The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.
– Ernest Hemingway
In the summer of 2010, my wife, Melissa, and I set off for Jacmel, Haiti, a port city of around 137,000 people that sits on the country’s Southern coast and about 40 kilometers from Port-au-Prince. It was seven months after an earthquake had made a desperate nation look apocalyptic and ravaged an already fragile infrastructure. Jacmel was damaged but serene in comparison to Port-au-Prince, where the streets were blocked by debris and traffic medians were filled with displaced residents sleeping in USAID tents. The smell was the first thing we noticed upon exiting Port-au-Prince’s airport terminal: a blend of burning tires, dirt and dust from unpaved roads, open-pit cooking, and fumes from motorbikes and tap taps. But like everything else in Haiti, the smell was shrouded in contradiction for it also reflected the best of Haitian society, a network of communities where people live among others.
Our volunteer group of eleven people, which also included my friend, Rob, and his sixteen-year-old son, Colton, was led by Jeremy, a timid man in his fifties who arrived looking like he was heading to a community garden to pull weeds and pluck tomatoes. He wore cheap sunglasses, a bucket hat, sandals, socks, and a fanny pack that we assumed contained multiple tubes of Burt’s Bees lip balm as he had cited the “probable – quite possibly likely – threat of dehydration.”
Because I had no medical training, I was tasked with creating patient records and establishing a filing system for the medical clinic, a stark, non-descript, concrete building that was decorated with little more than examining tables, bottles of aspirin, and cartons of bandages. Because she had received an A in Biology during her sophomore year in college and is thoroughly disorganized, Melissa had opted for something more interactive, found a stethoscope and began taking patient vitals. I needed a translator because the one I had been given knew little English and had stormed off after suggesting I manje kaka. It was clear after the first five minutes of our encounter that I was as confident in my French as he was in picking up women. And both of us found the other deeply lacking in self-awareness. He kept marking down patients as thirty-five-years old and “sick” or mal and gruffly skirted older men and women so the younger female patients could jump in line. I’m terrible at guessing ages, but I was confident that one woman who appeared with gray hair and a wrinkled face was in fact neither “thirty-five” nor trannsenk as he wrote down. When I crossed out thirty-five after she confirmed that she was plus de soixante (over sixty), he stormed off and grabbed the hand of a young lady who was loitering outside. I lamely waved at him in the hope that he would calm down and return. Instead, he proceeded to make a series of agitated hand gestures that I loosely translated as, “I beg to differ. I will see you in Hell.”
As I sat alone at the table and the next Jacmel resident approached, I realized the severity of my predicament as she stated (I think) that she was thirty-five and mal. I looked around and saw a young man who was in line waiting to be seen by a nurse and who had flagged me down before. He said his name was Larry-Jean, but I mistook it as “L’Argent”, which is the French word for “money.” As he repeated his name, I kept responding that I couldn’t help him, each instance a little louder and a little slower.
“Sir, I am Larry-Jean!”
“I AM SORRY. I. do NOT. HAVE ANY.”
We overcame the initial language gap, and he continued to politely ask questions as if he were solving a New York Times crossword puzzle.
“Excuse me, but how many people live in Colorado?”
“Have you ever seen 50 Cent in concert?”
“Sir, are you a Republican or Democrat?”
After struggling with the next patient, I pulled Larry-Jean out of line and asked if he could help me. He was soon at my desk examining the papers and assessing his task. His approach to the job was in stark contrast to my previous assistant. Larry-Jean greeted everybody by name and with a handshake or an embrace. He knew their families, their backgrounds, and conditions. The line grew longer but the patients were happier. Each had a story to tell and now a vehicle to convey it. We met a twelve-year-old girl whose eye had been lost during the earthquake. He hugged her and said she looked beautiful even as she squinted out of her left eye to make the best of the fate she had been given. I witnessed kindness in its purest sense – to connect with someone not with a touch or a word but with a gesture from the heart.
“You’re hired,” I assured him.
As we admitted our last patient for the day, it dawned on me that Larry-Jean had not been seen by anyone. I had cut his visit short by asking him to help me. He replied that all he had was a headache, and that it was now gone.
“You have cured me,” he laughed. “You should be a doctor instead of a lawyer. By the way, sir, how many years does it take to become a lawyer in the U.S.?”
Perhaps I had cured him. For it was boredom that was his malady and companionship that was the elixir.
