Friday, January 6, 2012

A Funeral In Haiti

Don, Lucy and I were up early this morning. Our alarm went off at 6am, and we may have ignored it for a while, except a sudden creaking and a whispered "hi" issuing from the corner of the room indicated that our parental duties had begun. A quick toilet and ti dejeuner had us at St. Damien's hospital in time for their 7am daily mass, said by Pere Rick Frechette whenever he is in country.

There is both an indoor and outdoor chapel, situated to the right of the main hospital building up on a mortared grey stone platform about five feet  off of the ground and accessible by stairs and a ramp, with potted palms and other tropical trees nicely arranged.  The outdoor pavilion is covered in a tin roof and has only two rows of pews, which were already filled with Haitians dressed in their finest, all turned around staring at us as we walked up the stairs. We were greeted by a short, older white woman holding a clipboard and a bible, which combined with her bearing told me immediately that she was a nun.  She introduced herself as Sr Judy and indicated that we could sit on the stone ledge that backed up to the ramp, as the chairs they were just putting out would soon be filled by others and we might want to be in the back in case we needed to get out of the way. It wasn't until we sat down and arranged ourselves that I noticed the three coffins and two wrapped bodies laid out in front of the altar, and many ore things began to click into place.   We were attending mass at a hospital, in fact a mass that would serve three hospitals: St. Damien's the children's hospital, St. Luke's the adult hospital, and St. Philomenas the hospital built to deal exclusively with the cholera epidemic.

 Of course, it was a funeral mass.  It would be a funeral mass almost every day it was said here in this space.

I looked around again, Lucy sitting quietly in my arms and taking in the scene as well.  I noted that while the indoor chapel was empty of pews, perhaps drug out to offer more seating in e outdoor space, there were several bodies laid out inside as well.  Were they the more recently passed? Would their service be tomorrow morning?  I thought about these bodies laid out before us and wondered if they were anyone that Don had treated the day before.  He came home having seen several very ill people...were we paying our respects to them right now?

 Sr. Judy walked by talking animatedly into a cell phone.  "I just wanted to tell you we've got about a million people here and a hundred bodies so the sooner you get here and the sooner we get this started the better!" My mind was moving in slow motion, and while I got that she was talking to Pere Frechette I couldn't understand why she was so worried.  She walked back by, glanced at us and said "I just hope they respect the mass!!" Lu moved back and forth between Don and I, and we soon saw Pere Frechette in his vestments walking with another white man up the ramp, greeting all of the people, Haitian and otherwise whose paths he crossed.  The singing began as he entered under the chapel roof, a processional about Lazarus, which was all my rusty ear could glean from the lyrical Kreyol.

 As he stepped up to the altar and began the mass proper, three latecomers walked up the ramp and passed right in front of us as they made their way to the open chairs.  Before I could understand what was happening, the younger of the trio had dropped to the ground and was convulsing a foot from my toes, her arms alternating from rigidly pressed to her chest to waving over her head, her body flopping back and forth from back to front, her eyes tightly shut as she groaned and growled.  Her black pants and white shirt, surely the nicest that she owned, were covered in the light brown dust that pervades PaP outside the rainy season. 

All this I took in in a second, more significantly noting that Don, holding Lucy at my side, made no move whatsoever to pass her to me and move to help this fallen woman.  Ergo she was not ill.  Because when it comes to helping people having a sudden stroke or seizure or fit caused by an actual physical malady, that is his milieu.  But he stood by me, appearing to be slightly upset, but trying to follow the mass.  Another 30 seconds of processing and my foggy brain finally grasped that this was Haitian mourning.  Don and I had surely talked about this before, but it hadn't occurred to me that we would encounter these very common cultural practices.

Sr. Judy and one of the hospital employees came over, along with Wyn, to move her out of harms way to the back of the platform, where they laid her down.  The Haitian administrator stood with his feet partway under her thrashing body to keep her from rolling back into the chapel.  Minutes later, my eyes, unable to keep straying back to the mourning woman, were pulled back to the cheapen pews as another women cried out and fell across the pew, thrashing over her neighbors.  Several minutes later a third woman fell.   We moved back several feet to give people a path to the back of the platform, and watched as these two women were also carried back, thrashing and struggling, one woman in particular seemed almost to leap out of the arms of her helpers at every step.  A fourth woman, sobbing silently, walked herself to the back and sat on the ledge amidst the potted palms crying as the other three women continued to scream and writhe on the ground, friends kneeling by to make sure they did not harm themselves.

 This was what Sr. Judy had been worried about, given the apparently high number of funerals that were being celebrated at this morning's mass- that the Haitian mourning tradition would overpower the decorum of the mass celebration.  Most Haitians are Catholics, but Haitians are also an emotive and effusive people.  At a shallow glance their lives bring to mind the old Thomas Hobbes quote: nasty, brutish and short.  It is difficult sometimes to see the joys and happiness of everyday life here.  The cholera epidemic piled on top of the horrific earthquake of January 2010, in turn piled on top of the normal difficulties of life for the majority of the Haitian people.  Perhaps faced with such everyday stress, such profound insecurity, the final strain of the death of a(nother) loved one produced in these women an intense emotional and physical outburst.   I don't know their situations, I don't know their stories.  I only know the grief that I saw, and I know that I didn't find it inappropriate or out of place.

I was almost envious.

 Don and I both started to choke up as the mass continued, familiar songs now strange in Kreyol coming from the front while shrieks, cries and the sounds of bodies smacking against stone came from our backs.  It seemed to me there was comfort in both directions.  There was release in the total abandonment of oneself, body, soul and mind to grief, an abandonment that our culture eschews as taboo in public.  But it is a temporary comfort, and a cold one at that.  The death of Riley, and the abandonment to grief that came afterward was too fresh for us to ignore these women, too fresh for our eyes to stay dry when faced with the kinship of loss.  Yet it was too fresh for us to look at for long, lest we be drawn backward into the rawness of that grief.

 The greater comfort came as we looked forward, and as Pere Frechette began to lead the congregation in Marty Haugen's hymn We Remember, an old favorite at Notre Dame.  As we began to cry in earnest, I hugged Lucy close and prayed that these women and their families would someday soon know the blessing of once again looking forward.

The outdoor chapel ahead and the indoor chapel on the right.
 As I sit here now in our comfortable, air conditioned lounge typing this to share with you, I can hear the sounds of industry outside the window.  People clearing rocks and trash from abandoned lots, construction, car horns, Operation Blessing employees welding fish tanks in the courtyard below. Even the roosters are industriously noisy.  I pray that these are indeed the sounds of a whole country looking forward once again.

2 comments:

  1. I cried several times reading your stories and of your feelings. Your writing places us in your presence and in the presence of your faith and your wonder at our God who sustains us and loves us so. As I think about Jesus walking among the poor and healing the sick and infirm I am connected to you three. Lucy is so young now, but I believe that she will remember some of the scenes she is witnessing. I love you all!

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