By Karen Stein
In America birthdays are a big deal. Children are always coming up to tell me when their birthday is, how many more days they have to wait, how they are planning to celebrate it in the coming year, and how fun it was in the past. Adults are forever asking children: "How old are you?" And children are always asking each other, "How old are you?"
I never really thought much about this until I met Miatta. Miatta does not know how old she is because Miatta doesn't know when her birthday is. It was never recorded. When that frequent and disturbing question is asked of her, she comes up with a variety of responses such as: "Don't ask me" or "I not telling".
Last summer, I invited Miatta to come to camp. I told her we would celebrate her birthday at camp. It would be at the end of the week, on Friday, July 3rd and she would be 11 years old.
"No! That's not my birthday," she stated emphatically.
"Miatta, we don't know when your birthday is so we picked July 3rd to celebrate it."
"I not coming" she retorted.
"You're coming." I replied.
"It's not my birthday. I not coming." This is the conversation that took place on the five-hour drive to camp along with, "I not coming to camp." Miatta tends to be overly cautious and hesitant when faced with anything unfamiliar or new. Then Miatta blurts out, "I want to ride a pony."
"Oh", I noted, "maybe someday."
We arrived at camp and Miatta meets the camp staff; young enthusiastic counselors eager to welcome her. Prior to our arrival, the staff told a group of teens about Miatta and her life without ever having a birthday. Deeply touched by the story, they were moved to take up a collection and ask the local church for donations to give Miatta the birthday party she never had, attempting to make up for ten years of no birthdays.
It was on the second day of camp when Miatta began telling the staff that she was going to have a birthday party on Friday. Hmmm, she seemed to have changed her mind.
The big day began with a mystery trip to the camp next door. Miatta was given an opportunity to ride a horse, a dream come true, except …… she was afraid. She was not going to get up on that enormous and terrifying horse, No Way!
"It's okay, Miatta", everyone encouraged, "the horse is gentle."
"My stomach hurts", she moaned as she bent over in pain. We tried all sorts of encouragement. Nothing seemed to convince her.
"All right, I'll get up on the horse I told her. She knew I was not "physically" adept from spending a week at camp with me, where on one occasion I was holding her hand to help her down the hill, and instead I stumbled, fell and dragged her down with me. She roared with laughter all the way back to the cabin. Therefore, if I could ride this horse, then anyone can, was my logic. I mounted the horse, showed no fear, no "visible" pain, smiled, and invited Miatta to do the same.
"No!" She would not budge.
It was now time for the camp director to try his expertise at motivating reluctant campers. "Miatta" he offered, "If you get up on that horse, you can have a lollipop from the lollipop tree." Well, this was an interesting proposal, and while she was thinking about it, he upped the ante to two lollipops.
She seized the opportunity and replied, "Three".
"It's a deal".
Miatta got up on the horse lickety-split. She smiled radiantly at us and declared, "I not scare."
That was just the beginning of the long sought after birthday.
Miatta and some of the other kids watched a movie while the camp director drew up a map for them to follow in search of the lollipop tree. As promised, Miatta selected three lollipops. She returned to me with her treasure and I invited her to go to the lake for a swim, her favorite activity at camp. We rode down to the lake in the golf cart. Upon our arrival we found the entire camp staff, campers, and volunteers all gathered together to greet Miatta with a joyous "Happy Birthday" exultation. The waterfront area was decorated with balloons, carnival games, and a bounce house that was inflated and ready for eager children to jump into and release the excitement of the day. Miatta was the first to take a swing at the piñata strung up between the trees. And that's not all.
Later that evening, a talent show, or "fiesta" took place. Miatta got up and sang a song for the whole camp and when she finished an elaborate birthday cake with lit candles was brought to her. As she blew out the candles, "Happy Birthday" was sung to Miatta for the first time in her life. She was then escorted to the table in the back of the hall covered with presents. There were toys and clothes, and a suitcase so she had a respectable way to carry her belongings from now on.
Miatta was given the ultimate gift of a birthday celebration or…….was it all of us who received the ultimate gift of giving to Miatta.