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first person

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Illustration by Marley Allen-Ash

Thank you sir, whoever you are.

There was this one incident in my life, where I’ve wanted for a very long time, to be able to say thank you to the person involved. I hope that person will read this story and recognize himself.

My story happened in June, 1975. It began when my family, consisting of me, my husband and our two daughters, aged 14 and 15 at the time, applied to emigrate to Canada.

After years of long delays in getting our papers accepted for processing, we had reached the point where we were finally notified that we had successfully passed all immigration qualification and health requirements, and would be getting our emigration papers soon.

We immediately set about disposing of our household goods, car, etc., by selling them, so we would have sufficient money to pay for our flight from Sri Lanka to Canada and have enough left over to start our life in our new country.

Our government, however, had other ideas. We were allowed to use a small portion of the money to pay for the flight tickets, which meant a pricey foreign exchange to convert rupees to dollars. The rest of it, the greater portion, had to be deposited in a blocked bank account. We would not be able to withdraw any of this money unless we returned to the country for a visit.

Our family was allowed to withdraw $100 to take with us to get started on our new life. But even then, the funds were given in the form of $35 in traveller’s cheques, while $65 was sent directly to a bank account in Canada. Other than these cheques, the only cash we were allowed to bring was $16.

Of the four of us, only my husband had travelled abroad before. For me and the children, this was our first time out of the country and the first time to be travelling by plane.

As can be imagined, we were all very excited and amazed by everything new we were experiencing. We did not yet have TVs in our home country. So we were excited about watching the in-flight movies, which we had heard about from others who had been abroad.

On the long-haul, Canadian Pacific flight to Toronto, the stewardess came around to distribute the headphones to passengers. But we were in for a huge disappointment. Since we were flying economy class, we were told that the headphones cost $1 each.

The children looked at us longingly and asked if they could have a dollar for one headphone which they would share.

Knowing we had only $16 with us in cash until we reached Canada, my husband and I also knew that we could not afford to fritter away the money on movies or headphones – not even one set.

When we explained our dilemma to the children, they accepted it without any fuss. I felt so bad for them – the first thing they had asked for, we could not give them. I won’t blame them if they wondered if this whole adventure was going to be a fiasco instead.

Our disappointment must have shown clearly. A gentleman who was sitting in a seat close to us handed his headphones to the children. They were overjoyed! Having to share it did not bother them at all. Their faces lit up with joy. Seeing this, my face lit up with joy, too. Which movie they saw, I don’t remember. I do know the kids enjoyed every moment of it.

This incident definitely had a powerful effect on our children. We talked about this incident with the people we met in Canada. Their usual response was, “that’s a typical Canadian gesture.” After nearly 50 years in Canada, I now know exactly what that means.

When we landed in Toronto, we found that our plane had arrived late. We still had to meet with the immigration officers who had to process our papers before we could continue our journey to our final destination in Saskatchewan. This resulted in us missing our connecting flight.

We were horrified when told that we had to stay in a hotel for the night and resume our flight the next day. How on earth could we pay for a hotel, travel to the hotel and eat with our measly $16?

Fortunately, all those expenses were handled by the airline. They also contacted our relatives to explain that we would be arriving the next day. This was such a relief! We even dared to tip the porter 50 cents. If he had only known our circumstances, he probably would have refused to take it.

Our girls are now responsible adults who are always ready to help anyone who is in need. Their families have grown up with the same sense of generosity and kindness.

On that June, 1975 flight, I did thank the generous gentleman. At least I hope I did. I’m not sure, though, as I was flabbergasted by what he did. I cannot describe the man and I’m sure I’d never recognize him if I ever ran into him. The only thing I’m positive about is that I’ll forever remember the joy kindled in our hearts by this small act of kindness.

“Thank you, sir, whoever you are.” You brought untold joy to the lives of two little girls and their mother that day.

Kumari Wickremasinghe lives in Vancouver.