The windows in Haiti are always open. One never knows when a new wind might blow through to lift the heaviness of the air. We slept with the breeze blowing the curtains; sheets kicked off and sweat beading.
The people we met in the clinic seemed little bothered by the heat. They sat for hours in the pews of the church we were working in, faces shining with expectation, waiting to see the medical staff on our team. After their vitals were taken, they came to us—three on the team who were working triage. It was our job to listen, and through our interpreters, write down on paper the patients’ primary concerns. Everyone was recovering from Chikungunya, it seemed. They complained of headache, stomach distress, pain all over their body, and itchy skin. They would lift their shirts to show me their bellies covered in rash, gesture to their legs and swollen feet. All the time, smiling shyly.
Except one mama.
She brought her eighteen-month-old daughter in for a checkup, and also wanted to be seen. She sat in front of me with her little girl on her lap and offered a fleeting smile in greeting. But the smile, it never reached her eyes. Her skin was like a plumb, dark and beautiful, and those sad eyes seemed to hold a thousand sorrows. When we came to those last two interview questions—Are you pregnant? Are you breastfeeding? When Marc—my interpreter—asked her those questions, she looked away as she responded.
Marc was quiet for a moment before turning to me. He lowered his voice to a whisper and swallowed hard.
“She says, no. She hasn’t. Not for eight months since her baby died.”
I wasn’t sure I heard him right at first and the silence grew around me. I didn’t know what to say. A mother’s grief is the pain of all mothers. It’s a world language, a language of the heart. But I didn’t know how to say, “I’m sorry” in Kreyol. And it didn’t feel like enough anyway. So I touched her hand and rubbed her daughter’s cheek, the ribbons in her hair shimmering satin.
Later that week, our triage team had to move out of the church. They were having a kindergarten graduation for the school that was adjacent to the church. When we arrived at the clinic around 7:30 in the morning, the Haitian families were already pouring down the street to fill the pews. The men were dressed in suits and ties, the women, long gowns. The children wore their special best and they were a sight to behold.
We sat in a tiny room in the downstairs of the clinic, interviewing patient after patient. For three hours we listened to the singing and the bustling noise of celebration drift through the open window.
Later, as the team gathered for our devotional on the rooftop of the guesthouse where we were staying, we all marveled at the elaborate celebration. “It almost felt like prom,” one of the nurses said. “Or a wedding.”
But Kathy Walmer, the leader of our team and head of operations for Family Health Ministries...Kathy opened our eyes.
“Kindergarten graduation is a cause for a big celebration. If you think about it, what these parents are celebrating is their child reaching this milestone safely. They have reached an age when they are safe from most of the childhood illnesses that can take their life. It is cause for much joy.”
That night, I awoke with a start at 2:30 am. I could hear dogs barking and street noise below. Suddenly, I was filled with an ache for home, my arms felt empty. And I thought of that mama from the clinic, the painful process of her milk drying up with no babe to suckle; how her body must have wanted to forget but that constant physical reminder would not let her.
I opened my eyes wide in the dark, and I stared that sorrow right in the face.
Just then, a new breeze stirred the curtains, rippling over my body, lifting the air around me. I turned my face into that new wind, letting my prayers fly with it.