While putting away the Christmas decorations, I came across my daughter’s letter to Santa. Most of her list contained items typical for a 6-year-old: bike (check), dollhouse (check), The Polar Express DVD (check). But the last item gave me pause. A month ago, when she was writing her letter, she asked me how to spell “hotel.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because I want to ask Santa to build a new hotel in Haiti.”
In 2006, I left New York City and my job as an attorney at a law firm and moved to Haiti to teach for a semester, hoping to find fulfillment in a new career. Just as quickly as I learned that teaching was not my passion, I found another unexpected calling. I fell in love with an orphaned 2-year-old girl with a perpetual smile and a huge dimple on her left cheek. By the end of my sabbatical, I’d decided to adopt Vanessa, and began the arduous process. For the next 2-1/2 years, I flew to Port-au-Prince every six months , spending weeks with Vanessa at the Hotel Montana, swimming, playing, eating, laughing and falling in love with each other each time.
The Hotel Montana was a sprawling five-story structure of white concrete with balconies and terraces overlooking the city and ocean at every turn , with a large flame tree at the hotel entrance. The open-air lobby, with its spotless tile floors, was adorned with fresh flowers and Haitian art, and the staff, in their starched white uniforms, always extended a gracious “Bienvenue.”
Vanessa and I shared many firsts at the Hotel Montana. She spoke her first English word, “bunny,” in a breathy whisper while sitting on a hotel bed. It was in one of the elevators that she first saw herself in a mirror and, captivated, said her name and gasped in amazement. She took her first wobbly steps down its white tile hallways, had her first taste of ice cream on a terrace with a view the sea, and took her first swim in the kidney-shaped pool, squealing as she plunged into the water on a humid afternoon.
We met many people at the Hotel Montana committed to improving conditions in Haiti , like Daniel, the third-generation owner of a Haitian rum factory that employed dozens, who took us on our first tour of Port-au-Prince ; Ray, an American member of the U.N. mission ; and Cecilia, a willowy, soft-spoken U.N. employee from Italy who also wanted to adopt a child.
You could feel the hope
It was an exciting time to be among these people. By 2008, while poverty and corruption persisted, the violence that plagued Port-au-Prince was slowly subsiding, and you could feel a shared belief that Haiti was turning a corner , that the heightened international focus was making a difference. Each time I left I had more hope that a better life for the people of Haiti was becoming a real possibility.
In July 2009 I returned for the last time to the Hotel Montana with my mother and Vanessa, who was now almost five, to wait for her visa — the last step . As we sat on a shaded patio drinking coffee and talking with Guerline, who ran the hotel coffee shop and often braided Vanessa’s hair , a tall and slender middle-aged woman with hair pulled back in a neat bun introduced herself as Nadine . Her father built the Montana in the 1940’s, and after his death, she remained in Haiti to run the hotel, enduring dictatorships, uprisings, and even her own kidnapping.
When I explained that we were in legal limbo, waiting for a visa that could come today or weeks or months from now, Nadine shook her head. She said how often she’d heard similar stories . She put her hand on my arm and said, “I’ll be sending you good thoughts today. Don’t lose hope.”
That night, when we saw Nadine in the restaurant , I had gotten word the visa was approved; our long adoption journey was almost over. Nadine hugged me and put her hand on her heart, sharing in our relief and joy. A few days later we were in the gleaming lobby with our suitcases and Nadine came to say goodbye. She handed me a small pouch tied with a gold ribbon, and explained that inside was a Haitian 50 centime coin from 1908. “I took it out of my father’s collection,” she said. “I want Vanessa to have something from Haiti so that she doesn’t forget her country.” Then she turned to Vanessa and said, ” Please come back and visit us.” I assured her we would.
During our first few months home in New York, Vanessa often stopped in our hallway to look at three pictures from the Hotel Montana. Each time she looked at the pictures she asked if we could go back to “our hotel,” and each time I answered, “of course we will.” I couldn’t tell her stories about the day she was born , but I could tell her about our trips to the hotel . In many ways it was our first home .
