7. Concrete to Abstract, back to Concrete again….
We all knew what Saturday morning meant. Larry had laid it out for us: We would start early, the supplies were here, and we were going to help pour a concrete roof. I remembered the roof. I knew what it had done to me on day one. At this point however, I would have rather done anything other than pick out rocks from the ground. We were outside by 6am. There was hammering and loud talking, and machines humming well before 5:30am. I stumbled out to the porch only to see an army of day laborers slinging mixed concrete up the roof at unimaginable speeds. I rubbed my eyes, looked left, and there was gung ho, legs propped up on the rails, watching real men work. Apparently, they were so good at what they did, that we would have got in the way. I’m not sure if this was what Larry had expected, and he had just been messing with us all along, but whatever the case, I think everyone was relieved.
There was no conveyor belt, or giant concrete truck; just a small mixer dumping concrete onto the ground, 12 guys on a cobbled together ladder than had just been extended an hour before to reach up to the roof, and a small contingency adding water, concrete, and sand into the mixer, filling up buckets and slinging it up the ladder. It was almost like watching Cirque De Soleil or even Riverdance; dancers in perfect rhythm and step as they floated concrete into the air and onto the roof. We watched like little boys staring at a car engine while our father showed us the intricacies of such a great machine.
While they labored, we stared, pointed, and took pictures of something, I’m sure could be seen every day with this work crew all across the town of Jacmel. It was amazing to us- and another day of work to them.
It was the city of Jacmel’s birthday and electricity flowed through the city. Literally, elecrticity flowed; the city had power for the whole weekend to celebrate the occasion. Michelle made plans for a few of us to visit the market place festival and then the hospitals since we wouldn’t be needed at Hands & Feet. Michelle had a boyfriend she wanted to introduce us to. We were all a bit surpised, and intrigued.
We walked past the no machine guns sign at the front of the hospital gate and through the rows of white tents that now housed the patients since the earthquake had destroyed portions of the hospital.
We walked through one tent where a small girl around the age of 5 or 6 was missing a section of skin from her shoulder and down her arm. With beautiful flowers hanging everywhere around the tents, I figured it used to be a courtyard, and now, it was the Hospital. Flies were hovering around her open wound, and as we paraded passed her through the tent, I don’t think anyone had the courage to say a word.
Michelle’s boyfriend turned out to be staying in a children’s hospital. This hospital had a few rooms with dozens of metal hospital beds lined up like around the sides creating a race track for the nurses to navigate. Her man: a 2 year old boy who had lost his eyesight. She would lean in and talk to him, and he would just smile and laugh. This got all the other children in the hospital laughing, and made me smile for the young boy, whose life was being made better through Michelle, but devastated for these children.
There was no waiting room for parents to sit and family members to visit wondering whether or not their child was going to recover. For these infant patients, this was their home for the moment and the nurses were the only love they knew. As I walked out I noticed a small poster hanging on the wall. It was a locker hanging of the nickelodeon character iCarly. Depressing.
So much of the Hands & Feet would move from practical, helpful, and concrete steps to improve the place, while other things were much more thought provoking and abstract in the effect it had on the children, and mostly, on us. We were deeply affected by the people of Jacmel and the daily fight for survival.
We hopped back in a pick up truck and headed back to prepare for our trip to the beach. I had a thought as we were driving past the tap taps on the road, “How do you get 45 people to the beach in a 12 passenger van?”
8. The Beach
Since we’d been gone on our trip, all the children that were going to the beach, had already changed into swimsuits and had their towels around each neck. They were ready! Michelle told us when she first started taking them to the beach, they were terrified, because the children had never been exposed to something like that before. Reminder: Haiti is an island. The ocean is everywhere. How sad to think that a few miles away might as well be a lifetime.
27 people in total went to the beach. 9 grown adults and 18 children: in one min-van. Personal space is not an understood or practiced philosophy in Haiti, or Hands and Feet for that matter. Someone is always close by, and by close- I mean right on top of you. After a while, you realize that everyone is sweaty, and you can’t escape, so you might as well deal with it. I sat in the front middle seat of the driving bench with a stick shift in front of me, and the ceiling of the van pressing down on my neck. My head was crooked over and I just prayed for small pot holes and quick travel. I later found out, we passed up two closer beaches that were only minutes away, so we could go to the “nice” beach.
as my realigned spine unfolded and we slid out the front door, we watched the others unpack much like a clown car on to the beach. We counted, double counted, and triple counted. Then we walked single file to the beach. I felt like I was in elementary school, and wished I was the line leader. The kids, were well, kids. They played in the water. One little boy brought a toy soldier with a motorcylcle and that terrorized most of the shoreline with his sound effects and endless gasoline supply. That toy must have excellent fuel efficiency. It was fun to watch him play.
We threw football, dove through the waves, and even kicked some of their football. The waves were small and the ocean was very warm. The sand was odd too. It looked like sand, and acted like sand, but it felt like mud. The kids didn’t care; they screamed when the waves would hit them, and always wanted you to hold their hands. And… we did.
On the way home I sat in the first row of the back seat. Three guys sat on the bench, and four or five children sat between, around, or on us.
