Twelfth Birthday

In June this year, the world held it’s breath as the news of the twelve soccer boys and their coach, stranded in the flooded Tham Luang cave, dominated our air-waves.
Caving experts from around the globe gathered in Thailand’s Chiang Rai district. Their first challenge, determining if the group had survived the treacherous conditions of the flooded cave and if so, locating them. Once found, the logistics to rescue the thirteen from the flooded Thai cave, referred to as a once in a lifetime operation, a daunting task.
What those boys and their coach experienced up until they were found and until they were all safely rescued, is unimaginable. Not to mention the kaleidoscope of emotions their families, anxiously waiting on the outside, endured. Often I asked myself how I’d cope in such circumstances. This story is inspired by one of the many news reports: a father longing for the safe return of his son who turned twelve while in the cave.

Twelfth Birthday

Every day, Coach scratches a tally-mark on the cave ceiling. Today, he adds the fifth mark. Five days trapped in this cave. What began as an adventure, quickly turned to disaster when the stormwater rose and blocked our escape. We’ve been sitting on this ledge for five days, watching the water rise. How much longer before it’s swamped? Coach tells us not to think like that. He says the water is receding. I wish I could believe him.
Today is my twelfth birthday, a birthday like I’ve never had before. It’s dark and cold and we have no food. No food for my birthday. No crumbed chicken or my favourite hot and spicy pork ribs or fried rice. No balloons or joking uncles and over-affectionate aunties, grabbing me and smothering me with kisses. Ugh! I used to hate that, now I’d give anything for a smothering aunty embrace. And no presents. Not much of a birthday, eh?
The best present of all would be to be rescued. Last night I dreamt about a light, a hazy-fuzzy light coming from the tunnel and distant voices. The light comes closer and the voices get louder then all the boys shout and cheer. I wake. No light, just darkness, this hopeless, oppressive darkness. And silence except for the sound of slapping water. I drop my head in my arms and quietly weep.
I sit away from the others on this rocky ledge. Should I tell the others it is my birthday today? Thoughts tumble through my mind. If I say it is my birthday, my team-mates and Coach will try to cheer me up. They’ll make corny jokes or worse, Coach will suggest a song. Coach doesn’t sing in tune and when he bursts into song to lift our spirits, we’re forced to join in just to drown him out. Believe it or not, our spirits are lighter after a bout of singing.
‘Best we stick to what we’re good at, eh lads, playing football’ Coach says each time and starts talking about moves we’ll practice once we get out. He talks about past games and future games. He’s good is Coach, good at distracting us, keeping us positive.
And if I say it’s my birthday, everyone will talk about their favourite birthday food. Or the best birthday they’ve ever had. Or what they’re wishing for on their next birthday. Nah, best not to say it’s my birthday. I pull my knees up to my chin, burying my head in my arms and lick away the salty tears. Images of my family flash through my mind.
“You alright, Mig? Why are you sitting alone? Come closer, try to keep warm.” Coach interrupts my inner dialogue.
I shrug. “Yeah, I’m fine, just a bit…” I mumble. I want to be left alone.
Coach nimbly scrambles on all fours across the ledge and plonks himself beside me. My eyes smart. I force back the tears but just like the flood waters, there is no halting them.
“Today… is…my…birthday.”
“Ah, your birthday. I have the perfect birthday song!” Coach says gleefully.
The other boys shuffle on their haunches, rubbing the sleep from their eyes. Some chuckle as Coach explains the song. How does he come up with these weird ideas?
“This is how the song will go,” he explains. “On my first birthday, my mother and father gave me… Then the next person will add the next age, repeat the presents from the previous verses, finishing with a new present. Last of all, it will be your turn, Mig. You’ll sing the last verse. At the end, we sing the whole song together as loud as we can. Got it?”
He gives me a jab in the ribs. “This will be fun!”
Why couldn’t I keep quiet? Why couldn’t I be brave?
“Okay, you’re first Tern.”
“On my first birthday, my mother and father gave me a rubber duck.”
“On my second birthday, my mother and father gave me a rubber duck and a toy train.”
“On my third birthday…
Every boy sings their verse, laughing as they struggle to remember the order of the presents.
It is my turn to sing this ridiculous song. I can’t fail. Think. Your birthday is today. What is it you most want? I stumble through the list… a rubber ducky, a toy train, a monkey, a bike, a skateboard, a pair of soccer boots, a pet crocodile, a Yankee’s baseball cap, a book about legends, a pair of glasses, a soccer ball, and… I hesitate and then it comes to me – and strength to get through this ordeal.
Coach heartily slaps my shoulder. “Awesome, Mig. Okay, now everyone together.” Our loud singing reverberates around our rocky enclave. Surely, someone on the outside will hear us. Perhaps we’ll see that light and hear those voices sometime soon.

