How will I develop my paid writing career after fulfilling a single one-year contract? I wondered. I also indulged sadness about a relationship that died long ago. Did he ever love me? Fear and sorrow had played a repetitive loop for the past 1.5 hours that I’d been trying to sleep … and though my body was exhausted, my mind showed no signs of pending rest.
The phone rang. 10:45. Who would call this late? I recognized the country code: Kenya.
Two weeks ago, the teacher at the primary school where I’d taught in Kenya asked for my cell phone number, so she could send me a text message sometime. She lacks electricity and running water, but she would find her way to send me a text message. This is the generous spirit of my dear friend, whom I have known for three years over two two-week visits to Nairobi, the place where she lives and teaches.
Tonight, pulled out of the fog of half-anxiety, half-sleep, I temporarily forgot her name. Eleanor? No, not Eleanor. Something like it. I was out of time, so I picked up the phone. “Hello?” “Hello, Katie!” “E-Evelyn?” That’s her name! Her warm, lilting laugh shone through her low voice, feeling melodious and light. It weighed about two pounds.
“The children want to sing something to you, Katie.” “HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU,” began 59 angelic voices in Kenyan (derived from English) accents, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU! HAPPY BIRTHDAY DEAR KATIE … HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU!” “Oh!” I started to say, before being interrupted with, “HOW OLD ARE YOU NOW? HOW OLD ARE YOU NOW? HOW OLD ARE YOU KATIE? HOW OLD ARE YOU NOW?”
I lay in bed, shocked. These sweet children have owned my heart since I met them almost three years ago. To have them call with birthday wishes – when I know they can afford so little, and are preoccupied with basic survival – restored my sense that there is goodness and love in the world, and that an ordinary birthday can unexpectedly become infused with meaning.