One little girl in front of me fell asleep with her head on my leg. At first I was extremely uncomfortable with the whole thing, but then I had a thought: I wonder if this child had ever fallen asleep in someones arms. With only so many arms and laps to go around and 40 plus children, I can’t imagine this opportunity happens too often. I can’t think of a better feeling than being a child falling asleep in a parents arms. At home, I sometimes watch my daughters sleep, and listen to them breathe. I imagined them playing at the beach and falling asleep as we drove home with four people in a four person car seated in a child’s safety seat. I think the happiness that I saw was the same, but the realities very different. I was ready to get home to my reality, and my children and wife, but didn’t mind watching this little girl peacefully sleep in a wet smelly car of 27 people in a minivan after being at the beach.
We got back to the orphanage around 5pm to a few missed phone calls from my wife.
9. The flood, the flight, the fight, and the finish.
It took me a few phone calls to get through to Shantel. I could tell she’s upset. “There is a flood.” We hadn’t watched television or news, or really heard anything about back home in several days. “There is water in our back yard, the kids basketball goal is floating… I’ve started carrying important things upstairs.” Naturally, I figured she was over reacting. Then she sent me pictures. Then the news came in from Nashville. Flooding everywhere. Highways and roads being closed. Shantel couldn’t get out of our subdivision. The small creek in our back yard was a giant raging river and the community was surrounded by water. I have never felt so helpless in my entire life. I heard words come from my mouth, “It’s just a house. Take care of the girls, you’ll be fine.”
The guys all started calling home getting various reports. The biggest flood in Nashville history, cars, and people, and buildings being swept away. While we were at the beach our homes were being threatened. We called friends, and family, and church members. Story after story piled in, and it looked like we would be coming home to a different place. Saturday night we packed up, and knew we would make it to Miami, but had no idea if they would let us back into Nashville.
By 5:30a on Sunday I was packed and ready to go. One back pack was all I brought home. We opted not to drive the road back to Port Au Prince so we wouldn’t miss our flight from Haiti to Miami, and instead were flying a charter plane from Jacmel to Port Au Prince. The Jacmel airport was an over grown driveway with no planes anywhere around. One plane would fly in, pick up passengers and turn around. We were the first people at the “airport.” we let ourselves in. A man sleepily showed up at the door of the “airport” (that we never actually walked in) and took down our names and birth dates. About 6:30a a small plane dropped in on the driveway, squeeled to a hault and then turned around. We were on the 15 passenger plane and ready for take off in under 2 minutes. It was a little unnerving to see the pilots hand hanging out the window at the front of the plane. There was no systems check, or refueling, we just rode down the driveway turned around, and then blasted down the “driveway” right at the “airport” and at the last moment, flew away. The flight lasted 15 minutes at most.
Flying over Haiti was saddening. Seeing the devastation from a few thousand feet at most was almost overwhelming. It was easy to see how thousands of people died. Concrete homes with little to no building regulations toppling over and crushing entire families, and businesses, and hospitals. Tent after tent, after make-shift shelter littered the landscape.
A taxi-van driver whipped us over to the Port Au Prince airport from where our charter flight landed. I have no idea why it didn’t land where we were flying from, but in Haiti, you didn’t ask too many questions. Re-entry into Port Au Prince airport was kind of nice. We sat in an air conditioned lobby with mostly English speaking people heading back to the United States. Tons of relief workers and doctors; I met a nurse who saw over 450 patients in five days and a construction crew that build 43 houses in a week. I felt very inadequate, but equally inspired by care and concern being shown to a place that could easily be forgotten.
No one was holding up signs and cheering for us when we walked off the plane in Miami, but I felt like kissing the ground and hugging everyone I saw. Most of the people I wanted to see were Ronald McDonald, the Burger King, and Mr. Coca Cola himself. We walked with purpose to find out how we would get home. Nashville flight: CANCELLED. We knew getting home would be a fight, but it didn’t sting any less seeing it on the plasma paneled flat screen. We went straight to the counter and started working out the details. The airline had booked us for 11:20 pm Tuesday night to head back to Nashville. Unacceptable. We thought about Louisville, Memphis, Knoxville, and even Birmingham. BOOM. decided. Before I knew it, we were being booked on a flight to Knoxville for 8pm that evening, and would land at 10:30p. Then we would drive as far as we could, and hopefully be home that evening. The guys I traveled with were calling rental car companies, hotels in between Nashville and Knoxville and their wives for permission before I even knew what happened. They were ready for this fight, they had trained, and they had frequent traveler miles burning a holes in their pockets. Gung Ho was being gung ho, and Kevin was searching for Marlins tickets. I just kinda watched what was happening to me, and trying to call my wife.
The water had gone down a little and Shantel was much more calm. Amazing neighbors and church friends had checked in on her, and the situation had slowed a bit for her. The rest of Nashville was a different story. More rain was coming, and the worst would not be over for a while. 30 and 40 miles of interstate were being closed down, and entire communities were disappearing under flood water. We just wanted to get back to what was left of home.
