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In the Wake of the Earthquake

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A mom of Haitian twin boys grapples with how to explain the tragedy to her sons.

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

"Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary." -- Martin Luther King, Jr.

heather johnson

Heather Johnson: When the boys crawled into bed with us early on Wednesday morning, we told them about the earthquake. Braydon and I had been up practically the whole night, watching the television in disbelief. "There was a big earthquake in Haiti last night," I said. And then, gently, snuggled together, all four of us twisted up tight under the covers, "and lots of people died." Owen's first response came quick: "Is my birth mother OK?" It should go without saying how profound it is that this is what he first said. Generally speaking, in the raising of our children, we go by a rule of thumb passed on to me by my own mother: we answer their questions as honestly as possible, and we answer only what is specifically being asked (as hard as that is to do sometimes). "We don't know," I said, in answer to his question. And then, all cozied up in our big bed, he looked at me with his dark brown eyes and asked what I knew he wanted to know: "Did my birth mother die?" "I don't know," I said. "Do you have her phone number? Can you call her?" asked Owen. "No, baby, I can't call her, I don't have her phone number, and I really don't even know if she has a phone." "Why?" he asked, "Why doesn't she have a phone?" "I don't know for sure if she has a phone or not, but last we knew, she didn't have a phone." He's five years old. He doesn't fully understand what it means that he was born in Cité Soleil to a beautiful woman in dire, desperate, destitute poverty. Nor should he understand. I wish he never had to understand. Lying in bed, it all seemed surreal. We moved on to a whole series of questions and answers about earthquakes and what happens when buildings collapse. We turned on the TV for a few minutes, there in our bedroom, so that the boys could see the early footage of Port-au-Prince. And then Kyle and Owen were off to their typical kindergarten day. Margie arrived to take care of Meera. And Braydon and I were off to work. Later, after school and work and everything else, 24 hours after the initial earthquake hit, we watched a few minutes more of CNN. As we put the boys to bed that night, we prayed for the people of Haiti, as we do every night. And we added extra prayers. Kyle prayed that the people could find food and water. Owen prayed that his birth mother was OK. Braydon and I tucked them in and then ran downstairs as fast as we could to turn CNN back on. We watched for a bit before I announced to Braydon that we could no longer let our boys see any more of it. The news reports were starting to get more serious, the footage more raw, dead bodies everywhere, destruction of places so dear to us, mass graves, the whole city in shambles. They can't see this. Definitely not. Not now, not at age five.

Every night since 5:00 PM Tuesday, Braydon and I run to watch CNN as soon as we get the three kids in bed. We check Facebook and Twitter incessantly. We give money and try to send support in loving e-mails and notes, and we pray and send out wishes and hopes. We see people we know being interviewed in news reports and featured in articles. We see famous news reporters filmed at BRESMA in Port-au-Prince, the orphanage where Kyle and Owen were first brought as newborns, before they were moved to the orphanage where they'd spend their first eight months of life. We see images of places we've been that look nothing like they did when we were there. We try to answer the boys' questions while at the same time buffering them from the magnitude of it. We're living a strange fuzzy warped existence right now. Constantly distracted by a deep anxiety seemingly coming from nowhere identifiable. The feelings of our waiting (the year that we waited, during the adoption, for Kyle and Owen) -- feelings that we thought we had left way behind -- have bubbled right back up to the surface in a big way. The anxiety, frustration, sense of alienation, isolation -- the feeling that nobody really "gets it" -- the sense of horrific injustice to the Nth degree -- the scope of it all -- the compulsion to act up against an overwhelmingly complicated structure of inequity -- life hanging in the balance -- innocent lives in shambles -- babies without formula -- children without food -- people without water -- thousands upon thousands without proper shelter from blaring sun and raging hurricanes -- how can this be happening? -- how can the whole world go on as if this doesn't exist? It is all right there, at the surface again, reminding us that we never actually worked through it in the first place ... because it is not something one can actually work through.

