Monday, July 5, 2010

Haiti: Part One-Getting the Hardest Part Out of the Way

babies at Bethel Guest House orphanage, photo taken by our trip leader Jason

Over the course of the last week and a half, I've thought a lot about writing about my time in Haiti. But thinking about it was as far as I could get. You know the scene in You've Got Mail, where Tom Hanks paces around his apartment, but no matter what he does or how much time passes, he keeps coming back to the room with the open laptop? He knows he needs to write. He knows he should write, yet he can't bring himself to sit down and actually do the thing.

Minus the literal pacing, that's been me. But I've felt that anything I put down would be wrong. Even when I've tried to talk about my time in Haiti, I've felt woefully inarticulate. I know most people want a 30 second sound bite. And that's not a knock on anyone. We all expect 30 second soundbites from each other, regardless of the situation. How was your day? How's your job going? How are you feeling? We ask, and we want to know the answer, but we also want that answer to be tidy and comprehensible. And that's not a's just normal.

But nothing I can say or write about Haiti is tidy or comprehensible. The best I can really hope for is that I can come up with something true. Haiti wasn't fine. It wasn't fun. I've tried my best to sound bite it, but I've felt like a complete and total fraud, like I was stumbling and mumbling my way through a half forgotten script. Give me a few hours and a few glasses of wine and I can talk to you about Haiti. Although that might not even be true. There have been emails circulated among the group of us who volunteered together. And what keeps being repeated is how hard we're all finding it to talk to people. And it's so insane, because we were there a week. I've spent longer amounts of time watching marathons of The Real Housewives of NYC. But in this tiny, 1/1 millionth fractional way, I feel like this must be to some degree what it feels like to come home from war (and let me repeat, 1/1 millionth of a fraction of that, no one bazillionth, and let me repeat it again for good measure, I am in no way saying I know what it's like to come home from war, only that I'm guessing that in this 1/1 millionth of a way there might be some little, tiny semblance). Because you just feel like the only people who could ever understand are the ones you were there with. And you want to talk about things, you want to make people at home understand, but you know that you really can't and that more than likely, they don't want you to. No one wants to be sat down and told thoroughly depressing things for several hours. No ones wants to hear about starving children and women showering on busy street corners next to sprawling tent cities because there's literally nowhere more private for them to go.

And this was a week nearly six months after the earthquake. I cannot fathom what it's like for people, like our quasi trip leader who is American but was raised in Haiti, and has been there for months, who spent days digging the body of his childhood best friend out of rubble. I cannot fathom what it is like for  for the relief workers and doctors who have been immersed in this for months, for the Haitians who will always be immersed in it.

But still it's hard. In my way more tiny, way more insignificant, way less traumatic little way, it's been hard. So hard that I've not been able to even think of really writing until this moment. And I still don't know how this is all going to go. I don't know if I'll be coherent. I don't know if I'll go off on a nonsensical rant that will make everyone reading scurry for cover. I don't know how to write about Haiti. But the only place I know where to start is with the second hardest moment I had while there. I figure that maybe if I start with the hardest, the rest will come easier. Or at least I hope. I'm fairly sure I won't ever write about my hardest moment in Haiti. Anyone who was on the trip knows what I'm talking about. I'm honestly not even sure if I'll ever be able to talk about it. But that's neither here nor there.

My second hardest moment in Haiti had nothing to do with physical labor or piles of rubble. It was quiet, almost silent, but it had so much force it knocked me flat on my feet. I think in some ways I've been trying since then to stand back up. While in Haiti we stayed at Bethel Guest House in a little suburb of Port-Au-Prince called Thomassin. Most of Port-Au-Prince is at a stifling hot sea level. But we were up in the mountains, where the air was crisp and even a little bit cool at night, more reminiscent of summer camp in rural Virginia than a Caribbean island. There was always a breeze. Bethel Guest House is set behind thick, cream pink walls topped with rolls and rolls of barbed wire, something that we saw a lot of in Haiti. There's a gate that has to be opened to let anyone in, car or person. And once in you do really feel like you're in a compound, albeit a very warm and inviting one, filled to the brim with kind hearted (and for the most part very religious) American volunteers.  On the bottom most level of this compound (the property slopes downward from the gate) is an orphanage that was started by the guest house owner, Dr. Bernard.

We were told about this orphanage, told that whenever we had down time we could go down the stairs and play with the toddlers or hold infants. They told us there was an entire baby room, and that these babies wanted nothing more than to be held and given some love. Some of these babies had been there presumably since before the earthquake. Others had been orphaned as a result of it. Still more were more recent arrivals, dropped off by mothers or fathers or relatives who had no way of caring for their child, whether because of the earthquake or simply because of the circumstances that come from living in a very poor nation.