I blame my decision to visit Haiti on Anderson Cooper, whose reports from Port-au-Prince left me hollow. Up to that point, I had done little in the way of extreme adventure, and with each passing year felt I had become morally languid and more cynical. When I received an email from a service organization with which we were familiar and that was doing profound work in Haiti, I set aside my fears of joining the tidal wave of do-gooders who had descended on Haiti’s Toussaint Louverture International Airport after the 2010 earthquake.
In some ways I envied the people I met in the airport who toted Bibles and were bent on saving a vulnerable nation. They knew what they wanted. I did not. I knew I wanted to help, but I recognized a week would be insufficient. There was no way I could have any meaningful impact on a country so devoid of resources, government infrastructure and leadership. Melissa and I went anyway. It was only a week, we thought, and it might make us better people. If nothing else, I figured I could outdo people at cocktail parties, especially those adept at conveying moral superiority and who, by some misfortune, always seemed to find their way to me.
The day after we opened the medical clinic, I awoke at 6:30 to get breakfast at our modest hotel. I was greeted by the hotel security guard, a frail man in his sixties, who likely could be overtaken easily despite the shotgun he carried. He told me I had a visitor. I went to the entrance, saw Larry-Jean waiting outside for me, and invited him in for breakfast. He ate patiently, but it was the barrage of questions on topics ranging from Brooklyn rappers to the United States Supreme Court that seemed to nourish him most. When he finally paused, I asked where he had learned English.
He answered that he had never been formally trained. His teachers were the tourists of Jacmel. Since he was a little boy, he had always asked visitors for books and tape recordings, albums, and magazines, anything that he could get his hands on to study English. He said that most Americans obliged, often surprised at the humble request.
Larry-Jean and I worked the clinic again that day. We continued our conversation as we checked patients in. Many of the women we welcomed carried children and asked that they also be seen. In taking down their information, I discovered that several mothers identified the child’s father as “Jean-Baptiste Etienne.” After the fourth woman indicated that the father was Jean-Baptiste Etienne, I asked Larry-Jean if this was a common name or they all shared the same father.
“Same guy,” Larry-Jean replied confidently. “He’s a ladies’ man.”
“I can see that,” I said. “When Jean-Baptiste shows up, I’m going to have a word with him. We need to give him condoms or explain responsibility. You need to find him and bring him here so we can talk to him.”
“Jean-Baptiste is a large man,” Larry-Jean warned me. “He’s the boss. He will not take to instruction.” I trusted Larry-Jean and nodded. But after the fifth and sixth woman named “Jean-Baptiste Etienne” as the father, I asked Larry-Jean to track him down. I wasn’t going to be intimidated.
Like the day before, most patients reported simple headaches. Their temperatures and blood pressures were generally normal for living in such austere conditions. One older patient raised some concern when Melissa recorded a disturbingly high blood pressure. Melissa found a nurse and discovered that before getting access to help, some patients were steered to a room where they engaged in a brief prayer session. Many of Jacmel’s residents are born with little leverage. As a result, they’ll accept the prospect of religious enlightenment if it means shelter or access to aspirin.
The exchange of medical treatment for allegiance to religious dogma seemed like a subtle quid pro quo and made Melissa and me uncomfortable. Melissa is more religious than me, but we both value spirituality over fundamentalism. I believe religion should be something embraced by choice rather than compulsion. The Jacmel residents had no option. While seeking to be healed for their physical ailments, some were forced to follow the lead of those in power and recite the words of the God the volunteers had enlisted. But hadn’t this always been the case in Haiti? Wasn’t this Haiti’s history? Those in power seeking another strategic foothold, whether it be rooted in diplomacy, economics or religion?
But the more I judged others around me the more I realized I was not that different. I too had come to fill a void: to prove something to myself and others that I was different. That as I neared my fortieth birthday, I cared about the world around me. That I was not callous or cynical. I came to help but my motivation was not wholly altruistic. Service work never is. There is always a selfish motive even if it is hidden behind the veneers of compassion and inspiration.
The next morning Larry-Jean again appeared in the small lobby of our hotel. The guard had let him in, and he waited patiently until I appeared. I had a football and gave it to him. He appreciated the gift but inquired whether I had any books. All of Melissa’s books were on her Kindle reader, so I gave him my Street & Smith’s 2010 College Football Preview that Rob and I had exchanged the entire week like two boys at Summer Camp. Between patients, he thumbed through the magazine, fascinated by the schools, uniforms, and information. “Why do they call it the Sugar Bowl? Is that the prize for the victors?”
At about 10:00 A.M., we heard commotion outside. There was a loud, deep voice bent on commanding respect and eliciting fear.
“Jean-Baptiste is here,” Larry-Jean said as he delicately moved behind me.