And so our days in that dark place pass, often in silence, meditating or praying. We huddle together to keep warm and save energy and sip water that drips from the rocks above us. Days run into nights. Each day/night becomes heavier like a large boulder pressing on my chest, crushing me, robbing me and I haven’t the energy to push it away. I’m sure the others feel the same. Like them, I don’t speak about my fears.
“We need a song,” Coach announces and begins singing the birthday song backwards. The mood lightens. We sing the song again, adding a description to each present. A red rubber ducky, a talking toy train, a mischievous monkey, a buffalo on a bike, a sky-blue skateboard, a speedy pair of soccer boots, a cranky crocodile, a yodelling Yankee’s baseball cap, a boisterous book of legends, a pair of gigantic glasses, a superb soccer ball, and strength and self belief.
“I think we’ve got a number one hit here, boys,” Coach slaps my back.
We sing it over and over, louder and louder.
The boulder becomes lighter.
We talk about the Football World Cup that’s being played in Russia right now. We argue about who will win, and who will be knocked out. Some of the boys get quite heated about their favourite teams and players. They take bets on who will be in the final. I don’t care who is in the final: it would be great to see the final because that would mean we’d be out of here.
Or we share our dreams for our futures, our favourite family memory and, the food we most want to eat when we got out.
“Right now, I’d eat any food that’s on offer,” Adul says. “I’d eat crabs boiled in snake venom!”
“Yeah, that sounds really tasty,” Tern agrees. “I’d eat crocodile claws steamed in mud.”
“I fancy rotten eggs doused in curdled milk.”
“Yum! How about locusts boiled in the urine of water-buffalo.”
“Barbecued elephant droppings.”
“Wan-ton’s made with the brains and innards of a wild boar.”
“In a soup?”
“Yep.”

The days pass. With each day, my strength evaporates a little more, sucked into the darkness. We all have our moments of despair, of drawing our knees up to our chins, burying our heads and weeping quietly. Sometimes an arm flung around a shoulder is enough. At other times, a harsher remedy is needed like another song from Coach!
Coach tells his boyhood story. Orphaned at age ten, and at twelve, entering a monastery. My age. Imagine not having parents?
‘Your real family are your mates. True mates accept you for who you are, no matter what and it’s those mates who’ll guide you through any adversity.’
One of his favourite topics is the value of teamwork. Earlier today he said that us being here, stuck in this cave is just like being on the football pitch.
“On the pitch, we support each other, right? We know when to pass the ball or when to block an opposing team member allowing our team-mate to get through, right?”
“Huh?” says Adul. “I don’t get how it’s the same. It’s not as if we can kick a ball round in here, is it?” I agree with Adul. Coach has lost me on this one.
“Ah, but it is,” Coach continues. “Just like when your team-mate with the ball is at risk of an attack from an opposing player, what do you do? You intercept, right?”
“Yeah. So?”
“Your team-mate is vulnerable, isn’t he? And for his sake and the sake of the team and scoring that goal to win the game, every team member plays his part. Isn’t that what we do?”
“Yeah, but we’re not on the pitch now, are we?”
“But we are. It’s just a different pitch. We are all vulnerable, we all need support. And we all need to intercept from time to time. Any team is only as strong as the weakest link. Our survival is dependent on team-work.”
Adul nods, “Yeah, I ‘spose.”
I kinda get it. I’ll have to think some about it some more. He’s right in saying we have to support each other if we are to survive. But how will that get us rescued? Although there has been no more flooding, the water is still high. It hasn’t subsided enough for us to go back the way we came in and there are nine tally-marks on the cave ceiling. Sometimes, Coach, has us digging holes to try and find an escape route. It’s a futile task: there’s no way we can dig our way out. Digging holes is a distraction. If we were going to get rescued, that would have happened by now. How much longer can we survive on drips of water? The outside world has forgotten us. I keep my internal thoughts to myself.

Tern saw it first. A dim light.
“I can see something,” he says, balancing on the edge of the ledge, peering and pointing.
We peer into the darkness to where Tern is pointing.
“What?”
“Where?”
“I can’t see anything.” Tern has had the same dream as me.
“I see it! It’s kinda fuzzy.” Adul is leaping about.
A blurred light bounces off the rocky walls.
“Shush,” Tern says. “Hear that?”
We listen. Distant sounds, voices.
“I hear it,” someone whispers.
The flickering light becomes brighter, the voices become louder. Shapes appear. There are two of them. As the shapes approach, we cheer and hug each other. Torch lights shine in our faces. One of them says something in English. Adul answers. He speaks English, Burmese, (‘cos he’s from Myanmar), Mandarin and Thai, of course. Adul translates.
“How many of you are there?”
“We are thirteen,” Adul says.
Our cheering stops as Adul and the man continue to talk.
The man tells Adul that a big rescue effort is underway, that people from all over the world are working together to rescue us.

‘Breaking news:
The twelve Thai boys and their coach lost in the Tham Luang cave for ten days, have been found alive!’

The story of the twelve young soccer boys and their coach lost in a Thai cave has dominated the news worldwide for ten days. Expert cave divers from around the world have converged in the remote northern region of Thailand in an effort to find the boys.
This team of experts are faced with the daunting task of safely rescuing the boys and their coach from this treacherous cave.

The area is swarming with news reporters. One reporter interviews the father of one of the boys.
“When my boy comes out, I’ll hug and hug him. I never want to let him go,” says the beaming father, as tears cascade down his face. “My boy had his twelfth birthday on June the twenty-eighth. We will hold a belated celebration when he gets out.”
In the days following the rescue, the media focussed on the recovery of the boys and their coach as they rested in hospital. The reporters relayed to the world that all thirteen were in good spirits.
The burning question, the question everyone wanted to be answered, was succinctly answered by one of the boys.

Strength and Self Belief.

How did you survive in the cave for so long? Without hesitation, the boy answered: through strength and self-belief but most importantly, through teamwork.

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