Friday was a long-planned dentist appointment for the boys. A regular check-up and cleaning. I picked the boys up from school early and they were in great spirits as we drove there. They love the dentist. Suddenly, out of the blue, in a totally normal matter-of-fact tone, Kyle, from the backseat, says, to no one in particular: "We're from Haiti, so that means we're poor." I practically drove off the road, stunned. "Stay calm, don't overreact, steer straight," I think to myself. "Why do you say that, Kyle?" I ask, as even-keeled and upbeat as possible in my intonation. "Where did you hear that? Who said that?" "Nobody," he said. "Who said that at school?" I ask, pointedly, sure that it must have come from somewhere. "Nobody," he said, "I just thought that in my own mind." I pressed a bit more until I came to believe him -- he had come up with this on his own, piecing things together, inevitably, despite our best efforts. I pulled off and put the car in park on the side of the road. I turned around to face him and his brother. The two of them so precious, so gorgeous, so beaming with life, there in the backseat. "You were born in Haiti, but we are NOT poor," I say firmly, "we are the opposite of poor." "Who is poor, Mommy?" Kyle asks, genuinely wanting to know, his huge eyes peering straight into mine. "There are lots of poor people," I say, trying to think fast. "There are poor people here in the United States, and there are poor people in Haiti. Some people are poor. And some people are not." We talked about it a bit before I pulled back onto the road. Driving to the dentist, we talked about a homeless man we met while we were in Washington, D.C., for Thanksgiving, and about how we had given him money to buy breakfast one morning. The boys talked about wanting to bring food to Haiti -- to "give them food, like we gave Anthony [the homeless man] food." "Mommy, imagine if I was a pilot and I could just fly right to Haiti on a big airplane filled with food!" "What if I could take a huge boat and bring it full of water for everyone in Haiti?!!" "What if I was so strong I could hold up all the houses and even in an earthquake it wouldn't shake?!!!" Yes, what if. Just imagine.

We arrived at the dentist office. We enter the gorgeous, hyper-clean, modern waiting area. A huge flat-screen TV on the wall is set to CNN. Horrific images flood the screen -- crumbled buildings, bodies in the street, children's faces peering out of rubble. Dust and smoke and devastation. Immediately I asked at the front desk, as calmly as possible, for them to change the channel. They know Kyle and Owen, are aware that they are Haitian, understood immediately, and changed the channel quickly. Nickelodeon. Some crazy neon smiley bouncy "kids' show" unlike anything the boys had ever witnessed (they don't see much TV). They were enthralled in the gloss of it. I was just glad it wasn't CNN. We watched until we were called in for the check-ups. Perfect teeth. No cavities. And big news, loose teeth for both boys! "Wiggle those baby teeth every day!" the dentist orders the boys, "so that your big teeth can grow in!" They wiggled diligently all the way home. I let them watch "Curious George," and I made them their favorite dinner that night. Creamy pesto pasta. Trying to feed them love. Trying to make myself feel good. It always feels so good to watch them eat so much so eagerly. "Thank you Mama!!!" they squeal, as they devour their dinner.

Soon after, I'm tucking them into bed. I turn off the lights and go to kiss them. Owen looks up at me with tears in his eyes. "I'm sad, Mama," he says, "I'm really sad because someone I know died." I'm taken aback. We have purposely kept the earthquake on the sidelines this day, trying to protect them from it as the news becomes more intense. "Really?" I ask, skeptical, thinking that he's just trying to delay bedtime. But the watery eyes tell my gut that there is something to this. "Yes," he says, "someone I know died in the earthquake in Haiti, and I'm so sad about it." "Sweetie," I say to him, "all of the people that we know in Haiti are alive." "No," he says, "this is someone you don't know. This is someone I knew when I was a baby in Haiti. You don't know her because you weren't there." "Oh?" I say, "who is it?" "It is Jonie," he says, pronouncing this name, a name unfamiliar to me, not the name of anyone we've ever known, with a slight accent -- I must admit, a slight French/Creole accent. He continues, "Her name is Jonie." I get slight chills and sit down on the side of his bed. In the glow of the night-light, I watch his face closely. He is completely serious. "I don't know anyone named Jonie in Haiti," I say, "we didn't meet anyone named Jonie when we were in Haiti." "Did you see someone wearing flip-flops?" he asks. "Yes," I say. "Brown flip-flops?" he asks. "Probably," I say. "Well Jonie wears brown flip-flops and I knew her when I was a baby and she died in the earthquake and I'm so sad about it." I have no explanation or understanding or way to know exactly what is going on here. But I hug him and tell him how sorry I am that he is sad. I try to comfort him as best I can. "I hate earthquakes," he says. "Me too," I say.

They ask about buildings falling. Did it hurt when they died? How can we be sure that our house won't crumble in an earthquake? How can we be sure that hotels in which we might stay in the future won't fall down? Why can't we bring food to the people? Why can't we stop them from starving? Is our birth mother OK?

