My friend Mike works in maintenance at school. It was ten years ago when I discovered that he had no living family. We were in the staff room at work and he mentioned that his 50th birthday was coming up.
“Will you be having a party?” I asked idly, pulling mail from my box.
“No, I don’t have any family.”
I stopped rifling through envelopes and looked up. “You don’t have any family?”
“Nope. It was just my mom and me, and she’s gone.”
“Really? No other family?” It was inconceivable to me. I am one of five children and umpteen cousins, nieces, nephews, and in-laws.
I was shocked. “Oh, Mike, that’s terrible. I’ll be your adopted little sister.”
He gave a big smile. “Can we sign papers?”
From that day forward, Mike has called me Sis. (This solved the problem of my name, which, like Allen and his son, he could never quite get right.) Mike has come to every family party, graduation, and holiday meal for a decade. We’ve become close friends. He is also my right-hand man. He fixes all my engines and flat tires, plows the farm for me, and since DH is usually working or on the road, it is Mike I call whenever I need an extra pair of hands. He’s even driven carpool for my children.
Mike has a wonderful giggle and a wonderful hug. He fits under my arm, and loves to joke how his “little sister” towers over him. Once last winter I was deep in a hallway conversation with a new staff member when Mike walked by and teasingly gave me a hip-check. “Oops, sorry, Sis!” I barely paused in my conversation but reached out, pulled him into a hug in the crook of my arm, and knuckle-rubbed the top of his head while he giggled helplessly. The new staff member looked astonished.
And now he was going to turn 60. A month ago I began making plans. Originally I thought I’d throw him a party, but Sheila, the school secretary, pointed out that it was really the children who mattered to Mike. So I got permission from Mike’s boss and the rest of the administration to make a presentation to Mike at an all-school lunch.
The kitchen crew loved the plan, and surreptitiously found out Mike’s favorite meal — homemade pizza with butterscotch brownies for dessert. The menu was set.
I thought perhaps we could find a photo of Mike with his current student basketball team (he coaches after work). My friend Tom, however, who teaches photography and woodshop, took this simple idea and ran with it, laboring for weeks to produce a beautiful framed collage of Mike with most of his teams over the last ten years.
Meanwhile I bought Mike a new black Carhartt jacket and had it embroidered with the school logo on one side of the chest and MIKE on the other. (To get the right size, I gave him a hug and peeked at the label at the back of his neck.)
I made a giant four-page birthday card on index stock and carried it around to every office and classroom, so everyone at the school could sign it with messages. To all the children I repeated, “Shhh! It’s a secret! Don’t say a word! Don’t let him guess you even know it’s his birthday!” This need for concealment caused many giggles and one blurted scream of “Oh, no! It’s Mike!” when Mike walked by carrying trash. Mike looked puzzled but walked on.
Yesterday was the big day. A group of excited children rang a bell during the meal, calling for silence, and announced his birthday. Everyone sang while Mike grinned and blushed. Then I called him to the front of the dining room and presented the photo collage and jacket. He was completely choked up, with tears in his eyes. The community cheered and clapped. Joy and love were everywhere.
It was perfect. Happy birthday, dearest Mike.