Every time I see this kid, she’s taller. All of 4-feet-8, her mother says, as Annie outgrows another wheelchair. On her 11th birthday, Annie is a picture of a healthy, happy kid, with snazzy nails painted in alternating colors of pink and purple because this girl loves pink and having her nails done. Her coal black hair is pulled into a sleek ponytail, which bounces as her mother wheels her over bumps to a lone picnic table at Ancil Hoffman Park for cupcakes and presents.
Uncle Dick and I were two of three grownups and one baby invited to an outdoor celebration at the beginning of Memorial Day weekend to celebrate this child who continues to amaze everyone she meets with her fortitude, bright mind and killer smile.
If you don’t know the story of how Annie and Nikki Cardoza became a two-person family, you can read about that here. Nikki asked me to accompany her to China in June 2016 to bring home a child Nikki had met years earlier when Nikki had volunteered at orphanages in China. She was adopting Annie and needed an extra hand—in every way—with a child who was thought to be 7, though no one had any idea of her actual birthday.
For on May 22, 2010, a skinny, infant curved in a backward U shape was found under an overpass in Changsha, China. She was taken to Butterfly House, a children’s hospice in the city, where, against all odds of survival, this starving child with cerebral palsy, was nursed and loved back to life. She was given the age of 1, as well as her Chinese name Long Xin Zi (Joyful Purple Dragon) and her English name, Annie.
On June 20, 2016, Annie became the daughter of my friend, Nicole Cardoza, and their life adventure together began. As they approach their fourth anniversary together, they, too, have been sheltering in place for two months, as Annie attends school and does work online and Nikki, who works for the literacy nonprofit 916 Ink, works from home.
Annie, who cannot sit up by herself, walk, speak or take food by mouth, is a smart girl with amazing expressive capabilities—among them a communication board that looks like an iPad attached to her wheelchair. She looks at and can land on dozens of words and phrases to have the computer say “thank you” or “sleepy” or, yes, “happy birthday.” She’d just had speech therapy earlier in the day, and it takes a lot of energy to communicate this way, so we didn’t hear a lot of words in the computer’s girlish voice. But Annie’s grin does a lot of talking because, as the song from the musical bearing her name says, “You’re never fully dressed without a smile.”
And, when Nikki asked Annie whether to have cupcakes or presents first, Annie exhaled her “ha” (“yes!”) to “presents.” Smart girl.
Nikki invited Dick and me to the tiny gathering, along with her good friend Mari and her daughter Montserrat. Nikki and Mari met as journalism students at Sac State after Nikki returned from China and finished a bachelor’s degree in government.
And when I posted some photos on Facebook about her birthday, Annie got love and best wishes from around the world. From Anne and John Macpherson, who then lived in Hong Kong (now returned to their native New Zealand) and hosted us in their compact apartment: “Happy Birthday beautiful Annie. You have bought so much happiness and joy and I hope your birthday brings the same to you!”
And from Lyn Gould in England, the R.N. and founder of Butterfly House hospice in Changsha that saved Annie: “Happy birthday dear Annie, so joyful to see you being blessed with family, friends and LOVE. You are such a blessing to so many — you do my heart good XXXX.”
So many people who’ve followed Annie’s story sent best wishes, too, and I’m grateful to all of them. This kid is beloved by those who know her and by so many who don’t, as is her mama, who is the very definition of fortitude and determination. It’s not easy to be a single parent to a kid with disabilities, and Nikki perseveres over tremendous obstacles every day.
After presents, we turned to cupcakes. It turned out that no one had to worry about the possibly germy effects of blowing out candles on Nikki’s homemade cupcakes (nicely topped by two single candles that look like 11). It was breezy enough that we had to surround Annie so Nikki could light them, and then, as we finished singing “Happy Birthday,” the wind neatly extinguished the candles.
And though Annie has trouble swallowing and is fed differently, she can mouth some soft things—Popsicles are a favorite. So, it turns out, are cupcakes.
It took her a little while (I stood next to her, eating my cupcake and showing her my goopy tongue moving… don’t make the kid laugh while she’s eating, Aunt Jan), but Annie used her tongue to masticate that sweet stuff and swallowed it just fine. Yay!
Dick and I are delighted to continue to be a part of Nikki’s and Annie’s extended family. This little spring celebration of the life of one of the strongest people I’ve ever met, who has survived so much and keeps on keepin’ on, left us feeling hopeful even in these most difficult days. Like all of us, Annie misses her friends at school and Nikki misses her work colleagues, but we’re here. We’re persevering, too, and celebrating the little milestones of life, grateful for every one.