Sunday, January 17, 2010

Two Worlds

I am doing yoga in my living room in Germany late Tuesday night when the earth shakes in Haiti.

"I feel a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced."
―Obi-Wan after feeling the Destruction of Alderaan[src] (Star Wars IV: A New Hope)

In contrast to Obi-Wan, I feel nothing.

Christine is at her office in Port-au-Prince late Wednesday afternoon, finishing up the proposal for the preventative health program that has to go out by Friday. The walls shake. The floor tilts. She falls to the floor. And then she feels nothing.

I do a full-body workout Wednesday morning followed by a strenuous step-aerobics class. I skip a much-needed shower in favor of a much-needed grocery run. Hotdogs, lunchmeat, butter, French fries, frozen vegetables, cereal bars, cucumbers. That should hold 'em for lunch today and for tomorrow's school snacks. For some reason, I think about how much food, and especially how much protein, this is for one family, and about how extravagant it would seem to my old family in Haiti.

Christine awakens to total darkness. She is cold and alone and afraid. She hears voices in the distance . There is screaming coming from somewhere nearby, but mostly there is grieving. It sounds far away. She reaches out her hands and finds she is in a small space. Except for a bump on her head and some scrapes on her arms and legs, she appears to be fine. There is enough room for her to crawl a few feet in any direction and to stretch her limbs, but not enough height for her to stand up.

I dump the groceries in the front seat of the VW Golf, get behind the wheel and turn the key. Nothing. Try again. Nothing. Damn. I phone in a description of my location to ADAC (AAA) and head back inside the mall. So much for extra time with the kids this afternoon. And Ryan has that big math test tomorrow . But there's nothing I can do except wait.

The walls begin to shake and crumble again at dawn. This time Christine is not so lucky. She cannot feel her legs. A large slab of concrete has fallen against her, and although she was able to push it aside, it hit her in the back on the way down. She tries to move her legs a second time and then a third. Nothing. She is no longer cold, but she is still alone and she is still afraid. There is nothing she can do except wait.

The afternoon is fairly uneventful. The VW and I make it home in plenty of time to help Ryan with her math before heading out again. We head to the DAZ (German-American Center) in Stuttgart where John Haskell is giving a reading from his latest book. It is surreal. By now I am aware of what has happened in Haiti; Damon phoned me at lunchtime while I was waiting for ADAC. I bawled my eyes out in the middle of the Chinese restaurant and then got down to the business of continuing through my day.

Christine has slid further down the building as the tremors continue throughout the day. She is no longer on the third floor, or on any floor for that matter. She is lying on her side against a slab of concrete. It – and she – are tilted at a 45 degree angle. Her legs are crumpled beneath her. It is surreal. Just three weeks ago she was in Connecticut celebrating Christmas with her family.

A bunch of us from the Writers’ Group go out after the reading. Grown-up friends with grown-up interests. Fun. And although the word ‘penis” DOES come up, I don’t have to follow anyone into the bathroom to show them where to aim it. On the drive home I am so distracted by thoughts of the evening that I take a wrong turn out of Stuttgart. I try to turn around in an empty parking lot and end up driving over an embankment. The two pylons indicating that this was clearly not an exit were hidden by snow. They are now under the VW, prohibiting it from plunging further down the embankment. What I still can’t explain is how I thought something that steep would be a parking lot exit.

Daylight fades. Christine lies numb with fear. Throughout the day she has heard the cries of people on the street, the wails of mothers looking for their children, the screams of other people trapped in other buildings. She tries to call for help, but so far no one has answered her. Her colleagues are in Les Cayes, coordinating an ongoing childhood nutrition program. Everyone else is probably too worried about their own immediate families to worry about a single aid worker working for a third-tier relief organization. She is thirsty and she knows that night is coming.

