He had expected the day to feel like any other. He wasn’t the sentimental sort himself, but his daughter had insisted.
“What do you mean you won’t cut a cake? It is your GOLDEN birthday!” she had said, both her eyes and her mouth in oval shapes of surprised indignation. “I won’t have my birthday party if you won’t have yours.”
He knew he was cornered. There were not many things against which he could be held hostage, but his daughter’s happiness was certainly one. She loved her own birthday parties immeasurably, but she was also stubborn. He couldn’t let her give up her birthday party. Her 11th one was around the corner.
Such a little gift she was, in every sense of the word. He had married late, and didn’t intend to have more children after his first child, a son. And yet, his daughter had arrived, five years later, and his life had changed forever.
His son was now sixteen, and reminded him too much of himself- too impulsive, too invested, too passionate.. a temperament he himself had worked hard to shed. They didn’t spend much time together- neither enjoyed it very much.
“Will you, now?” asked his daughter while he had seemed lost elsewhere.
“Ok,” he said.
“Wheeeee! Mamma, we must invite everyone!!” she squealed and headed off into her room, perhaps to put her ideas on paper.
His wife kept watching him tentatively, perhaps incredulously, for a bit.
“So.. a guest list…” she ventured.
Her husband looked at his hands for a few seconds and nodded.
A smile toyed at the wife’s lips- this situation was ridiculous. Her husband mostly had only work colleagues in this city, all of whom he rabidly detested. His work and profit depended on how effectively he towered over them. So how would that work- them watching him wearing a birthday hat and blowing candles on a cake!
“No work colleagues,” he said. And now he got up and left.
His wife had resigned that this would turn out to be some kind of painful event, which everyone will just wait to be done with, when she suddenly remembered something.
“Your friend from college- the one we bumped into last month at that wedding.. he’s not far from here..” she said.
His eyes shone, “Oh we used to be partners in crime. I used to be so different then, you know. I was so carefree.. so was he…
“But,” he dropped his eyes, “we didn’t part on a good note.”
Another day she remembered something else, “Your second cousin recently moved to the city- you have always been on good terms, isn’t it?”
“Yes, because I always put up an effective façade before the extended family. It was always stifling,” he said.
And so the days went on, the wife would rack her brains to recall people she had met who had been close to her husband at some point, and the husband would hand her a mixed bag of his emotions on the relationship.
He never said ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to any of these ideas, much to his wife’s frustration. “Okay then, if he wants it to be a surprise,” she thought.
The day came- no expense had been spared on the location of the party. The family was all smiles, but the man of the day paused and swallowed hard before he made his final step into the party.
He looked around the room, and then looked at his wife in astonishment. She smiled.
He leapt ahead, and grabbed the shoulder of an old man standing close by. “Sir!” he said.
It was his Maths tutor from 12th grade- the one who had given him a physical beating in sheer frustration on occasion. The old tutor now smiled kindly.
Then there was the man who had been his fierce opponent for the post of Sports secretary in college. They had settled on who would get the post, over a match of basketball. The former Sports secretary now smiled at our birthday boy. They nodded and shook hands.
There was the girl, now a woman of course, who had been his first love. They had dated, then grown up into very different people and parted ways. His face lit up, and eyes softened as he hugged her, “Thanks for coming.”
There was also the cantankerous relative who had lent him money when he first decided to start his own business. This relative had been a constant topic of conversation and pre-occupation for him day and night during those early days- how and when will he be able to pay him back? How can he stall him a little more?
The birthday boy chuckled at the sight of him. The relative still looked a little cross, as he always did.
There was also there, of course, the college friend- his partner in crime. And they hugged, and patted each other’s back, though they hadn’t parted on a good note all those years back.
He felt he re-lived a lifetime going around that room. No the second cousin wasn’t there.. Remarkable who had made the list!
And now his daughter pulled him away, “You must cut the cake! Everyone- around the cake please!”
The birthday boy picked up the knife, as everyone gathered round.
“You must say something, Daddy!” came the little voice again.
“Oh, okay sure. Thank you all so much… for coming here today,” he looked around the room, “Thank God for my wife, who knew to call you. Some of you may even be wondering why you are here today, given we haven’t been in touch forever. In fact, many of us didn’t necessarily have pleasant relationships when we were in touch either..”
Some chuckled at his bluntness. None looked away.
He continued, “And yet, all of you in this room, have brought me more joy today than I would get even from people who may be counted my friends today. Because you see… you have seen me.. Without the mask, as they say… as who I wish I could still be. I don’t know if I am still that- it’s impossible to tell, because I don’t let anyone see me anymore.. but all of you here today- you remind me of who I am, and still could be…”
His voice broke. A single drop of tear escaped his eye- he let it fall free.