Kyle and Owen know that a lot of people died in Cité Soleil, where they were born. They know that a lot of people died in Port-au-Prince, where their orphanage was. They know that the Hotel Montana, where we stayed for our first week together as a family, was completely demolished. They know that Rock and Patrick, the orphanage directors who saved their lives when they were infants and made it possible for us to be a family, both survived. They know that the children at their orphanage all survived. They know that the Livesays survived. Kyle and Owen know that the need in Haiti is great, and that it has been great their whole lives long and longer.

I know that Haiti was in crisis before this. So, how can we wrap our minds around the state of things now? I'm mourning the loss of a dream -- a dream I had of bringing the boys back to the Hotel Montana sometime soon. We had thought, "Maybe even this spring, if the boys seem ready enough for it." The idea was that we'd go there for our first trip back to Haiti. It is (was) a beautiful hotel -- an oasis in Port-au-Prince. We wanted to bring them back there, just for a couple of nights, when they were still very young, so that later in life -- as they learned more about Haiti -- their first actively memorable yet slightly subconscious association with their birthplace would be as positive as possible. I wanted that foundation to build upon. I know we can still find beauty in Haiti. I know we will find beauty. But I am so mournful that we will not be able to revisit the place where we first became a family. Where we gave our babies their first baths. Where we read them their first books. Where we soothed their deep diaper rashes until they weren't bloody, and fed their distended bellies good formula until they couldn't drink anymore, and held them all night long, becoming their Mommy and Papi. That place is gone now. It will never be back for us to visit. When will we be able to bring Kyle and Owen to Haiti again? How will this ever be made right?

I rocked Meera to sleep tonight. She's just finished a 10-day round of antibiotics for double ear infections. The prescription cost $95; it is the most powerful antibiotic available. We were happy to pay it. Our insurance covered most of it. She's better -- I can tell -- not tugging at her ears, sleeping well at night, and back to her healthy appetite. I can't help but think it, silently in Meera's bedroom: "Oh my God, what if I couldn't get her what she needed? What if I had no access to antibiotics? What if I couldn't keep her from dying a senseless death? What if I couldn't mother her the way I need to mother her?" What if? Just imagine. As I held her bundled up in my arms, the humidifier in her room buzzing, my mind wandered. I remember holding Kyle that way when he was 19 months old, just like Meera is now. I remember holding Owen that way too. Their hair felt so different than Meera's does, rubbing up against my chin. Their skin felt so different too, pressed against my neck. But they smelled just like her, as I rocked them to sleep. Clean diapers. Warm milk. The fabric softener we use in our laundry. The feelings flood me. I remember so much. It all comes back too quickly and it overtakes me. Bringing them home, helping them get healthy, teaching them to love -- that was all daunting, and the most challenging thing I've ever done with my life. But that was the easy part. The hard part is still before us. Their birth country was, and is now more than ever, in desperate crisis. Unwarranted death. Incomprehensible suffering. Injustice like I've never seen nor heard of. Their homeland, their roots, their people, our people. It is mind-numbing. I can't finish my soup at lunch. I feel sick to my stomach after eating dinner. It is hard to sleep. We put them to bed and kiss them goodnight and thank God they are here with us and plead with anyone who will listen to do something to help Haiti. We put on CNN and we see Port-au-Prince. How come we never saw Port-au-Prince on CNN before the earthquake? How come aid wasn't pouring in before the earthquake? How come relief wasn't "on the way" last Monday?

Braydon and I stopped at the grocery store on the way home from work today. We can buy milk and eggs and yogurt and organic, all-natural cookies. We are so grateful for that. In the checkout line, there is a small poster asking for money for Haitian Earthquake Relief. On the poster is a photo of a Haitian girl, wearing only tattered rags for clothes, her hair a mess, her huge brown eyes staring into the photographer's camera. Now she's staring at us. Her eyes look just like Owen's always have. Her hair looks just like Kyle's did when he first came home. She looks Haitian. Just like my sons. Gorgeous at the core, beautiful at the root, resilient in the soul. You can see it all over her face. The photo draws me in. I am distracted for a minute. That is my boy. No, it is a girl on a poster. And then I remember we have to bag the groceries. And get home to our kids.

Check out Heather Johnson's Party of 5 blog here.

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2 comments so far | Post a comment now
Anonymous January 21, 2010, 10:12 AM

wow, ur article gave me tingles. god bless u & ur family

Golf September 21, 2010, 12:42 AM

In corresponding reports, Tiger Woods stars inside a film known as “My Preferred 18 Holes.” It turns out it is genuinely about golf.

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