Today is Michael’s birthday. He must be 17 years old now. I see the reminder on my electronic calendar, put there by my better half. He also has made note of Natasha and Shelley’s birthdays as well. A simple reminder, a little detail, but it’s a dagger in my heart. A wound that although scarred over, still aches.
Six years ago our little family joined several other members of our church on a mission trip to the Bahamas. Before you begin picturing sandy beaches and palm trees swaying to the beat of calypso music, let me emphasize “mission” trip. We were on our way to a week at All Saints AIDS Camp, a once leper colony now converted to housing for Bahamian AIDS sufferers.
The place was located in a desolated area outside of Nassau, with a checkpoint at the entrance to ensure safety, I suppose. The camp itself was a collection of ramshackle wood shelters that housed one, sometimes two adults. The men were separated from the women, but all ages were mixed. These were the forgotten. Here was the hemorrhaging woman, the paralytic by the pool, the Samaritan woman by the well. People arrived at the camp not necessarily by choice, but usually dropped off by family members or friends once the diagnosis was given. AIDS is a cruel disease. In the Caribbean, it is hateful. Many people still believe you can catch the virus by breathing the same air or touching an infected person. So here, at All Saints Camp were the diseased, the ostracized and the reviled.
We arrived with children in tow, men and women ready to take on what we could. We scrubbed their kitchen, weeded their stony gardens, cooked meals, and repaired what structures we could – all in what seemed to be bazillion degrees. We sponge bathed some of the residents, and washed and braided hair. We took them for walks (those who were ambulatory), planned a party with cake and ice cream and spent time in their suffocating rooms listening to their stories.
We anticipated all this. We felt called to serve this community in this way at this time.
What we could not have imagined was that we would also fall in love while there.
You see, the camp housed children as well. Some were HIV positive, some were there with a parent, some abandoned. Michael, Natasha and Shelley were siblings ages 9, 7 and 5. They had different dads, but their mom had been a resident of the camp. HIV positive, she had a problem with drug addiction and prostitution, and so had been asked by the camp director to either clean up her act or leave. She chose to leave. And left her babies behind.
When we met the children, we played and talked and cuddled. Oh, how they loved to cuddle. At first shyly and then with increasing confidence, they would follow us around asking to help, asking for a hug, asking about our lives back home and yes, asking for yet another hug.
After a week, my better half and I knew what we needed to do. We didn’t really even have to talk about it, we arrived at the same conclusion and voiced it to one another almost simultaneously. We wanted to look into the possibility of adopting the children.
Although the time to go home cam quickly, we promised to keep in touch and so we did. And began the process of formal adoption. Another trip to see the children was made which included taking them for a full medical workup and beginning all the paperwork with a Bahamian attorney.
The children were excited, we were thrilled and our daughters began to make plans for welcoming their new little brother and sisters.
After three intense months of constant negotiations with embassies, physicians and lawyers, the children’s mother surfaced and claimed her children. Through a local attorney she made it known to us that she would be willing to “sell” us her children for specified amount.
And that was that.
Just as quickly, the door slammed shut. The conversation ended with her demands. The possibility evaporated when she suddenly picked the children up from the camp she had abandoned them as infants and disappeared.
Although we tried every way we could, we never were able to track Michael, Natasha and Shelley down. But we never forget. We never forget the three children who could have been raised in our home, children we love deep in our hearts and whose names we whisper in our prayers.
I try to imagine myself with a 17-year-old son and two little girls in the throes of adolescence. And I can’t. It’s almost as if God wiped that bit of my imagination away so as to soften the blow.
But that’s okay. I’ve learned to let go. And yet I’m still silently singing happy birthday to dear Michael, Natasha and Shelley. And always will.