My heart stopped when the car did. This was too horrible, too absurd, to really be happening. In fact, it was almost exactly like a recurring dream I have. Either the brakes give out and I can’t stop or I do something dumb and end up hitting something. Well, there it is. Dumb. I call ADAC for the second time today and they promise to come and tow me out. But they can’t guarantee it will be for free. Seems ADAC doesn’t necessarily cover stupid. As I am waiting for ADAC to arrive, I fend off urgent offers of help from late night customers at a nearby gas station. It appears that pushing me and my old VW out of the snow bank holds more appeal than reading magazines off the rack and drinking beer. A young, questionably dressed woman offers sympathy and support, but disappears mysteriously when she discovers I don’t have any cigarettes. The police stop by, shake their heads a bit and then take off again. I can’t believe they don’t write me a ticket.

Her heart stops when she hears his voice. “ Christine. Christine. Kote ou ye? Kote ou ye Christine ? » It is Josef, her neighbor, and she can’t believe he is looking for her. “Mwen la, Josef, I am here.” She hears nothing for a moment and screams louder. “Josef, Josef, ede mwen souple, help me, please, I am here.” She hears a second voice. “Gen moun la?” “Yes, yes”, she thinks, “there is someone here, I am here, I am here.” She screams as loud as she can. “Anmwe. Anmwe. Souple. Help me. Help me. Please.” Josef and the other voice move towards her and suddenly she hears them close by, on the other side of the wall. “Christine. Christine. Kijan ou ye? E tu blese? Christine. Kijan ou ye « he asks. » How are you ? Are you hurt?” “Wi” she replies and tells him that she can’t move her legs. “Se pa mal,” Josef reassures her. They are going to get her out of there.

The ADAC guy is not very impressed with me but he has me out of there in less than five minutes.

Josef and his friend spend all night digging through the rubble to get to her. She learns that Josef’s wife and four children are safe. Their home is still standing but they are staying outside for fear of the aftershocks. There’s been an earthquake and the entire city is in ruins. Thousands are dead or trapped alive. Josef’s friend, Francois, has no family in Port-au-Prince, but is unable to get a tap-tap out of the city to go and see if they are all right. The whole thing is unreal . Even for Haiti. It’s just too big and too horrible to accept. And so they keep digging.

I can’t believe I drove my car over an embankment and was able to drive it home an hour later. No damages at all. No harm done. I keep replaying the scenario in my mind. This is going to make a great story. I have totally forgotten Haiti.

It’s dark out when they finally break through. Josef is unable to lift her. He sits by her side telling her that everything is going to be alright, that they found her, grace a dieu. “Grace of whose god,” she thinks, but she doesn’t say it. Francois returns with a wheelbarrow and they lift her into it. The two men take turns pushing her through the streets of Port-au-Prince. Everything is in ruins. There are bodies on the street, dead and dying. Everyone is outside, wandering aimlessly or sitting still. It will be dark soon. She is still thirsty. There is no water. There is no food. Her back begins to ache and then her legs. It hurts but its better than the nothing she felt before. She can’t believe this has happened. This just can’t be real.

I am listening to a RAM CD early Thursday morning. “Kote moun yo? M pa we moun yo. Kote moun yo?” It’s Richard Morse, singing political protest songs about Haiti’s tragic past. Over a decade ago Damon and I danced to this music at the Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince. Today Richard Morse stands outside the hotel and twitters scenes of destruction. “Where are the people? I don’t see the people. Where are the people?” Once his cell phone runs out of batteries we can only guess.

They arrive at Josef’s home. The entire neighborhood is living in the street, although most of the houses are still standing. There is limited access to water. Josef’s wife, Nicole, hands her a tin cup and she drinks. She eats half of a three-day old roll but refuses more. There are so many children. She knows there is a world beyond the one in this neighborhood. She should try to contact the organization’s overseas office or call her parents in Connecticut to let them know that she’s okay. She also needs a hospital. But this is her world now, propped up in a wheelbarrow, around a bonfire, surrounded by families she barely knows. A woman starts singing. Others join in. Unbelievable. They are still singing to God.

No comments:

Post a Comment