Disappointed is not a word that could even begin to do justice to what I felt when she said “Panda Inn.” It was Friday evening and I had called my friends to find out where we were to meet for my special birthday dinner the next night. Originally, they were to have chaufeured, but now that my parents had flown in to join us, I needed to drive so I could pick them up at the hotel first. There is nothing wrong with Panda Inn, we go there all the time, but that fact was itself the problem to me: there is nothing at all special about the local Chinese eatery, a place that I feel fine frequenting when clad in jeans.

“Panda Inn?” I repeated. “Umm. Oh. What time?”

I’m sure she heard between the lines, and I kicked myself repeatedly over the next 24-hours for feeling so ungrateful. These were my best friends, friends who saw me through the cancer war, and my parents flew all the way from New York just for a weekend to celebrate my birthday. Wasn’t that special enough?!

When we walked into the restaurant I was trying hard to be upbeat, but I was getting annoyed all over again. It was a crowded Saturday night, and my girlfriend was waiting for us up front to say they had seated us in the back – my least favorite spot in the whole restaurant – and her husband was back there holding the table.

The back room is not huge, but as I scanned the tables I did not see her husband. I was about to ask her “where?” — and then I saw them all in the private room off to the right – more than two dozen of my best friends, neighbors, and even my cousins who live in San Jose. I couldn’t take it all in.

I was truly speechless, a fact which caused great glee for many of my friends who know me to be opinionated and seldom if ever at a loss for words. In addition to my four best girlfriends who had been in cahoots with my mother to pull this off, the Coolidge Avenue gang (a/k/a the neighborhood) was there in force. Others at the table included a longtime friend who I hadn’t seen much since she adopted three children, a friend who writes for the Los Angeles Times, and a couple who I would describe as my newest friends (he’s a contractor and she’s an actress – you’ll hear more about them in weeks to come as he’s the one who is about to refurbish our kitchen/family room).

The food was plentiful – first came the pot stickers and cup of soup, then a steady stream of entrées including honey-walnut shrimp (my personal favorite), Wok-Seared Scallops (or was it the Sizzling Scallops?), a chicken with asparagus dish, Asian Spiced Beef Short Ribs served with fat noodles, Crispy Fish Fillets (very spicy), Sautéed Mixed Vegetables, and more. The birthday cake (a lemon mouse cake) was brought in from my favorite bakery, Patticakes .

In addition to some wonderful gifts that included a to-die-for pearl and diamond necklace that my husband designed, an iPod nano given to me by a coalition of neighbors (I’m the number 2, or maybe number 3, tech guru on the street, but the only one heretofore without an ipod), an issue of Life magazine from 1955 (it cost only 20-cents back then), gift certificates, champagne and wine, and books, one of my friends had collected cards and greetings from friends who lived afar so that they could “be there” too. Well-wishers from afar included pianist Norman Simmons (my Libra brother who wanted to know what took me so long to make it to 50), my friends in Westchester who “adopted” me into their family when I was a moody teenager, and a neighbor of whom I am very fond and miss as she moved away after her husband died. A few of the cards made me teary, and several made me laugh. Most had messages or quotations that I will share with you over the coming days, and two people have promised to send me pictures, so perhaps I’ll post a few snaps on the blog later in the week.

It was truly a special evening.