Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Day To Remember

12 January 2012

Two years ago today, at 4:53pm, an earthquake struck Haiti and killed over 150,000 people in one night.  What more is there to say about that has not already been said?  Repetitions of famous phrases and statistics, but ones that deserve remembrance, especially on today of all days.  The earthquake that decimated a nation already referred to as the poorest nation in the western hemisphere.  The earthquake that killed over a quarter of a million people overall, many instantly, but many more dying after hours trapped in agony under buildings and rubble.  Dying frightened, alone, in incredible pain and in the dark.

How must it have been?  Don and I have spent time here asking people their stories – stories of incredible survival and fortitude.  They speak of the winding down of the day, people starting to get off of work and head home.  They speak of the suddenness, the absolute shock and uncertainty of that terrible night and many to follow. 

What must it have been like to see the buildings crumbling all around you, as if the very earth was trying to shake your city off?  What must it have been like to see the sun set less than an hour later, the only light given by surviving generators and structural fires?  What must it have been like to tear yourself free of a building and spend days of madness searching for your husband, your parents, your children, your friends, anyone?  What must it have been like to know that your family is dead, and not be able to mourn them because you cannot find their bodies?  Either they are still buried, or they have already been taken away and thrown like so much trash into a mass grave with no consecration and no rites of any kind.

Last night Don, Lucy and I went with the rest of the Mayo team up to Titanyen, one of the sites of the mass graves that received many of the earthquakes victims.  There we met with Pere Frechette and many others to celebrate a memorial mass for the victims of the earthquake – to remember them, mourn them, and celebrate their new lives.

Titanyen is located about an hour north-west of Tabarre.  We threw the car seat into the big passenger van, strapped Lucy in, and packed everyone in like sardines for the drive over.  After meeting up with another van of hospital workers and volunteers as well as ten children from the Fr. Wasson Angels of Light program, we started winding our way through Port-au-Prince traffic toward the Rue Nationale.  The road finally clears the city and you can see the Baie de Port-au-Prince on your left through the floodplains.  The grave is located on an unmarked road just off the Rue Nationale, winding through several passes and down into a barren valley.

The valley is laid out in a geographical testament to Haiti’s many disasters, both natural and man-made.  The mass graves from the earthquake are nearest the valley entrance, then followed by the cholera graves, and most recently the individual graves that Pere Frechette and his group use to bury the dead from St. Damien’s and the city morgue.  Pere Frechette told us that this particular site was chosen for the earthquake graves because it had been used historically for anonymous burials.  The general hospital would bury their dead there in mass graves, and even before that Papa Doc and his Tonton Macouttes used to hold their massacres on that very site.  A valley full of bodies, and only recently afforded the dignity of individual burials and rites.
Mass graves from the earthquake
Individual graves from St. Damiens

We parked at the end of the valley near the recent graves.  Some of the mass graves were easy to spot – large mounds of rock and dirt like keloid scars on the earth.  But the ground was rocky and dirty and covered in smaller mounds.  I stayed on the road, not wanting to tread on graves unmindfully.  We waited for some time, Pere Frechette having had a few errands to run on the way, but the wait was not unwelcome.  The sun started to set, the shadows of the hills surrounding us lengthening to provide us with some much welcome respite from the sun.  Lucy was soon surrounded by the Haitian children, overcoming her initial shyness and soon offering everyone the sign of peace over and over.  Three Sisters of Charity accompanied by two French men soon pulled up in their Range Rover, and started setting up an alter for the mass.  Don and I agreed that almost nothing is more bad ass than the Sisters of Charity in their full habits and Chaco’s driving a Range Rover.

Soon a brass band that was parked halfway back down the valley started playing and marching down the road, stopping near where our cars were parked.  Don, Lucy and I walked over toward them, enjoying the wind off the ocean and the cooling night air.  The band told us Pere Frechette would be another few minutes, so we took a ti flanne and enjoyed the time together, stopping to crunch through the dry grass and catch grasshoppers.
Lucy "flying" on her Papa's shoulders.

After some time several large St. Luc’s trucks arrived, people packed into the backs, and we all followed them back to the head of the valley to hold our mass in a more appropriate spot.  After reaching the head of the valley, the altar was once again set up, this time on the slight rocky rise that bespoke the grave beneath.

Gathered for mass over the graves.
What followed was possibly the most memorable mass I have ever has the privilege to celebrate.  A wrenching combination of bitter mourning and joyous celebration perhaps only possible in Haiti.  Flowers were passed out to everyone in attendance, Pere Frechette explaining that after the communion we would each go out and lay our flowers somewhere on the surrounding ground in remembrance of the people buried, literally, everywhere beneath us.  He began the mass by walking around the area where the earthquake victims were buried, blessing all of the ground with incense and holy water.  People gathered around in a loose circle, sitting or standing where comfortable, the sense of communion perceptible as the sun sank further behind the hills, leaving us in a golden, windy half-light.

Don and I wept at the first reading, talking of Samuel and his acceptance of his place as one of God’s prophets at such an early age.  We were reminded of Riley, and the openness with which he loved people, and always the suddenness with which he was called back to God.

Lucy was a blessing, as always, scattering flower petals into the wind, and playing peek-a-boo from behind our legs with the Italian aid workers from Fondazione Francesca Rava when not snuggling up with Don or me.  The sign of peace was like being in college again – there was no hurry to move on with the mass, everyone taking the time to greet everyone else.  Lucy was an especial favorite at this time, each of the other children returning for another handshake, each Italian indulging in a chubby cheek kiss as we embraced each other and wished each other peace.  The rocky ground made the footing uncertain as the sun set, and the cheekbone on my kissing side is a little soar today from stumbling into an Italian peace be with you and knocking faces.

After we shared communion, Don, Lucy and I held hands and walked out into the growing darkness to lay our flowers down over someone’s final resting place.  It was impossibly not to think of Riley, throughout the entire night really, but especially at this moment.  The incredible gift we were given, being able to hold him and see him before he was buried, to say our necessary goodbyes.  The incredible gift we are given every day just knowing where his body lies in rest, even though he has moved on into God’s house.  The incredible gift we are given in having a place to visit, to consecrate with our tears and questions and prayers and memories of our beloved brother.

We lay our flowers down on a patch of rocky ground surrounded by scrub brush, praying that the souls of those beneath us had found their rest.  Praying that their loved ones, if any, who remain alive where able to mourn them somehow.  Praying that these flowers, this act of remembrance for those who were lost, brought some solace. 

As we gathered back together from our moments of prayer, the circle seemed to draw together even closer against the dark.  The mass seemed to end quickly after that, the wind still whipping around us even after the sun had fully set.  As Pere Frechette said the closing prayer the band started up once more, but there were no plaintive strains this time.  The brass and drums beat out the joyful tune of a hymn to Lazarus, a commemoration rather than a tune of mourning.

Gathered in a dance of celebration.

The clear, tangy notes of the trumpet and saxophone seemed almost surreal floating through the night, but the note of celebration was so incredibly right and true at that moment.  People began to dance their joy in God then, dance their thankfulness for these moments of clarity and thankfulness and joy in life and rebirth.  Don and I held Lucy between us, one of her little chubby hands in each of ours, as we danced around that hill in the dark.  It was a beautiful and perhaps unexpected celebration of the hundreds of thousands of people who left us two years ago on this day.

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