“Ninety Nine and not out” quipped my father, Gerald de Alwis, an indomitable spirit as he entered his 100th year in February. He hails from a quaint little hamlet in Galle chequered with verdant paddy fields namely Kalahe in the precincts of Unawatuna, famous for its pristine beaches. Born in 1922 in British Ceylon he was the youngest of three children born to Samuel George de Alwis and his wife Annie Jane Abeyasekera of Rockhill Estate Kalahe.
As the oldest living Richmondite today, my father had his primary and secondary education at the renowned Richmond College, Galle under the tutelage of great Wesleyan missionary principals from Britain considered titans of education. They clearly made a difference in his life. He would speak of these exemplary and indefatigable men reverently and of their sacrificial works well in his golden years with great devotion and admiration. They were Rev. DJ Dalby, Rev. J. Darrel, Rev. A.A. Sneath, Rev. WJT Small and our very own Mr. ER de Silva for their inestimable contributions on and off the academic field. He had the added privilege of boarding life at college for a season enabling him to nurture his talents for the college Athletics and football teams.
In his professional career Dad rose to the rank of a Civil Servant with humble beginnings as an English Trained teacher, a family tradition. He served the governments of British Ceylon transiting through to Public Service of Ceylon and Sri Lanka (Ceylon Administrative Service) spanning 40 years of fruitful service and winding up at retirement as a Director of Land Reforms Commission in 1980. His tenure at the Social Services Ministry led him to improve the share of the impoverished whilst he assisted the much admired philanthropist Mr. B R Dissanayake from Magalle in his endeavours to set up Sambodi Nivasa in the late 1960s for the physically and mentally challenged. He worked closely with the ineffable Statesman Wijayananda Dahanayake, fondly known as ‘Bunis Maama’ at the Ministry of Rural Development and Small Industries. As a child, I recall accompanying my father to rural centers occasionally. Here, women dexterously and rhythmically clicked and clacked simultaneously with their hands and feet at weaving contraptions, creating a work of art in a cottage industry that is almost extinct in the country today. In retirement too he joined World Vision to help in its relief efforts in poverty alleviation.
His deep spiritual commitment honed by his Pentecostal background was the foundation for disciplined life both professionally and socially. He showed by example the sacredness of ‘family’, for he believed that a family that prayed together stayed together. Dad was a loving father but a strict disciplinarian. He didn’t spare the rod occasionally for our misdemeanors. Through it all he instilled a sound value system for our sustenance and graceful living.
Growing up with bare necessities in a world devoid of social media or TV, we gravitated to the great outdoors. We eagerly awaited the luxury of train-journey holidays, dad meticulously planned to exotic locations in the Island with the railway warrants he earned. They were often at ordinary ‘holiday bungalows’ which turned out extraordinary! And to feed his small army of five children, two spinster aunts Dora and Lily with mum and dad, he ensured they packed sufficient provisions, carefully tucked away in the train! In the beautiful Jaffna peninsula, we took respite at an Ashram before visiting the delightful island of wild ponies in Delft riding the waves in a jam packed ferry from Kankesanthurai after an exhilarating dip in the famous Keerimalai springs abutting the expansive Indian Ocean. And the Bottomless Well in Putthur with its spine-tingling tales
A teetotaler his ‘Mantra’ for longevity was four ‘W’s which underpinned his simple lifestyle – Worship daily the Almighty, Water, drink in plenty the river of life, Work to earn your daily bread and Walk your way to good health. And his adult grandchildren would mischievously quip “Grampa, what about Wine to make merry and Women -- God’s gift to mankind?”
A man of great simplicity, he didn’t dress to impress. He called a spade none other! He championed causes for the poor, loved the great outdoors and a taste for adventure. Walking was second nature for he outlived its benefits. In his retirement, he enjoyed travelling the world over. An avid reader, he read from cover to cover many times over the Holy Bible his ‘Book of life’s Instruction’. Likewise his ‘second bible’ he claimed was the works of Shakespeare. He brought poetry to life; and Cassabianca, an epitome of obedience and bravery, takes me on an emotional journey even today. A prolific writer he authored and published his ‘Life of Prayer Miracles’ in his early eighties as a fitting tribute to God’s goodness in his life.
He lived frugally to give his hard earned money mostly away! A creature of habit he’d draw water to bathe well into his old age! An early riser he extolled the virtues of ‘early to rise and early to bed’ and kick start the day with a song of praise akin to a ‘call to prayer’ from a minaret! These songs like ‘paan chunes’ are a ‘fixture’ in my brain even today
Dad married my mother Stephanie the daughter of Crown Proctor ERP Goonetilleke from Panadura and his wife Elizabeth-Lavinia, sister of Sir Claude Corea. Their ‘arranged’ marriage spanned 63 years. Though both strikingly handsome they were like chalk and cheese in many ways; indeed opposites attract! Mum was a docile and gentle soul! And Dad was everything that she was not! Their union produced five children, six grandchildren and two great grandchildren. Mum and Dad endured their storms with resilience to pull through together to ride the tough times. When mum was riddled with excruciating and crippling rheumatoid arthritis in her forties I saw dad’s steel and devotion. The loss of their precious only son Gihan of 28 years was agonizing and devastating but dad’s faith like Job’s, never faltered. In their twilight years’ Mum and Dad sat beside each other for endless hours in deafening silence, yet, in that silence was their deep communion. When his life’s faithful partner of 63 years passed on six years ago, dad’s memory nearly froze in shock. Although he enjoyed robust health throughout, at the age of 90 he was given a second chance at life by the moped riding unassuming and benevolent physician Kumar Fernando and at 94 he went under the scalpel of a ‘world class’ Urologist in Prof. Srinath Chandrasekera for another miraculous divine intervention.
And now in his advancing years at almost one hundred, as he fervently awaits the ‘final call’ to that heavenly abode, our roles have reversed. As I tuck him to bed each night and sing his favourite chorus into his ear assuring him that he is not alone, I recall my own childhood. With a heart brimming with gratitude I thank God for affording me this incredible privilege to return the favour!