Wednesday, June 9, 2010
My daughter, Rhubarb, just emerged from her bedroom wearing a wide, bright orange headband, holding back her bouquet of gorgeous, narrow locks. Her dimples practically sparkle when she pulls her hair away from her face, revealing a dream-like glimpse of the face her birthmother stored somewhere beneath all her deep lines of poverty and oppression.
She glows, our daughter, this child I share with the soul of Haiti. Every inch of her long, sinewy legs, the same ones our first pediatrician said might never straighten after Rickets, reveal her strong, swift ancestry.
She brandishes a sense of responsibility far beyond her years. It compels her to wake up at 6:00 every morning and happily complete a full day of school work, including violin practice, by 10:30. She often makes my morning coffee and brings it to me with an air of accomplishment. She is the only member of the family with a green thumb and so furnishes us with fresh lettuce and basil every summer. She cheerfully swoops up babies every chance she gets, offering respite to weary mothers who can rest assured that their children are well-cared for by this ten-year-old custodian. Just weeks after we brought her and Eggplant home, at the tender age of three, she delighted in learning to cook, could cut food with a sharp knife, and insisted on bathing her little brother, allowing me to watch, but not touch. Had she remained in Haiti, she would have survived and she would have made sure her brother, and any other child in need she knew, survived alongside her. I have no doubt. Here, where she eats full meals and snacks throughout the day, passes her time in safety, receives an education and medical care, and is protected from the vicious elements that plague Haiti, she thrives. She is happiest when she is doing, executing plans, taking charge. Her eternal competence and reliability pay homage to the spirits that built an African nation out of tragedy and injustice.
Earlier this week, my son sat with his temporarily ill little sister for an hour, playing her favorite games, games that typically bore him. He fashioned a low side table out of a bin and an abandoned cabinet door so that she could lie on the couch while they played. He brought her toast and water and sat with her during her stomach-soothing meal. If there were such a job as "professional comforter", Eggplant would excel at it.
Toddlers flock to him for rides across the beach sand on the sled he brings just for that purpose. Dogs heel for him, some falling into his lap for the rub to which they have grown accustomed. Firefighters take one look at his bright, friendly smile and invite him to sit in the driver's seat of their fire engine or to help check the water pressure while they test fire hydrants. He has a list of suitors so long that he once casually observed, "When it is time for me to get married, I am going to have a lot of choices!"
He came to us this way. Shortly after he and his sister first came home, I sat in a pregnant, bloated lump on the sofa, choking back morning sickness and fighting to keep my eyes open. Though his 12 by 18 inch rectangle of satin-backed soft, buttery fleece had been a permanent fixture against his cheek since we’d handed it to him for comfort his first day home, he walked straight over to me and held his prized possession out, an offering of compassion and hope. He couldn’t have known that I would break into a bout of hormonal wailing at this remarkable gesture or that his father would also be weeping in the kitchen at his new son’s kindness. He did, however, recognize the power of his gift and has judiciously offered some version of it to anyone in need since.
I like to search deep into his inherently compassionate character for threads of his bloodline. How does a little boy start his life in a shanty thrown together on top of sewage in one of the worst slums in Haiti, move quickly to a dark, chaotic, dangerous orphanage run by American crooks, and then spend his days making people smile? Kindness courses through his veins. Though his birthmother's eyes burned with understandable anger and devastation the few times I met her, she walked miles through muck, past slaughter blocks and mud slides, to nurse him several times a day -- knowing that the life her milk gave him would soon belong to someone else. Somewhere, removed from abject poverty, a legacy of grace was bestowed upon this little man.
It is for these reasons that we continue to honor and our children's Haitian ancestry, the spirits that reside within and without, the legacy that they are called to nurture for future generations. They are as much American as they are Haitian -- yes that is true. They are growing up in an American house with peach parents and a peach little sister. They bring the kinds of gifts to America that America desperately needs these days: compassion and kindness, reliability and aptitude. But these gifts come from Haiti, from slaves who saved a nation, from elders who guide an entire population towards hope. They deserve respect. They demand honor. They evoke gratitude.
I, for one, am forever in debt to Ayiti: L'Union Fait La Force (Haiti: Unity is Strength)