Complete with soda, too much food, cake and extended family, the pomp of the birthday celebration August 1st was the same as any other I’ve been to but the circumstance was different. It wasn’t my birthday but it was the anniversary of the coolest thing that has ever happened to me. The coolest thing by far.
During the summer of ’05 I volunteered for an NGO in Kibera, one of the largest slums in Nairobi and East Africa. My project finished before the date of my departure so much of my time was dedicated to letting children pet my milky skin, spending time with people, and doing my best to lighten the mood whenever inappropriate. Up to nothing of note, the head of the organization summoned my volunteer title and volunteered me to paint the clinic. Situated within the slum, the clinic provides basic health care on a sliding scale for residents of the community and was in the process of formal registration in the hopes of getting free vaccines from the government. Regulations stipulated that the clinic be white.
Replete with a coverall, paint and brushes, turpentine, no clue, drop clothes, and a foot stool, I set to work. Unlike my jokes or vague development lingo painting the clinic was a tangible contribution. It made me feel good. The work I did in the clinic on August 1st, 2005, however, made me feel even better.
Hopped up on turpentine fumes, I was brushing away, a veritable painting machine -- the Arnold of slum clinic painting like you’d never believe. Most of the patients just stared at my like I was nuts. One patient was different, in far too much pain to notice the connect the dots pattern spackled on my face, eight centimeters preoccupied.
Another volunteer burst into my studio – there is going to be a baby she effervesced. Flashing back to the Miracle of Life video in Mr. Aptekar’s class my initial reaction was: eww. Another couple of minutes and I poked my head in to ask the nurse to ask the woman giving birth if it would be ok for me to sit in. She said yes. With the paint still on my face I gloved up, put on a white coat and did what I thought I was supposed to. “You are doing great momma,” I cooed in English to a Kswahili speaking woman in labor. She froze me with a look, “shut up boy, this is not a sitcom, this is number six and the last” curtly communicated her wrinkled face. My pit stains continued to grow.
I meant well but took the hint, content to hold her hand and wipe her forehead. With a strong push, there was another life in the world. In that moment, there was a presence in the room bigger than any individual – in the balance of the Earth, creation, destruction, life, death, I saw a child born. There was no conservation of mass in this equation. A new baby in the world, a new person. Slimy, gross and more beautiful than anything I have ever seen, the recently converted amphibian was handed to me. Thirteen seconds old. My hands were quaking. A new person in the world and I was holding him, before the mother, before the father, as he was taking his first breaths.
As the nurse focused on the mom, I focused on the baby wrapping him in a sweatshirt, cleaning him up, in awe. Newborn topped with a hat, the mother in recovery holding her new son, I was now up to effervescing, writing the word “baby” all over the walls of my masterpiece, a best attempt at trapping a the enormity what just happened.
At the end of the day, exhausted, I cleaned up, washed my hands, got dressed and went to thank the mother. Babbling in a mixture of English and almost Kswahili, I told her thank you, thank you, and thank you, my best attempt failing again, unsure of what really just happened but knowing I was forever indebted to her sharing his birth with me.
Asante sana, mother. I can’t thank you enough.
Your welcome, she said, in a tone of voice that told me how tired her soul was. HIV positive, like her husband, neither employed, there was now another mouth to feed.
What is his name?
She looked up at me, her eyes glowing, a smile more sincere than any I’ve ever seen, 'Baby Aaron.
August 1, 2006 was baby Aaron’s 1st birthday -- happy birthday baby Aaron.