If you've never traveled outside of the United States and you were teleported smack into the middle of this orphanage, you might be shocked. For the number of children there, it is very small, with an even smaller full time staff. The rooms for the smaller babies are full of stacked cribs, one on top of the other. But after even spending just one day in Haiti, it's obvious how lucky these children are. They are fed and clothed and given shelter. They have toys to play with and a constant stream of visitors who want nothing more than to cuddle and tickle and play with them. Life dealt these children are far harder hand than most people in the States could ever dream or will ever have to imagine. But on the flip side, life was kinder to them than so many other babies in Haiti right now.

the infant room at the Bethel Guest House orphanage

I wanted to hold a baby. I was used to spending whole days with my six month old niece. I was going through baby withdrawal. And so I was eager, albeit in a nervous, unsure what to expect way, to go downstairs to this orphanage and grab me a baby. And the second I walked into this crowded, noisy baby room, all thoughts that it was as simple as just holding a baby vanished. I've never felt so viscerally gut punched. All the air left me. I wanted to cringe. I wanted to go back upstairs, go back home. It was too much, too sad. There were too many babies, and too many of them were crying or coughing. But of course I couldn't do any of that. Not because I'm brave or noble, but because as scared as I was of being in that room, I was more scared of what I would feel about myself if I couldn't remain there. And so I went to get my baby. I walked to a nearby crib where a baby a little younger than a year was sitting. I wasn't sure if he would want to go to me. The babies that age I had known back home could be shy or tentative around new people. But once again I was reminded that in that moment I knew nothing. All prior knowledge or certainty was erased. This little baby held out his arms, and once I picked him up, he didn't let go.

I remember feeling like I should make a silly face or funny voice. Maybe I could find a toy to engage him with, because as a veteran babysitter I knew that one year olds liked to be entertained by manic shows of adult energy. But as I swayed in this little room with this little baby on my hip, it was clear that I could have stayed like that for days. I tried to sit down with him on the floor, and as soon as I bent my knees to sit down he clung tightly to me and began to whimper, so sure was he that I was going to try and put him down. I had had this baby in my arms for minutes, and already he was clinging to me like I was a favorite aunt or uncle. And they were all like that, whenever I went down there that week and picked a baby up he or she would cling to me fiercely when the inevitable moment came that I would have to put them back down. It wasn't because they were abused or neglected, but because of the simple reality that these children didn't yet have parents or guardians or grandparents or any of those certain, immovable fence posts most of us grow up with and constantly take for granted. Love wasn't assured for them. It wasn't something lavished on them every second of every day the way it is for most babies. It was there, from the people who worked there, from the volunteers and visitors, but in smaller, less certain, more temporary doses. And so of course when given that love, they were going to do everything in their power to hold onto it.

And it was what you would think, absolutely heartbreaking, for every single person who went down there. But not once did I go down to that orphanage and not see a volunteer. Usually there were crowds of them, playing out in the main room with toys, twirling on the patio, or simply giving an infant a bottle. Because it wasn't even remotely about us. It was about having two hands and two relatively strong arms and being able to, if only for minutes at a time, let one of these children or babies feel safe and loved. It was about making them laugh. One day I went downstairs and before I had even walked inside, a two year old came running up with his arms out. By this time I had realized that when going down to the orphanage more than likely a baby will choose you instead of vice versa. I swung him around a little and then as I do with my niece, tossed him up a couple of feet in the air. And this little boy let out the biggest, hoarsest peal of laughter. I can't begin to imagine what this child may have gone through prior to arriving at the orphanage. I live in a reality where things like that are not only not imagined, but not considered. It's not a part of the world we live in where people give up children because they literally cannot afford to keep them alive. It may happen from time to time in the United States, but it's not a reality most of us even consider.

But for this boy it was reality. He was safe and clothed and fed. Those things were taken care of. He would more than likely be adopted. Most of the babies at this orphanage were already in the process of being adopted, usually by Americans. But for that one tiny moment, I could make him laugh. I could take him up to the guest house pool (we were allowed to take the babies, don't worry I didn't try to steal him, as much as I wanted to) and sit him in my lap so that his tiny feet could dangle in the cool water. And what I'm going to say next is the cheesiest thing in the world to say, so cheesy I may have to turn in my writer membership card. But well, it's also true. To be able to share these moments with this child, and feel like I was helping him in some small way, was way more of a gift to me than it was to him. I remember letting my head rest on his head, his fuzzy hair underneath my chin, letting my feet trail in the water below his, and feeling like I was being useful, more useful than I had ever perhaps been in my twenty-four years on this earth. And seeing some of the things I saw in Haiti (more on all that at a later time) feeling useful was not something that I was bursting at the seams with.

And yet I haven't even gotten to the hard part. So by the last night, I thought I had it under control. The stuff with the babies killed me. Having to put them down while they clung to me and screamed was sad to the point of numbness. But I felt at least some semblance of togetherness. So I went down to the baby room for one last visit. I took a six or seven month old girl out of her crib, who as you can see below is so stinking cute to the point where I had to physically restrain myself from packing her in my suitcase.

