Andrew Dys

Birthday boy seeks gift of wisdom

The search for what a birthday means started in Fort Mill at the gas station on S.C. 160 where some guy recently won $500,000 playing the Pick 5.

I figured that because all the guy would tell the lottery people is he opened a fortune cookie in early September and it told him to let it roll, and he did and won a cool half-million, that he was wise.

Plus, I wanted to ask him, "Lemme hold $50."

I am like that cousin at every reunion who asks, "Lemme hold $50." Like that cousin, I never pay anybody back.

The guy still is unknown and anonymous. I didn't get the $50.

So I went to lunch at Springfield Elementary School, where my youngest daughter is in kindergarten. It was mismatch day, Spirit Week, and my oldest daughters had already told me my shirt didn't match my tie, again, so I would fit right in.

I waited in the hallway for the class, then the teacher led the line toward the cafeteria.

"Happy birthday," Mrs. Clark told me. "Your daughter told me. About six times. Maybe seven."

I walked with the tiny kids to the lunchroom -- I was at the back of the line -- then sat at a special parents table with my daughter.

"He's 41," she told everybody. "He's a grown up."

Then I got the evil eye from a real grown-up for throwing french fries up in the air and catching them in my mouth.

The kids lined up to leave, and I got a kiss from my daughter and I thought, "Yep, this is what birthdays are supposed to be; that's my present." One little boy said, "Hey, I lost my front tooth," and proved it. Another said, "Hey, mine fell out right here at lunch yesterday," then flashed a Jack-O-Lantern grin. Then another boy elbowed past and opened up to show he lost both top teeth and had nothing but pink gums.

"Cool, huh?" he asked.

Sure was.

But the answer to what a birthday should be and what wisdom should come with it was still elusive -- apparently french fries tricks to get laughs from 5-year-olds meant wisdom was even more elusive than I thought.

So I went to see Martha Elam who works at Rock Hill Health Care. One time, Martha invited me to cover downhill wheelchair races at the assisted living center, and you don't forget real friends like that.

"I'll find you the meaning of birthday," Elam said.

We went into a back wing to a room and in a chair sat a woman named Henrietta Funderburk. Tuesday was her birthday, just like me.

"I'm 87 today I don't mind telling you," she said.

"I'm from Edgemoor," she said.

"Worked 37 years at the Celanese," she said.

In another chair was her niece, Beth Edwards, and in another chair a nephew, Doug Edwards. The two come almost every day.

In a fourth chair was Elizabeth Ferguson, Beth Edwards' mother and Funderburk's sister. Her older sister. Age 89 and a half. One sister lives in room 214, the other in room 314.

It was a party if there ever was one. There was laughter and presents of slippers and perfume. There were those "Happy Birthday" napkins with the bright colors.

If it's a birthday, then there must be cake. And there was a chocolate cake with chocolate icing that can send you into a diabetic coma just with a longing look.

"I had two pieces -- so far," said the magical Henrietta Funderburk. "I'm saving some for later."

And then this lady told me words that showed I had found what I was looking for, because people like her, who have lived, know.

"I got what I wanted most of all for my birthday today," Funderburk told me. "I got a lot of love."

And finally, I -- someone who can't make it through kindergarten lunch without trouble -- knew what birthdays are about.