I still remember that Christmas..
A week passed, and one day, at office, I saw a strange looking parcel on my table. I opened it immediately, and inside were the official papers I had lost that night on the streets of Johannesburg, along with the CD I had bought Ayush. There was a cryptic message written in childish handwriting which said, “ Mister, you left this behind. Your friend George”. Somewhere within a span of two weeks, two children, completely different from one another, had conveyed to me the most profound message, that true gifts at Christmas are not bought at the store.
l by Ruwantissa Abeyratne
(December 10, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) When I woke up from a disturbed sleep I could just about see the crack of dawn. Thin streaks of gold were struggling to emerge through the dark night sky as though a dark secret was about to be revealed. From the window of the aircraft in which I was travelling, I could see wisps of grey below; a familiar sight for me as night flights were not uncommon in my travel itinerary. This time the mission was somewhat tedious, I thought, from New York to London with a stopover for two nights, and onwards to Johannesburg – all night flights. “ How could these guys do this for a living” I thought of the cabin crew and the pilots. Living through a suitcase with hardly any time spent at home. That is if they have one. And what about family. A wife, a husband, and kids? Well, anyway, it’s nice to land at home two days before Christmas.
The mission in Johannesburg had been one of the most strenuous in my aviation career. A meeting for drafting aviation policy for African nations. It had been a rewarding experience, meeting senior African officials who were for the most part enthusiastic and energetic in their work. I had not been so energised in my work for a long while.
In the calmness of dawn, and the lull created by the gentle purr of the aircraft, my mind went groggily back to the days spent in Johannesburg. I had been surprised to find an impeccable city with well marked clean expressways and an impressive skyline. My colleagues had warned me not to walk alone at night as some parts of the city could be dangerous. Being naturally adventurous, I had not heeded this. It was on one of those nights, at a lonely intersection that I met George.
George was of medium height for a kid his age, which I surmised was around 14. He was dressed in a well worn but clean red tee shirt and a pair of faded blue pants. Both his hands were in his pant pockets, which made me nervous. “ Hey mister” George had called, when I was trying to walk past him. “ My name is George and I am the best guide around. For 30 Rand I could show you Jo’burg”. I had been warned about being accosted on the street by “ night people” but not of self appointed tour guides. I had slowed down, partly through curiosity as to what the boy was trying to accomplish with me and partly because I felt unthreatened by the slightly built boy. “ I am not interested” I said. “ 25 then… I am a good guide”. My patience was running thin. “This kid should be at home doing his homework or something without roaming the streets” I thought to myself. “ Please leave me alone or I’ll call the cops” I said pulling out my mobile. Suddenly, George looked older, more mature. Realizing he was getting nowhere, he slowed his pace, drawing away from me, his face showing annoyance and impatience, “ that’s no way to treat a friend in a strange city mister”.
Suddenly, the street was full of three burly men who were advancing toward me with rapid strides. I could not see their features clearly, but I was certain they did not mean well. I heard George mutter “ now you’ve had it”. But, instead of running away as I had anticipated, I saw that George was running toward the men. He stopped in front of them and was pointing toward me, by which time I had stopped dead in my tracks. After what seemed an eternity, and fierce gesticulation on the part of the men, I saw to my relief that they were withdrawing, leaving me and George alone together in the darkness. “ Phew that was close, how did you pull that one through” I asked George “ I’d better take you to your hotel before you get into any more trouble” George said, without directly answering my question. That night when I sheepishly crept into my bed, I did not entirely realized what to make of my experience.
I was brought back to reality with the captain’s voice coming over public address system. “ “Ladies and gentlemen, your captain speaking. We have started our descent to La Guardia and will be touching down in approximately 25 minutes…”
When I rang the doorbell of my house, I could hear my younger son Ayush running to the door. All of 12 years, he is the joy of our life. He is so full of life and he enjoys it to the minute.
“ Daddy is home” I could hear him should from inside. When the door opened Ayush rushed into my arms. “ I love you Daddy” he said. “ Today is the 23rd of December” “ I love you too, Ayush” I said hugging my precious bundle. “ Poor kid, tries so hard…he has been a good kid all these days” said my wife Anoma. “ He has been talking non stop about his “ Silent night CD “ she added.
I stood there speechless. I had promised to bring Ayush a CD of the Vienna Boys Choir from London as the local shops had run out of the particular version he was looking for. I had managed to buy it in a shop in Johannesburg but had lost it in the episode with George and the hoodlums
“ He has been practicing “ Silent Night” all week, did you get his CD?” asked Anoma. “Well, yes I did but I lost it on the way to the hotel from the shop along with some office documents” I said.
I walked up to Ayush and said to him, “ Ayush, I could not bring your CD, I will keep looking for it here for you”. I could see the disappointment in his face, as though he could not imagine how his father could forget his request. Unlike other kids of his age, Ayush had difficulty in facing reality and coping with social challenges. He started to cry, which made me slightly irritated. I was tired after the long trip and now I had to cope with a child who was incapable of understanding basics. Ayush ran upstairs and I knew he was going to be upset.
“ Don’t forget, Ayush is singing Silent Night solo at the church tomorrow” Anoma reminded me. I had almost forgotten that the next day, Sunday, Ayush had been invited by his voice trainer who led the choir in her local church to sing the carol solo, backed by the choir. “ Oh well, another chore for sure” I thought to myself .
That evening while I was writing my “ back in office” report, I heard music accompanied by the most beautiful child’s voice I had ever heard coming from the basement. Someone, an angel, was singing silent night. “ Why does he have to have another CD if he already has one with the same carol” I asked myself. But then something made me take my hands from the keyboard of my computer and listen. Sure enough, it was my son practicing for the next day. “ only angels could sing like this,” I thought, pride, admiration and joy welling in my heart. How could a child, unable to understand some basics about life that other children of his age could, do something as glorious as this?. None of my family members nor their offspring could sing like this. And, as far as I know, none of my wife’ s relatives could string two vocal notes together either.
I found myself driving next day to the Church of Jesus Christ of the latter day Saints, where Ayush, Anoma and I were greeted by the Bishop himself and all the choristers. Ayush, dressed impeccably in while shirt, crimson bow tie, black pants and velvet jacket, looked as cool as a cucumber. When his time came to sing, he was announced, and he walked up. One could hear a pin drop. When Ayush started singing, I could see that the Bishop, who was leading the celebrations, was mesmerized. He could not take his eyes off this child with a magical voice heralding Christmas in his temple. I slowly looked around the church. I could see many wiping tears off their eyes. I sat transfixed. I had never realized what a rare gift I had been given. “ I did well Daddy” Ayush said in the car on the way home. He was always so eager to please his parents no matter what. I could not get myself together to say what an absolutely gorgeous performance he had given.
A week passed, and one day, at office, I saw a strange looking parcel on my table. I opened it immediately, and inside were the official papers I had lost that night on the streets of Johannesburg, along with the CD I had bought Ayush. There was a cryptic message written in childish handwriting which said, “ Mister, you left this behind. Your friend George”
Somewhere within a span of two weeks, two children, completely different from one another, had conveyed to me the most profound message, that true gifts at Christmas are not bought at the store.