I hid my face behind two dozen white and red roses as I rang the doorbell.
I held my cellphone to my ear in the other hand, asking my mother about her weekend plans.
“Hold on,” she said. “There’s someone at the door.”
She opened the door.
“Happy birthday, Mama!” I said, having flown in to Houston late last night for this surprise. She screamed loud enough to frighten a few neighbors and grabbed me in a tight hug.
This was just the start of the weekend surprises for my parents.
My mom turned 65 in March. I wish that meant she retired from her job as a sales clerk at Macy’s, but like so many other Americans, she will need to delay retirement at least a year. My father, in his early 70s, went back to work as a full-time substitute teacher a couple of years ago.
I’ve never heard them complain about having to work past retirement age, although I have wished I could make things easier for them since they’ve spent their lives raising six children. In more than 40 years of marriage, I remember them taking a vacation alone together – not to visit family or friends – once.
My father had won an award as the top salesman at his car dealership, which sent them to Bermuda for a weekend. That was more than 25 years ago.
My siblings and I decided this would be a good year to surprise them with a gift they would never give themselves. We settled on a cruise to Alaska.
The gift was a big risk. They are scared of cold weather. In Houston, 50 degrees is cold. They have never taken a cruise. They get worried about navigating unfamiliar places.
But they love the beauty found in nature. We wanted to push them a little out of their comfort zone.
Their sacrifices in our childhoods opened up the world to us as adults. Here was a chance to do the same for them.
We decided to present the “big reveal” at my mother’s birthday party the next day by having them unwrap a series of clues.
There were six boxes to open. One from each of us. One by one, they found a plastic gray wolf, a headband with antlers, a jar of maple syrup, a toy plane and a ship.
Of course, they guessed it.
“We’re going to Alaska,” my dad said.
At the moment, they seemed touched by the gesture. Later on, each of them privately approached one of us children, trying to get out of the trip or have it delayed.
We held firm. We reassured them all the details had been arranged and sent them off with a big binder of everything they needed to know.
Meanwhile, all of us held our breath. They were only gone for five days, but it felt much longer.
I talked to them as soon as they returned.
“It was so majestic and beautiful,” my dad said. He pointed out that most of the people on the cruise were middle-aged or seniors.
“Older people really enjoy it,” he explained. “They feed you the best food on the face of the Earth. They really take care of you like no one would.”
My mother, who is notoriously particular about food, agreed.
“I loved it,” she said. The ocean, mountains and trees were breathtaking.
“We got sunshine,” she said. “No clouds, no cold.”
What a relief.
They made friends with a traveler from Canada, an elderly South Korean woman, who said she prayed for good weather after meeting and talking to my parents.
Bless that woman.
It didn’t surprise any of us that after this experience, my mother decided that her entire family – children, spouses and grandchildren – needed to take a cruise with them next.
It’s that parental instinct to immediately want to share the best things you experience with your children. My father said the minute they landed at their port in Alaska, my mother became a woman on a mission.
“Can you believe she spent all day in Alaska shopping for her grandkids and children?” he said. “As soon as we reached there, that’s all she thought about: her grandkids.”
“Boy, that kind of love is unbelievable.”
It really is.
Aisha Sultan is a St. Louis-based journalist who studies parenting in the digital age. On Twitter: @AishaS.