The line at the front of the room parted and Jean-Baptiste Etienne appeared before me. He was about 6’4 and around 250 pounds. He could easily have played Defensive End for the Dallas Cowboys. He had broad shoulders and an impatient expression that did not invite small talk. Most intimidating was the machete that was hooked to his belt. We shook hands and I told him, through Larry-Jean, that the nurses had seen a number of his children the day before. I pulled the records and showed them to him. He nodded and confirmed that these were the fruits of his labor of love.
“You have many children,” I said looking at his machete. I was about to scold him when I thought otherwise. I did not want to impose my own values on him. I was not in Haiti to correct or preach but to serve. Jean-Baptiste nodded. Neither he nor I were sure where I was going.
“Good news! They’re all healthy!” I said as Larry-Jean translated, his face beaming with relief. Jean-Baptiste smiled with pride and shook my hand, his machete secure in his belt.
Larry-Jean and I continued our work as the line finally subsided after three days of intense patient care. During the end of the day, I turned to the topic I had wanted to raise but had not found the courage: how had he been impacted by the earthquake.
“My sister,” he said without pause and nonplussed by the question. “I lost my sister,” Larry-Jean said matter-of-factly. He did not cry or express anger.
“I miss her,” he said, “but she is missed by many.”
During the rest of the week, I continued to spend time with Larry-Jean. We played soccer, assisted residents in rebuilding tasks, and read stories to children. Although he was careful not to dominate our time, Larry-Jean swooped in during moments of free time and asked me questions about sports, music, and life in the U.S. His appetite to learn was insatiable. All the while I was learning as much from him as he from me. Larry-Jean’s core guiding principle was that the world around him was bigger than he could imagine. From an early age he had decided he was going to use every opportunity to make it a little bit smaller and more understandable through whatever means necessary. Like so many well-intentioned volunteers before me, I had dedicated more time to answering rather than asking. I knew the same approach to life would plague me unless I changed and adopted Larry-Jean’s strategy of inquiring and listening.
On our last night in Haiti, the community held a small reception for us. They gave us gifts that some of the children had made. They thanked us and fed us Onion Pie and goat, both of which I surreptitiously slid onto Melissa’s plate. She still brings that up as the third sacrifice she has made for the family, the first two being the birth of our daughters.
Larry-Jean showed up late for the ceremony and stood in the back. Melissa and I joined him. He quickly clasped both of our hands and held them tight, a Haitian gesture of goodwill. Even men going to work or walking through the streets often hold hands. It is a sign of peace and trust, and a reminder of how important physical proximity can be to showing how much you understand another’s plight, how truly “one” you are with them, not just physically but psychologically.
He was asked to speak, but Larry-Jean declined, a surprise because he was normally so outgoing. After the ceremony, when we were saying our farewells, I teased him for not making any remarks. I then realized how saddened he was by our departure and that he had declined because he was too upset. For me Larry-Jean represented the best and worst of Haiti – the generosity of spirit but the intersection of futility and loneliness.
As we hugged and said good-bye, I asked him what we could do for him. He asked for books and other things to read. But then he made a more direct request.
“Pa bliye,” he insisted, while clutching my hand and tears streamed down his cheek. “Pa bliye. Don’t forget me.”
Melissa and I have been back to Haiti three times but have not returned to Jacmel. We wanted to align with groups that embraced a more secular view to service. Each visit leaves a mark in its wake, competing feelings of spiritual fulfillment and helplessness, for the work to be done is impactful but the challenges too often insurmountable. Like so many other volunteers, I want to do more but other obligations as well as safety considerations take precedent. Since 2010, Haiti has been slammed by further natural disasters as well as political instability, which make visits at the present challenging. Fundraising after 2016’s Hurricane Matthew and other more recent disasters did not flow as easily as it did in 2010. There is Haiti fatigue, and in an age where we move from one crisis to the next, it is hard to grasp the constant Sisyphean struggle confronted by Haitians and the instability that continues to thwart Haitian progress.
Among pictures of our daughters’ class photos, past vacations, and relatives, is a picture of Larry-Jean, Melissa, and me. It was taken one morning after Larry-Jean had stopped by our hotel. The photo brings back fond memories. But I am also tormented by the fear that I have failed someone in need. Efforts to contact Larry-Jean via email and phone after our visit were unsuccessful. The photo, therefore, seems to be a painful tribute to self-aggrandizement. The photo helps me keep my promise. I have not forgotten about Larry-Jean. I fear though that he has forgotten me. Another volunteer with good in his heart, ambition in his eyes, but motivated by the next big crisis in a place that is not Haiti.