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Authors: Kathleen A. Tobin

Brush with Haiti

BOOK: Brush with Haiti
12.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
Brush with Haiti
Kathleen A. Tobin

Copyright © 2012 by Kathleen A. Tobin

Mill City Press

212 3rd Ave North, Suite 290

Minneapolis, MN 55401


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the written prior permission of the author.

ISBN: 978-1-938223-86-0

Table of Contents

To university students everywhere


There is nothing much to remember
about the landing at O'Hare, except it was sometime around 4:30 or so on January 12th. I had not spoken much to the people near me on the flight. I rarely do, except for a bit of small talk here and there. As we taxied to the gate, I turned on my cell phone.

I saw there was a message from my daughter. Before listening to it, I called to see what was up. My kids don't keep track of my schedule - nor do I keep track of my mother's - so Katie timing a call so perfectly in order to welcome me home from Port-au-Prince was unlikely. Perhaps something was up in her life, requiring a long-distance shoulder to lean on. In the center of the plane, amid passengers scrambling to gather their belongings, I waited for her to pick up. When she did, I could not understand a word she was saying. She was hysterical. Her sobs were not completely unfamiliar but she had been on her own in Nashville for some time, and things seemed to be going so well.

"Mom!" she cried into the phone. I looked at the travelers around me to see whether they were hearing the other side of this conversation. It was nearly deafening to me. I wondered how I could possibly do anything to help her from Chicago. She went on, incoherently.

"Katie, take a breath. I can't understand what you're saying." She went on, apparently repeating herself, but I still could not decipher anything. "Slow down"

"Wah, blah... something, something... earthquake!" is what I heard. Oh, my God, I thought. An earthquake in Tennessee? That didn't seem possible. I prayed she wasn't hurt.

"Mom, are you ok?"

"Yes, are you ok?" I needed to be sure.

"Yes! Are YOU ok?"

"I'm fine!" I assured her in a voice more stern than necessary. She was making absolutely no sense to me.

"Mom, where are you?" she asked. I wondered how fast I could get to Nashville.

"I'm at O'Hare. Our plane just landed."

"You're safe? There was an earthquake in Haiti!"

What? She must have meant hurricane. There are no earthquakes in Haiti, I thought. But the urgency in her voice was not a hurricane kind of urgency.

"Mom, there was terrible earthquake in Port-au-Prince! They're saying it was a 7.9 or something!"

"Oh, my God." I slumped back in my seat. I had friends in California and had developed some Richter scale sensitivities. If an earthquake of this magnitude truly hit Port-au-Prince the city would be devastated. Memories of the little girls in their freshly ironed uniforms trotting off to school in the sunshine just hours before flooded my mind. I turned to the others in my row.

"There was an earthquake in Haiti, and I just came from there." I told her I would call her back.

I sat numb while passengers took their bags from overhead compartments, and when it was my turn, stood into a film of detachment. At some point following, my friend Renate and I spoke. I don't remember if I called her or she called me, nor whether it was at the baggage claim or beyond. And I don't remember much of the conversation past the first words. "Did you hear?" she asked.

"I heard." It was impossible to know what to say. She had left Port-au-Prince on a flight following mine, and was at the airport in Miami.

Renate had lived in Haiti for six years, working in various areas of health care and education, primarily in the Grand'Anse region on the southwest peninsula. She also had many friends in Port-au-Prince. I had contacted her not quite a year before, following a nasty spell at work, to see if she might help me arrange a brief research visit. On the wrong side of university politics - in retrospect on the right side - I needed a reality check to clear my head. Visiting some area of the developing world always provided that for me.

I considered myself fortunate in teaching Latin American history. It gave me a sense of balance and perspective and trips to El Salvador, Guatemala, and so on - no matter how brief - lent themselves to nurturing a sense of inner calm, and served to remind me of life's priorities. I knew I risked setting myself apart at work even more by going away for a while, but the egos, deception, and power mongering of university politics had gotten under my skin. Way too deep under my skin. It was time for a cleansing.

I had visited Haiti once before, and knew Renate might arrange for me to meet with people in education, just to talk. I had considered a curriculum sharing project, or some such thing, but decided first to investigate teaching methods and schooling structures there. To be honest, I was not sure exactly what it was I wanted to do, or what might come of it. She said she would contact some people and get back to me. At that point she was returning to Chicago, as grant money for her current project was running out, but planned to get back to Haiti in late December and said she could meet me there.

She was able to put me in touch with teachers and school directors, and the trip fit nicely into winter break. I met her in Jeremie, the seat of the Department of the Grand'Anse. After several days there, we flew back to Port-au-Prince where we continued our work separately. On January 12th, I flew out in the late morning and she in the afternoon. Hers was the last flight out.