We split up in two taxis, with over 8 hours before our flight to Knoxville would take off, and decided to go to a Marlins day game. I wasn’t thrilled about this. Sitting outside was the last thing I wanted to do. To my surprise, no one in Miami knows there is a major league baseball team that plays in their town. We walked in for free. I counted 847 people at the game. This was good for us. Somehow, gung ho talked our way into the club level section, and before I knew it, we were seated in the shade. We danced the chicken dance, we screamed charge, we ate hamburgers and hotdogs, and watched baseball. Then, I remembered, there was a lounge inside. We wandered into a mixture of an airport terminal lobby and a super sports man cave. There were flat-screens everywhere playing the game we were watching, other games that were being played, sportscenter, and the 1986 major league baseball all-star game. I ate ice-cream while sitting in a leather chair and watching Cal Ripken Jr. and Barry Larkin play ball. The tragic turn of events was not lost on me; less than 6 hours before I was in a third world country. Now, I was in a climate-controlled house of worship for a child’s game. I still ate my ice cream though.
We taxied back to the airport and continued our waiting game. I wasn’t even sure we would make it to Knoxville. The flooding was everywhere, and the news was reporting deaths. The Opryland Hotel was evacuated and people who were in luxury suites were now in a high school gym laying on the floors without pillows or blankets. I just wanted to hold my wife and hug my children. Instead, we played spades in a airport cafeteria. It was a fight to stay sane. It was a fight to be polite. It was a fight just to get home.
By 8pm we were all spread out over our third airplane flight in less than 24 hours. After this we’d have a car ride. What a fight. I read two books while I was on the trip. “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy, and Donald Millers, “A Million Miles, and a Thousand Years.” One story about making your life a meaningful story, and the other a hopeless journey on a road to keep hope alive. The irony was not lost on me there either. The plane landed in Knoxville and the rain was coming down.
“Don’t come home.” was the general consensus by all the wives of all the husbands on the trip. The magic of Facebook and text messaging banded them together against us, and the fight turned against us for a while in the Knoxville airport. All we wanted to do was go home. All they wanted to do was keep us safe. They were fine, the houses were fine, but no one was supposed to go anywhere. The entire city had imposed a travel curfew. We just wanted to go, but home didn’t want us right now. They wanted us safe.
We split up in two cars. One heading to North Nashville and one South. We would drive till we couldn’t go any farther, then we’d stop for the night. It sounded like a good plan. About 10 miles in, hotels had been booked a hour and half from Nashville in Cookeville, TN. Gung ho wasn’t happy. I was miserable, and the wives were generally displeased with their stubborn husbands. Our mission trip to Haiti had turned into a mission to get home- and yes- it was a fight.
We were up by 4:59a. In the morning. The drive through downtown Nashville was almost as sobering as the drive from Port Au Prince to Jacmel. It felt like I’d come full circle. I started thinking about all I had seen, and everything I had felt, and wasn’t really sure how I was going to explain to my wife the things I’d experienced. I just knew that I loved her and I was glad she was safe, and my girls were protected.
I had talked to Shantel a few times during my trip, but only about the highlights. I hadn’t heard much from my daughters other than “I love you daddy, I miss you!” I was ready to give them small gifts I had brought back and tell them the stories of the children across the ocean that were a lot like them, yet completely different. At 7am on Monday I was dropped off at my water-logged door step. The sky was pefectly blue, with whisps of clouds floating. I half-expected to see an ark parked in my cul de sac with an old man walking off the animal kingdom two by two.
I rang the door bell to my house, only two hear a stampede of tiny feet coming my way. My daughters poked through the curtains and screamed, “DADDY!” The door opened, and I was home. My daughter Hope smiled at me and said, “Hi Daddy, do you have pictures?” I was wowed by her interest in Haiti and the orphans and my travels. “I do”, I said with a smile. “Yeah, Daddy, I want to see the ones where you threw up!”
A great question. Still working on the answerers. I think I went to Haiti to be reminded that there is a different world other than the one I live in and minister. I think there are lots of answers for everyone that went on this trip. It is crazy to think: Nashville will recover in a few months and the world will return to normal. The normal in Haiti before was terrible, and after the devastating earthquake, it will probably never recover. The conditions of living are pathetic. The options for improving the quality of life are non existent, and in general, I felt very hopeless for the people of Haiti. Hands & Feet is different though. They have carved out a paradise for orphan children in the middle of chaos- they have order, care, and love showered over them. The children have confidence, and think about the future, and we know that Michelle and Larry certainly do.
It is good to know that there is still a place where God’s love is being perfectly displayed for the entire community to see. The Mayor of Jacmel knows and respects Michelle at Hands and Feet. They employee the people of the town, they give away clothes and food to the workers, and they provide a food pantry for those in need. The children at Hands & Feet are loving and affectionate like children should be. There are no signs of abuse or abandonment, but instead examples of disciplined upbringing and nurturing care.
When I think about the children of Haiti and the children of Hands & Feet I have hope. Hope that these young men and women will become leaders and impact the community they live in to make their country a better place. I’d like to go back and bring a few others with me. Who’s in?