By: Adrinda Kelly-Pierre
New York, NY, USA
My husband’s father arrived in Port au Prince early in the afternoon on Tuesday, January 12th. Traveling alone, he planned to spend the next six weeks visiting family and friends, and enjoying the vacation home he and his wife had just finished building—the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. He was picked up by a cousin at the airport and they began the long drive to Le Cap Haitien, with planned stops in Port au Prince, Jacmel, and Léogane. As usual, a firearm was stowed within easy reach of the driver’s seat to protect them at the inevitable roadblocks where a well-fed American expatriate might prove tempting bait for local kidnapping gangs.
They never made it out of Port au Prince.
The rumblings started, the Palace fell, and my father-in-law disappeared. As the world watched in disbelief, my mother-in-law scrambled to get on the phone lines, calling anyone and everyone she could think of to find out if anyone had seen or heard from Papa Joe. On Wednesday, a family member in Miami said that someone had seen him in the company of his sister after the earthquake—that turned out to be an ill-advised lie, made up to offer a measure of comfort. Thursday and Friday passed with still no word from Papa Joe. As the cameras panned the dead bodies in the street and the survivors being pulled from the rubble, our minds began playing tricks on us. Longing for answers, we blinked and thought we saw familiar faces in the gluttony of death being broadcasted on continual loop. We needed Papa Joe to be alive. Not just for himself, but to anchor us to face the death of so many others.
The first thing my husband said to me about the earthquake was that his grandmother’s house had been destroyed. When he said this, I knew he was thinking of the coconut tree he used to stand in front of every year so his doting gran da da could mark off the inches he had grown. My husband was born in Brooklyn, but spent the first few years of his childhood in Haiti while his parents worked to finish school. He was seven years old when he left his gran da da in Port au Prince toreturn to the United States. His family eventually settled on Long Island, and his parents worked hard to give him every advantage, sending him to private school and paying for piano lessons and even ballet classes.
When reflecting on those early days in America, my husband often talks about the time he spent in ESL classes and how he would go home and practice speaking English in front of the mirror in a years-long effort to lose the accent that made him the target of so much schoolyard bullying. (Even today, my husband seizes upon every new axiom with the zeal of a convert for whom the clichéd phrases validate a sense of hard-won American-ness.) The truth is my husband saw how his mother, a trained doctor, and his father, educated in Europe, were treated because of their thick accents and he vowed to never go through that. Except for his French-sounding name, today you would never know that English was my husband’s third language, or that he was from anywhere other than Long Island, New York.
So when the earthquake hit, I watched my husband be caught off guard by an anguish that was as surprising as it was painful. After all, he spent his life cloaking his Haitian-ness beneath a veneer of black American cool. And now, as he watched the ashen, crying, scared faces of the earthquake survivors on MSNBC, something twisted in his belly to remind him of that coconut tree and how far from it he had traveled, and all he could do is watch in horror, and wait to hear from his father, and steady himself to pick up the pieces after the earth stopped trembling.
Haiti from Space
(credit: NASA - International Space Station)
As I tried to comfort him, I was reminded of all the things I felt as I watched Hurricane Katrina devastate my hometown of New Orleans. Like my husband, I spent most of my childhood trying to differentiate myself from my hometown’s spectacular weirdness while at the same time wishing I could belong to it more, somehow be more native. My childhood and adolescence felt like a long sojourn at a crazy aunt’s house where the metrics for normalcy where always just a little bit off. Drive-through daiquiri shops; dancing behind the dirge at funerals; an all-black blue ribbon high school named after one of Louisiana’s largest slave owners—these were the types of paradoxes that defined my life in New Orleans, and when I headed off to college I couldn’t wait to leave its messy contradictions behind.
So I understood what my husband was feeling. I understood why all of the miles he had traveled since being a small child in Haiti suddenly didn’t seem like any distance at all. Something happens when the streets you used to walk as a child are drowned in a deluge of water or collapsed beneath a pile of dust and rubble. You can’t forgive yourself for not loving and appreciating it more, so you become angry at the wrongness of others’ representations of it. You chafe at each reference to the extreme poverty, corrupt government, and machete-wielding looters, not because it is untrue, but because it lacks the nuance of context. Most of all, you chafe under the well-intentioned sympathy of all those who ask if there is anything they can do, because it reminds you of how helpless you are to do anything.
On Saturday, we got a call from Papa Joe. He was alive, and he had water and a little food. He would be staying behind to help.
My husband is still not sleeping well. I know he is thinking about his grandmother’s house, and his father, and the litany of friends and relatives his mother has counted among the dead. I watch, and rub his shoulders, and prepare to make travel arrangements for the funerals.
Adrinda Kelly-Pierre is a freelance writer and editor.