Jadwiga used to announce this every morning at breakfast as she stirred milk into her coffee in the mug with the cat on it.
“B-b-b bir-day, shanana nana. Cococococa.” Cococococa was Marc's name for me. Whether or not it was my birthday, Marc liked to chant B-b-b bir-day, shanana nana. Cococococa this all day long. On the toilet, while he was shaving, and while he was slicing his breakfast banana. Birthdays were a big deal at my L’Arche house where I lived with five adults with intellectual disabilities. Weeks ahead of time, Nathalie, our head of house, would make sure the L’Arche workshop was preparing a beautiful homemade card for you, along with a Happy Birthday banner. You got to invite your favourite people, request your favourite meal and pick the kind of cake you wanted. My favourite food is Indian, and from her years living with Muslim families in Madagascar, Nathalie knew how to make it from scratch. Homemade samosas, papads, chana masala. Eight, nine years later, I can still remember how delicious it was.
Before cake, it was L’Arche tradition to have a birthday prayer. If you weren’t into Christianity, then they wouldn’t read anything from the Bible. But at the time, I was trying to get a thing going on with Jesus and I didn’t mind. For my twentieth birthday, Nathalie picked a verse from the Beatitudes, in the Gospel of Matthew. The line went, “Blessed be the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Since my twentieth birthday, I have definitely drowned myself in cynicism, negativity and self-deprecation for days, weeks or months on end. During such periods, it is nice to remember that somebody once looked at me and decided I had a pure heart, and that I would see God.
After the bible verse which was short and sweet, Madeleine read a poem that Judith, one of our assistants had helped her write. Madeleine came to L’Arche when she was in her early fifties. Coming to L’Arche, she had all these big dreams. She wanted to learn to read and write, and maybe get a boyfriend and learn to take the bus by herself. Whenever we went to church, she would hold the hymn book open and concentrate so intently on the words, dying to be able to understand. It took her a long time to accept that not all her dreams would come true. Still, she wrote really wonderful poems.
Madeleine’s poem began with, “A twentieth birthday is a special day, and you are a very special person.” I will keep it forever. Another L’Arche tradition during birthday prayers was to pass a candle around the table. When it was your turn with the candle, you gave thanks for the things you loved about the person. Some people gave thanks to God, and some people just gave thanks. It all sounds so cheesy and yet, it ended up being pretty perfect.
Madeleine always gave a big speech that was similar to her poems. And thank you, Erica for taking us to the library. And thank you, Erica for that time we walked all the way from… Usually we had to tap her on the shoulder to get her to wrap it up.
Jimmy, a new L’Arche member liked to make speeches too. He was obsessed with Power Rangers, and with me as well. At every birthday, he made fun of me about the time I was having dinner at another L’Arche home and I stuck my hair in my mouth. “Remember, I asked you if you wanted ketchup? I have to tell your mother about that.”
“B-b-birday, cocococoCA, shanana-na-na,” Marc would say a few times. Then he would take my hand and whisper, “Cococococa,” one more time.
Isabelle loved Jesus and prayers. She was the same age as me. Born with cerebral palsy, Isabelle doesn’t move or talk that much, though she laughs and smiles a great deal and says yes and no with her eyes. At my birthday, Nathalie held the candle in front of her face and she broke into hysterics. Over and over again, her eyes looked up.
No matter whose birthday it was, Jadwiga said just about the same thing. "Awe, what should I say? Same as Madeleine. Happy birthday. Keep up the good health. Keep up the good work in L'Arche."
In Halifax, I picked up on a tradition of doing the same number of sun salutations as the age you are turning. Some people also do this many backbends. I tried this tradition for a couple of years and it was fun. Here in Mysore, you can hardly expect the crowds to wait for you as you whip off your age in sun salutations and backbends. But although there is no official birthday tradition, Mysore is just one big birthday party anyways. In most cases, I would advise you that not everyone is as happy as they appear on the Internet. And yet, here I am, and my face and the insides match.
|Fake Rebellious Yoga Selfie I|
The joy is real.