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Surprise birthday party turns into surprise for guests

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Two weeks ago my wife and I were invited to a surprise birthday party at the St. Charles Country Club where -- SURPRISE -- the guests ended up more surprised than the guest of honour.

That's what happens when, without notice, a birthday turns into a wedding. Which had even the biggest and burliest of the men in the crowd crying.

Although I wasn't one of them.

But I should explain.

Most of the 50 close friends and family were crying because they knew the rest of the story.

At 55, Carole Masullo, the birthday bride, is in the advanced stages of Lou Gehrig's disease. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), as it's also known, is a progressive, neurodegenerative disease. And it's fatal, of course, which means the event wasn't just about a birthday and a wedding; it was also about a funeral in the all-too-near future.

You might recognize Carole.

Until relatively recently Carole and her new husband, the renowned Winnipeg chef Bernard Mirlycourtois, owned and operated the exquisite French restaurant Mirlycourtois on Princess Street, which is how Athina and I were introduced to them even before they knew they were a couple.

It's been five years since Bernard left his role as head chef at The Manitoba Club and opened Mirlycourtois at its first location on Portage Avenue across from the MTS Centre. Carole, who was born in Quebec, had been an Air Canada flight attendant. She only got to know Bernard through friends after she was widowed, and casually asked the French-born Bernard if she could work a shift or two a week as a hostess at Mirlycourtois.

Carole didn't need the money.

Her late husband Sal Masullo had left her financially secure.

She was turning 50 and just wanted to get out of the house a couple of nights a week. Bernard was married back then, but miserably.

"And then one day," Carole began to recall. And then paused. "Well, you were there," she reminded me. "You and Athina had come to the restaurant. I had gone to a travel agent and I announced I was going to take a cruise around the world. And that's when Bernard stood up and said, 'You can't go because I love you.' Then he looked at you and said, 'I love this woman.' "

Carole didn't go anywhere after that except from home to work.

"And when I was driving over my heart was going, boom, boom, boom."

Eventually they became partners in business and in life, and two years ago Bernard proposed. Carole accepted, of course, but there was a problem.

The timing.

By then the initial symptoms of what would prove to be ALS had started.

It would take more than a year for the diagnosis to be confirmed.

Which brings us to the surprise birthday party. Bernard had it all planned, but Carole caught on, which is when she decided it was time. It made sense if her family was coming all the way from Quebec that they get married at the same time.

"We did not want anyone to know," Carole said. "We wanted an intimate gathering of people close to our hearts and that's all."

It was after 7 p.m. when Bernard wheeled Carole in and the guests sprang from hiding with a chorus of "Surprise!" Followed quickly by the surprise for the guests, and the tears that flowed like the champagne that was waiting for the toast to the bride.

"It was a very bittersweet day," Carole said. "Here we are getting married, knowing going into it that I have limited days left and, as you know with ALS, those days are not going to be spent in a 'beautiful way.' "

I suspect what really got people choked up was listening to the vows being recited. Particularly when Justice William Burnett asked the groom to repeat the opening words: "I, Bernard Mirlycourtois, take you, Carole Masullo, to be my lawful wedded wife... " Followed by the final words: "... from this day forward... in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish all the days of my life, this I promise you."

That's the part that would have got to me, anyway. But I wasn't there.

Which is why I didn't weep with the rest of the big, burly men.

We had been tipped off that Carole and Bernard were going to turn the birthday into a wedding, but we marked the wrong day.

At least Athina cried when she found out we missed Carole and Bernard's big day. I just got angry.

When I called to apologize, Carole was gracious, considering there were two empty chairs at their table where we were supposed to be sitting.

"It's sad you missed it," Carole said understandingly.

Then she started to laugh.

"You better not miss my funeral."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 12, 2010 B1

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