I held this little girl in my arms and swayed and danced and cooed. And I was okay. Sure she was about the same size as my niece, which could have pushed me over the edge, but I held it together. There was a picture hanging up in her crib of a woman I can only presume will soon be her mother. I held her and tried my best to summon any latent mental telepathy powers I might have, so that I could tell her mother, wherever she is, that even though her baby was presumably an ocean away, on an island in the middle of the Caribbean, someone was holding her at that moment and making her feel as safe and loved as possible, until the day she could fly across those oceans and take this baby home. And still I was holding it together. Absentmindedly I paced the floor until I was about eye level with an occupied top crib. Inside, on his back, was a baby that couldn't have been older than two months. He had big, dark, almond shaped eyes with killer eyelashes that went for days. His head was covered in jet-black peach fuzz. He wasn't crying or sleeping but just lying there. With one baby already on my hip, I couldn't pick him up, so automatically, without really thinking, I reached a finger through the bars of his crib. The baby looked at my finger, wrapped his miniature fingers around it, gave a small squeeze and then looked at me, straight in the eyes with utter conviction.

And then he smiled.

He smiled a big, goopy, eyes crinkling, face crumpling smile, so big it seemed to reach his ears. I stared for a second, so sure I had imagined it. Babies that small didn't smile, not at strangers, not when that stranger was doing nothing other than standing there, sticking a finger through bars. But then as if reading my thoughts, he smiled again, an even bigger one. I smiled back as my vision blurred, letting him continue to grip my finger as I jiggled the other baby on my hip. And as together as I'd been, as much as I tried to hold it together, it felt like I had ran head first into a brick wall.

When I finally left the baby room, I went back upstairs to the room I shared with one of my best friends and three other women that until that week had been strangers. I sat on my bed and tried to respond to a question about dinner or something along those lines. But I kept losing my train of thought. It was as if I kept trying to rev up my mind, like a car engine, but no matter what I did it could only sputter and stall. And then I cried. If you know me, you know I don't cry in front of people, like ever. It's not something I'm proud of. It's just kind of a fact. But in this room of people, two of whom I had only known for days, I couldn't contain it. That baby's wide, crinkly smile wouldn't stop replaying itself, that look in his eyes, whether real or imagined, of trust.

I saw so many horrible things while in Haiti, and yet the second hardest moment of the whole trip stemmed from this beautiful smile. And until this very second I had no idea why, what was wrong with me where an adorable smiling baby affected me on a more visceral level than thousands of people living without adequate food or water or shelter, with no end in sight to their ordeal. But writing this all, a thought occurred to me, maybe the beginnings of processing. 

This baby, in a crowded, probably underfunded, understaffed orphanage in Haiti, could smile so easily at me because he had no idea of anything other than what was literally right in front of him. Babies that young think things and people stop existing when they leave their line of vision. And so that smile wasn't tempered by the crushing reality just outside of the guest house gates, the poverty and the destruction and the despair. That smile was in no way touched by the understanding that he would never know his biological parents, that they had probably loved and wanted him very much but simply could not find any way to keep him safe and fed. That smile wasn't the smile of a baby in an orphanage, a baby that many in places of privilege would pity, that could be pasted on brochures and splayed across television screens to guilt people into donating money. That smile was universal, the smile of a pampered baby on the Upper East Side of NYC or a Thai infant covered in baby powder. It was contingent on nothing. It was as pure and as honest as anything in this world. And maybe that's why it so completely broke my heart. A crying baby is sad, but you can compartmentalize it in a way, because you expect an orphan to cry and to be sad and to have some awareness that parts of his or her life are indeed extremely hard.

But a baby with a big, unaffected, utterly innocent smile, that squeezes everything inside of you until you can barely breathe or think or move. Because every instinct inside of you, whether you're a woman who is baby crazy or a teenage boy or an old man, every human instinct you have makes you want to protect that smile, find a way to keep it that way, to never let that baby understand that life can be cruel and horrible and that bad things happen and that even at such a young age, he's already faced tragedy most of us can never understand.

That was the second hardest moment I had the whole trip in Haiti. I think about that little baby all the time, still. And if for whatever reason life throws a wrench into my plan to have biological children one day, I will especially think of him, of all of those many children like him. Because even though they've been dealt a crap hand so early in life, there is so much hope for these Haitian babies. They can find homes and parents and abundant, unconditional love. That pure, honest, untouched smile may change a little, but it's very possible that the root of it, the basic belief that everything will be okay, that people are good and trustworthy will be protected and nourished his whole life. I hope that to be true more than I've ever hoped anything. I will always hope it.

me at the orphanage


Wendy said...

Liz, I can't think of a better way to start my workday by reading your blog. .
I too have really struggled with giving my 'story', or writing my email update. Thank you for writing this. I would love to say that I hope things get easier for you, but in a way I can only assume from my own struggle, you sort of don't want them to get easier. Then you forget and go on with life, and I don't ever want to forget. .


Slim said...

"I just want to cuddle with a baby!"
-Liz repeatedly, upon arriving in Haiti

liz ramsay said...

I completely agree Wendy. This will always be hard for us, but it will hopefully always inform the way we choose to live our lives. I really appreciate your comments, and I hope you can find the words to write about Haiti too.

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