The question is whispered to me early in the week.
“December 15,” I say.
“How old is he?” again with the whispering. Daddy is so hard of hearing, there’s really no need to whisper.
“Eighty last December, eighty-one next month.”
“Okay. We are planning the make the celebration both an opening of the school and a birthday party for your father.”
“That’s very nice.”
And finally Friday morning, here we are at the Dunopotagama Viduhala School—all of the names in Sri Lanka are challenge—in a big hall with a birthday cake up on the stage. The people assigned to fan the flies away from the cake are mostly successful. The beautiful cake says 80 in giant red numerals on the top and candles. There’s singing and blowing.
Someone hands Daddy a big knife. “You need to cut it.”
A little flustered since he’s holding his giant camera and our programs, Daddy begins to cut little pieces for each of the six little girls who’ve done a dance number for us.
But the very first little piece is taken away from him and offered to one little girl, who leans in for a bite. No silverware, just lean and bite, like a cookie. Then adult hands move the cake to the second girl who also takes a bite. Third girl takes a bite. Fourth: bite. Fifth: bite. Sixth: bite.
Then they hold very same diminished piece of cake in front of me.
“Now you need to take a bite. The other girls are symbols. You are the real daughter.”
REALLY? Oh, man.
My just-in-case antibiotics are back in my suitcase with the anti-malarial medicine. The hand sanitizer is in my backpack with the bottled water and the Pepto-Bismol tablets, which I planned to chew before refreshment time.
But now, suddenly, in front of a thousand people, I am supposed to bite from a piece of cake that six other people, and a few flies, have already eaten off of??
It is a small moment in a wonderful day and I share it only to demonstrate that as well and as much as you plan something, when you cross so far across cultural divides, things are going to be different than you expect.
Daddy is 81 soon. The cake says 80. I knew our school building would have three rooms, one library and two classrooms. I had thought it would be a tiny school standing on its own. Instead it is part—far the most beautiful part—of a school with 550 students. I had expected abject poverty, but everyone here has pulled out their absolute best, or borrowed it from somewhere. The school officials are in ties. The costumes on the dancers are beautiful.
There is a lovely design that I’d thought was painted on the floor, but when I look closer, from my seat in the front row, even that is different from what I thought. The design is not painted, but has been created from rice and other grains placed carefully on the floor.
And what do I do up here on the stage with the cake in front of my nose and a thousand people watching?
I lean in and do the very best I can, pretending to take a bite and eat it.
The applause isn’t pretend though, and neither is Daddy’s and my joy at being here.