Awethu watched his cousins, from big to small, playing in the sea. They looked so happy. Carefree. None of the adults appeared to be worried. In fact, a good number of them were right in there, splashing too.
His father tapped him on the shoulder with a soccer ball. “Son, come and kick a few with me.”
“Sorry, Tata, I’ve got a headache.”
“What’s this?” his mama said. She got up from her chair and ran over to where Awethu sat on his towel, under one of the umbrellas. She laid a hand on his forehead. “You don’t look flushed.”
He tried to wave her off, but she kept fussing, holding his cheeks between two hands. “You need to drink something.”
“Mama, I’m fine.”
She sucked her teeth, and his father brought over a bright blue sports drink. “Here, my son, drink this.”
Both parents watched him like he was a baby trying to drink from a bottle for the first time. “I’m fine,” he insisted.
His parents looked at each other, and some silent communication ran between them, before they looked back at him. “Nuh-uh,” his mother said. “You take it easy. It could be heat stroke.”
Awethu decided this was not the time to point out that he could be a lot cooler if they allowed him to get properly wet.
“Perhaps, my wife,” said Tata, “we should do the cake early. That way he can go back to the house and lie down.”
She nodded and rose to her feet. With a loud clap of her small hands, and a high pitched whistle from between her teeth, she beckoned everyone back for cake.
Sixteen candles blazed across the smooth expanse of the large chocolate cake. “Happy birthday to you…”
Same song, every year. Everyone knew the tune. His smaller cousins beamed, as his older cousins looked bored. But it was his mother, her face as she sang, looking as if she was singing church hymns to Jesus.
He looked away, finding his eyes settling on the shoreline, as the water licked the sand, rolling in and out, as if moving along to a gentle lullaby.
“Come home,” the breeze beckoned.
I wish I was home, he thought, right before he blew out each and every candle with a single, mighty breath.
His mother clapped as if he’d done something clever. “So big and strong,” she beamed.
Awethu looked away, feeling his cheeks heat up, grateful his complexion wouldn’t reveal his flush.
“It’s time,” his mother said.
“Let’s cut the cake first,” Awethu suggested.
His young cousins squealed in approval.
“We don’t mess around with tradition,” his mother said. She held out her hand, and the look on her face demanded obedience.
He slid his left hand into her right, as his father grasped him on the other side. The entire family, from his eldest auntie, to his youngest cousin, paraded down to the sea in a solemn procession, as if they were a church group gearing up for a baptism.
This is ridiculous, he thought. But the closer they got to the water, the more he felt an urge to have his feet wet, even if that was all they would give him. For just that touch, that small joy … maybe it was worth this humiliation.
Tell us: Do you think Awethu is being too grumpy? Or would you be embarrassed too if your family treated you this way?