My Excellency was going to turn 40. She and the 3 children had just flown in to Cambodia for a 3 week vacation and we were going to celebrate her birthday in Phnom Penh, the place where I was working for the past two years.
It was high time that she had to find some relief, after all the two years of parenting the 3 children, looking after my parents and carrying on the burdens of a family alone. She was as tough as nail and she could organize things orderly, though often times amidst some screaming and a strict code of orders-to-march for the children in terms of school work, extra-mural activities, going out on late nights and the allocation of leisure time. Behind her back they would call her Tiger Mom but it was just a childish label with no malice.
Anyway this would be a great treat for the whole family.
So I asked my secretary to arrange a birthday cake for her with 4 candles. My secretary was to bring the cake to the villa where I lived and we would sing her a Happy Birthday song and she could then preen her plumage of feathers like a peacock fanning out her beautiful iridescent green and blue colored tail fins with a hundred eyes, basking in full glory in front of her husband and the 3 children.
After a hearty sumptuous dinner at the 5-star Cambodiana Hotel near the Tonle Sap lake, we went back to our villa on the occasion for her to declare that she had grown older and (hopefully) wiser by another year. Lo and behold and to my horror, there were 4 candles but they were each 10 inches long, not the usual 2 inches one that I had expected for a round birthday cake of only 9 inches in diameter.
I was usually very cautious living my days in Phnom Penh, a country that had just seen a free election by the UNTAC, a country that had just emerged from many depleting civil wars of many decades, a country strewn with land mines and a country where guns were everywhere. I always checked for small details and was always on high alert though I was not highly strung on unnecessary worries or tension. I seldom assumed, as some hot-shot management gurus had said that to ASSUME was to make an ASS of U & ME. But I missed on this one.
Then on second thought, I could not lay blame on my secretary. She had not been to anywhere outside of Phnom Penh perhaps and celebrating a birthday with a cake was alien to most Khmers at that time. Since coming to Phnom Penh, I too had learned that it was not wise to “Think out of the box”, as some management gurus had propounded in the courses I had attended. Think and think inside the box would have served me better.
With mouth agape, I showed the 4 big candles to My Excellency and the children and held up the big sticks in my fingers as if I was going to grace the momentous event of lighting the torch on the fire cauldron of the Great Stadium at the commencement of an Olympic Game.
As I placed the candles on the cake and lit it, they laughed and laughed and laughed.
And as we sang her the birthday song, the Heavens above opened up, angels sang in sweet mellifluous chorus accompanied by the soft twang of a lone Harp and the cymbals in unison and the enchanting melody was carried in undulating tunes far above the heavenly skies and far below the motherly earth.
When the whole family laughed together, the heavenly angels would smile and laugh too.