“Our hotel” was no more
After the earthquake struck on January 12, 2010, I sent a flurry of emails to everyone I knew in Haiti. For the first two days, they went eerily unanswered. Then replies began to trickle in. Daniel had been in Port-au-Prince and was unharmed, although his factory was damaged and the city sites he had taken such pride in sharing with us were mostly destroyed. Ray had been out of the country, and his brief reply could not conceal his devastation, ending with the words, “the Hotel Montana is no more.” I never heard from Cecilia. She was killed when the U.N. headquarters collapsed.
Then, while listening to NPR at my office, I heard that Nadine was dead too. “Our hotel” had been reduced to a mass of concrete and debris, crushing over 200 people, including its owner, beneath it. In the first images I saw of the hotel, the only thing I recognized was the flame tree that still stood in the circular driveway. It was unfathomable to think that the beautiful place was reduced to rubble, and that so many of the people who had welcomed us, cooked our food and braided Vanessa’s hair, were buried beneath it. I could not stop crying that day, for the people who had died and for all of the hope that died with them.
That night I tried to do a puzzle with Vanessa with one eye on the television. I hadn’t yet told her about the earthquake, unsure how to explain it.
“Mama, is that Haiti on TV?” she asked me.
“Yes, pumpkin,” I answered. “There was an earthquake. A lot of people were hurt, and our hotel fell down.”
“When will they fix it?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said, “but probably not for a long time.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I didn’t believe it would ever be fixed, that I didn’t believe Haiti would ever be fixed either.
A couple of nights later, my mother called: “I just heard that they rescued the owner of the Montana.” I searched the internet and soon found confirmation. After over 100 hours trapped in the rubble of the hotel, Nadine had been rescued. I pulled out the Haitian coin and held it in my hand, considering its weight, its indestructibility, like the woman who had given it to us. Then I crawled into bed next to Vanessa and rested my head next to hers. There had been so many roadblocks, but I had never given up hope that I would one day bring her home. And here was she was, proof of that hope sleeping next to me. I realized for her sake I had to find hope again, and Nadine’s rescue gave me its first glimmer .
Finding the way back from hopelessness
I planned a fundraiser and it felt good to focus on something other than the increasingly dire news reports . I told myself I would stay committed to my cause, our cause, so that I could carry through on my promise to bring Vanessa back to her country, a country that would be rebuilt with the faith and conviction of people who never gave up hope. The fundraiser was a success, and I immediately planned a second one for a few months later.
Then summer came, bringing heavy rains and a hurricane to Haiti’s tent cities. By August, less than 10 percent of the rubble had been cleared from the streets. Autumn brought a deadly cholera outbreak, a disputed election and political unrest. I read my daily Haiti news alerts with a feeling worse than frustration and outrage; I felt hopeless.
And then, a month ago, Vanessa revealed her plan to ask Santa to rebuild our hotel. As if sensing that I had given up, she had moved on to someone else. Other than wiring some money, I had done nothing for Haiti since the spring, and each time Vanessa had asked me when our hotel would be fixed, my doubt must have been apparent. I felt I had let down not only my daughter, but also those who died, and those who survived who hadn’t given up even when buried under rubble for days.
Santa didn’t break ground on any new hotels on Christmas morning, but he did, thanks to my sister, bring Vanessa a book called Hope for Haiti, by Jesse Joshua Watson. It is a beautifully illustrated picture book set in Port-au-Prince after the earthquake, about a man living in a tent city who finds hope in the sight of young children playing soccer with a ball made of old rags. I realized after reading it to her that its message is far more urgent for adults. Like Vanessa, the children in the story never lost hope to begin with. Now, a year after the tragedy that brought Haiti to its knees, it is the adults that need to keep hope alive, to cling to it, stubbornly, blindly, if we are ever to build something better for the children of Haiti.