Last September my mother returned to Haiti after a seven-year absence from her home country. It was a brief trip involving minor family matters and she came back telling us how amazed she was at the economic growth she had seen. Many families had personal computers or cell phones. Some of the small villages had better roads and bridges. After the tragic events there this past week the country my mother visited just a few short months ago no longer exists. In the wake of the earthquake I keep thinking of the “what if’s:” What if my mother had traveled last week instead? What if I had gone to visit her? What if my sister had finally found the money to spend Christmas, New Year’s in Port-au-Prince? The “what if’s” are choking my family right now. Since Tuesday we don’t even know how sad to be.
There is a distinct difference between mourning for a country and mourning for a beloved niece or cousin, and in my family’s New York City home we’ve been vacillating between both of those states. My father, an emotional guy by nature, started crying Wednesday morning. We got an e-mail about the village he grew up in; it had a church with a kindergarten attached. Both structures collapsed killing everyone inside. His aunt with lung cancer was pulled out of the rubble of her home, with her life and not much else. My mother has a cousin and sister living in Port-au-Prince that she speaks to at least once a week. Both women have several children. She hasn’t heard anything. Over the past week my mother, who is a quiet person, has become even more silent. My siblings and I are worried.
Meanwhile I’m supposed to be studying for a Neurology exam, working at my school’s library and finding bloggers for “Busted Borders.” Instead I’ve been watching CNN, MSNBC and the local news in hopes to see someone we know in the footage of a ruined hospital—it hasn’t happened. Somehow, I am supposed to be living life as if someone I know is not sleeping on the street petrified of being in a building. I don’t know how to do that.
Is it possible to be positive with such uncertainty? In my 24 years of life I have had an abundance of control over what happens. If I studied hard I got good grades. If I worked I got better pay or a promotion. If I gave someone respect, usually respect was given to me in return. Powerlessness is not a feeling I am used to. There are no guarantees here and I am trying to maintain hope while being inundated with video footage of bleary-eyed Haitians wandering the streets of their capital.
Part of me is angry because building codes have never been a priority there. In fact, the Haitian people are used to looking outward to other nations for aid with the basics: education, water, even compassion. My anger feels like the only legitimate emotion I have. Until I have confirmation of how many family members are dead, my anger makes more sense than my sadness.
Beyond my own family members I am also hurt that people who wanted to help Haiti before the earthquake, are also buried under rubble. I’m an optimistic person but I am trying to grapple with the idea that my family’s other home has lost what little it had. Perhaps I should pray for them all, but will prayer give these people water? Will it free them from the wreckage many are still trapped under? Will it help me make any sense of a tragedy that has left my family and me unsure of exactly how we should feel and what exactly we should do?