6 months later: Melancholy for the “Unscathed” Haitians

Greetings to whoever reads this. I’m typing this on my cellular phone, while on the train, heading to work, disappointed that I didn’t bring anything to read for the train ride. I just need something to distract me. Keep my mind off some unaddressed healing I chose to ignore. It is very likely that tears will keep streaming for this hour long ride to the office.

Six months ago, the capital of Haiti was ravaged by an earthquake. Poor infrastructure in Port-au-Prince and the surrounding areas led to buildings collapsing and hundreds of people dying. I am not writing to retell the horror. Anyone reading this can find sufficient journalism retelling the tragedy just by doing a google search. I am writing this for the “unscathed” Haitians. Those of us who are no longer in Haiti, those of us who are to support our family members still on the island of Hispaniola. Those of us who are first generation Canadians, Americans, Europeans and the like. I’m writing for those of us who were in Haiti as children but have long waved the Caribbean nation adieu with the promise of return. I’m writing for us, the Diasporic Haitians who have somehow managed to numb ourselves to what has happened.

Things have changed the way we communicate in my family and even among many of my Haitian friends. We avoid discussing the earthquake altogether, avoid mentioning the names of those who died because of it. Just smile, thank God we’re still alive, and be grateful for our strength. Don’t give me another reason to cry. We have enough sorrow. Let’s focus on the right now, anything but the loss, the pain and the sorrow. A concrete, undiscussed, passive-aggressive silence. This has been the sentiment that has overcome us these past few months. I haven’t spoken to my grandmother since her birthday in February. It was perhaps the most awkward conversation we’ve ever had. Each of us fighting back tears, choking over our words, a shrill unnatural feigned excitement at her 78th birthday. She is a fiery Pisces who loves a good laugh, old school Konpa and good whisky. I am indeed her granddaughter. Things just aren’t the same. I haven’t spoken to my mother since a week after the earthquake, when I informed her who died. I haven’t spoken to my aunt (my caretaker when I lived in Haiti as a child) since her visit to the US to get away in March. My family members still in Haiti avoid the topic of the earthquake altogether – complaining about peripheral issues that are direct descendants of the tragedy that hit the “Pearl of the Antilles” (as Haiti is so lovingly called). My lovely Pearl. To cope, we’re just avoiding the topic, and even worse, each other.

I find it much easier to address Haiti’s needs, and the needs of others if I remove myself from my Haitian lineage. Spend more time with Dad’s side of the family (they are not Haitian). Enjoy the company of my American SO. Discuss culture, history and everything BUT the earthquake with my Haitian friends. Well, it’s gotten to the point where, although I can recognize that I can do so much for my Haitian brothers and sisters, I can’t ignore what I need to survive. I’m suffering internally and I need help. Maybe counseling, maybe therapy. I don’t know. I just know that I need to respond to the tragedy in a healthy way, in a way that will encourage my mobility in assisting those who have no shelter, no healthcare, no support. This is what I need to make it.

Last Saturday, I was in arraignments interviewing a client “Joe” on a new case. He was Haitian, and his command of the English language was not strong. Although I was able to interview him in Kreyol, we still had to wait for the Haitian-Creole interpreter to translate for him when we appeared before the judge. Obviously, I can’t make legal arguments in English, then translate myself and the judge and the prosecutor for the client. The clerk of the court contacted all the Haitian Creole interpreters in the borough and received no calls back. Five hours went by, and no Haitian Creole interpreters came or called. My client Joe called me over in the hall of the general holding cell and urged me to go on the record without the interpreter. He didn’t care if he couldn’t fully understand what was being discussed on the court record — he started crying, shaking his head and lamenting to me…. “Fok mwen al lakay mwen. Maman’m bezwin’m. Maman’m bezwin’m. Li bezwin’m. M paka kite’ll seul semain prochain an. Non. M paka kite’ll seul. fok mwen retoune lakay mwen. M paka kite’ll seul. Li bezwin’m semain prochain. Li bezwin’m. Voye’m soti madam. fok mwen retoune lakay mwen.” (I have to return home. My Mom needs me. My Mom needs me. She needs me. I can’t leave her alone next week. No. I can’t leave her alone. I have to return home. I can’t leave her alone. She needs me next week. She needs me. Let me go Miss. I have to return home.)

Another client of mine also in the general holding cell, who saw Joe crying (and also happened to be Haitian), caught my gaze and assured me he would try to calm him down. When I spoke to the consoling client, he offered consolation to me too. “You’re gonna be alright?” — he asked. “I’ll be fine.” — I responded without appreciating the full magnitude of what he was asking.

It is only now that I can’t stop crying that it all makes sense. I am not fine. No more distractions. I need help.