wound down (and we found ourselves to be the last people in the restaurant), someone wisely suggested that we should all get some sleep to get ready for the big day tomorrow. And so with Gianna and Jordan in tow, we headed back for Pam’s house to rest up.
Maybe I shouldn’t have thrown out *all* of the birthday surprises in day one, but honestly, looking back, the excitement when Elizabeth saw them was so real and so pure that I don’t regret a thing.