Celebrating birthdays in an orphanage bittersweet for we who love them

If birthdays are a time for reflection, even for the young, what do they make of the unfamiliar festivities?
Mitch Albom

Mitch Albom

May 5, 2022

The other night, the kids at the orphanage sang the final notes of the last song of devotion, and without missing a breath, immediately launched into:

Happy birthday to you

Happy birthday to you

Happy birthday Djuline

Happy birthday to you…

They continued with the “How old are you now?” verse and counted until 17, Djuline’s new age. A shy girl by nature, Djuline stood in the middle, wearing a long green t-shirt, absorbing the song with an embarrassed smile. Two boxes of cake were then opened, both with her name spelled out in the icing. And the kids lined up to get a slice and a napkin.

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Djuline celebrates her birthday on May 4th

All birthdays are like this at the orphanage. They have to be. You can’t overplay one and underplay another. Everyone gets a song. Everyone gets a cake. The young ones get to spend the day wearing the “birthday crown,” a colorful felt coronet that signifies today is your special moment on the calendar.

I’ve been thinking about birthdays lately, perhaps because mine is later this month. And I realize that, in the life of an orphan, birthdays are both a highlight and a casualty.

And I can never really know which way a child is viewing them.

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Moise enjoys his birthday cake, Danois, and Manno

Little-known beginnings

Djuline came to us when she was 6 or 7. The story was that her parents had been lost during the earthquake and she had been cared for by neighbors for several years. The man who brought her to us claimed to not know much more than that. He said he had been chosen to make the trip and deliver her. He barely knew her name.

This is not an uncommon tale. There are times when the children we take in don’t even have birth certificates, so knowing a factual birthday is an impossibility. In cases like that, we may have to invent a date for paperwork purposes. And from that year forward, that’s the day the child gets a cake and candles.

There is a bittersweet overtone to all of this. Think about the birthdays in your own life. Special trips that may have been made. Special fusses for a Sweet Sixteen, or a Bar Mitzvah. Maybe one year, they threw you a surprise party. Maybe one year you celebrated at a beach, or a ski resort, or Disneyland.

That’s a stark contrast to the cookie cutter way we have to mark birthdays at the orphanage. Don’t misunderstand. The kids love the fuss. They grin awkwardly when they’re being serenaded. They pose for the cake photos and immediately ask to see them on the screen. Certain kids will approach you and gush, “Guess how old I am?”, proud of their new number.

New lives

But it’s not the same as in other families. We can’t get out an album and look at baby pictures. We can’t sit back and remember the ride to the hospital, how many hours of labor, or some funny anecdote that happened along the way. My own father used to punctuate the story of my birth with a comment the doctor made as he was leaving the hospital. Upon spotting my father in the waiting room, he said, “I see where he gets his ears.”

OK, it’s a bit embarrassing, but it’s a story. It’s my story. Our kids, sadly, don’t have those. They are missing the personal touch. I sometimes wonder if birthdays aren’t a melancholy experience because of that. Perhaps they wonder every year where the family is that witnessed their birth. Where is the mother that brought them into the world? Where is the father that was supposed to watch over and protect them? Are they out there somewhere, remembering what this day means? Do they still care?

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Marc holds his birthday cake as Gaelson leans on his shoulder; Jimmyna holds Jerry.

We speak to our kids about this often. We encourage them to share such feelings. Not to bottle them up. But you can’t crawl inside a heart and pull out what you wish. Many kids keep such thoughts to themselves. We have to respect that.

In the meanwhile, we make the fuss that we can. The cakes are really good (we now have a wonderful baker on our nanny staff named Miss Sabina) and the songs are sung with passion and love. We celebrate birthdays, but we are really celebrating lives, new lives, with new and incredible possibilities. That’s the icing, I suppose, sweet in its own right.

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