Dazed, I walked through the O'Hare terminal and looked for a news broadcast. Television sets dotted the waiting areas, and they all carried the story. It was apparently true. But there were no cameras in Port-au-Prince yet, so the reports resorted to maps and graphics. Perhaps there was a chance it was not true, I prayed. A mistake. A false report. A news rumor gone wild. I watched the lounging travelers staring at the televisions. They seemed to believe it.

There is always a bit of reality warp when entering the U.S. after a visit to an underdeveloped country, a feeling that Americans have no real understanding of the human condition. The plane ride exists as a sort of nebulous place between two worlds, a vacuum in which one decompresses before entering the sanitized realm of material consumption plastered against a backdrop of non-descript music. In the unreal world of the airport, the story of an earthquake in an already struggling metropolis seemed impossible.

But it wasn't. I collected my bags and meandered through the ground level to the suburban-bound bus area. It seemed as far from the center of reality as one could imagine. There was no television set there. I put on the extra long-sleeved t-shirt that had been stuffed into the bottom of my purse and the lightweight trench coat which I had tied around my waist. More than a foot of snow had fallen while I was away, and the early darkness of winter made the cold air even colder. The next bus was not due for another 45 minutes. I found an empty seat among the black vinyl and chrome bench and sat down. Then I began to cry. And cry. The young man seated across from me looked up and then down at his hands. I imagined he thought it was love troubles or something.

Once on the bus, I rested my head against the window. Those rides are always silent, except when the driver stops to collect tickets or announce a transfer. Even when couples or family members chat on their way home from wherever they happened to be their voices are muffled and seem distant. The film of detachment that had fallen down around me with my daughter's call remained, keeping me from understanding anything.

As we reached the bus station, I wrapped my thin coat tighter around me, grabbed the handles of my suitcases, and dragged them to the car. The wheels were rendered useless, and my shoes filled with snow. The evening before, I had stood on my balcony in Port-au-Prince watching the sunset and preparing myself mentally for the return to a frigid Chicago. And now, even without gloves or a hat, I felt nothing. I unlocked my car and it started up without hesitating. As the engine warmed, I stepped out and brushed the snow from the front and back windows with my bare hands. There. Good enough, I told myself. Driving after being away is a bit surreal anyway, and not having a perfectly full view would intensify that.

I turned on WXRT, a gratifyingly authentic Chicago radio station, to help bring my mind back home. Before I left the parking lot, my phone rang again. It was my mother.

"Are you hungry?" she asked. "I made some extra dinner and we're watching CNN." I was famished and did not want to go home to an empty house and an even emptier refrigerator. And I wanted to see a television, more than ever before in my life.

That night my parents' house felt the best of all possible places to be. It was warm and bright and smelled of Tuesday dinner. I sat down on the sofa and my mother brought me plates and plates of food. Apparently it was her expression of gratitude for the fact that I made it home safely. My father and sister were there, too, and seemed equally grateful to be with me. I was not sure what to say. I stared at the television and my eyes welled up with tears.

"I don't think I've ever seen the word 'Haiti' on television before," I told my dad. The country had experienced turmoil before, but my brain's memory functions were not operational. Before I had left on the trip, I wondered whether it was necessary to leave a detailed itinerary with anyone. Renate convinced me to do so, but the task only made me realize what a strange situation I had lived myself into. Divorced for eight years and not in a serious relationship, there was no significant other to play the role of contact should there be some sort of emergency.

Katie was 25-years-old, and might well have been growing into the best choice, but she was living in Nashville. My 21-year-old son, Dan, was away at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland and living in a fraternity house, and. well that would not do. My father was frail and aging quickly, and to be honest, my mother would not be much help at all in an international disaster situation. I asked one of my sisters who lived close by if I could leave the itinerary with her, just in case anything happened.

"Can't someone else be in charge of that?" she asked.

"Oh, come on. Nothing's going to happen," I replied. I knew she was busy and all, but jeez. Seriously. I must have caught her at a bad time, or maybe just by surprise because I had never asked such a thing before.

Sam, my 17-year-old, seemed the only choice. But he was still my baby. How could it possibly be that my baby would have to be designated as the one to bail me out of a problem? He would let his father know if anything happened, I thought, who surely would have had the wherewithal to do something useful. Or not.

Never before in my life was I much concerned with keeping someone informed of my whereabouts, and I am not sure why I was this time. After the fact, a friend suggested I might have had a premonition. But I don't think so. It was just a new awareness that I had succeeded so well in my quest for independence that perhaps no one would know if something were to happen to me. In any case, the close call was also a wake-up call, and it seemed to bring everyone nearer. And from my mother came more plates of food. Watching the news unfold, even without actual footage from the country, I realized I was not really hungry at all.

BOOK: Brush with Haiti
12.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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