It was late afternoon on a weekday. I was 7 and Danny was 5. We’d gotten home from the American school in Port-au-Prince an hour before, and we’d wandered down the dirt road from our rented house, the one that came with two horses and 3 servants. Across a ravine I could see the rounded tops of mud huts, where Paul, our ‘house boy’, lived, and where, with my father’s permission, Paul had taken me one evening to meet his family and dance to the drums before dinnertime. The villagers had laughed when I tried to answer them in French and when I joined in dancing, but it seemed like playfulness, not judgement. But this particular afternoon, we were just exploring, aimlessly kicking stones, curious about what else we could find to do in the hot sun. Maybe try to catch a chicken.
When I think back on the last few hours of my childhood, I remember the bleaching hot sun and the thrum of flies buzzing through the air. Just a girl with braids and her built-in play buddy – or sometime nemesis – of a brother in his Keds. We went down toward the next house and their dog, as it always did, came growling and snarling out into the street. We didn’t know the occupants, but we always saw this dog barking and snapping when we drove by on the way to and from school. For some reason that day, I really wanted to go further than we’d ever been able to walk before, but that dog was scary. No matter how wide a berth we tried to give him, he just got nastier. Finally, we gave up and turned back home, lost in our own thoughts. I got to the house first, went to my room, and lay on the bed, my nose buried in a library book. I was a straight A student, a champion speller, and early reader, a confident first-born. My job was setting the table. I learned to play chess at age two, my Dad always claimed. Can’t imagine I knew what the moves meant, but I knew ‘em.
After a while I went to the kitchen to watch Suzanne, our cook, get dinner ready. The door to the kitchen was ajar and as I pressed on it I saw my mother, sitting in a straight-backed chair, with Danny dangling limp across her lap. Suzanne was standing over them looking worried. I backed away and retreated to my room, not alarmed. Things always seemed to work out fine.
Later I heard my mother on the telephone, talking insistently in French. Later still I watched as she went down the front steps to a waiting taxi – there were no ambulances in Haiti – with Danny flung over her shoulder like a sack of potatoes.
Just shards of memory after that. My father coming home, then driving to a little open-air hospital. Screens in the windows. A ward with 6-7 beds in it, with Haitian nurses – maybe nuns – attending to different patients, murmuring to one another. Danny in a bed, Mommy sitting next to him massaging his fingers. She greeted us but didn’t leave his side. “Daddy and Linda are here now, can you squeeze my hand, darling?”, and she told us he’d squeezed it a little. There was nothing to do but stand there. My mother and father seemed perfectly calm. Apparently Danny had needed some medicine and they expected him to wake up about noon the next day. So after a while my father took me home so Suzanne could put me to bed, and he rejoined my mother. A few hours later the doctor urged them to go home and get sleep, pick up some books and toys for Danny, and come back in the morning.
When I woke up the next morning it was late and my parents were already gone. Suzanne told me I’d been kept home from school, so I had the whole morning to read and play in the shade. At about noon I finally heard the car pulling into our driveway, and I ran down, grinning, calling ‘How’s is he?’ My parents v e r y s l o w l y got out of the car, their faces like stone. I’d never seen them look that way before. That was strange. They came up the steps in slow motion. I searched their faces, and then my mother came and took my hand and said ‘He’s gone. He’s not coming back. He died.’
What did that even mean? What? Wait. What? We walked through the house, the servants silent, hovering in the background, to the screen porch out back. My parents sat down, apart, each looking out at the horizon. And then my mother began to sob, the most gut wrenching soumd I’d ever heard.
I stayed to one side, watching, not watching, not knowing where to look. I was frozen, my senses assaulted by the sight of their hollow eyes, their grey skin, the sound of her grief that would not end. My mother was a trained actress, a vivacious woman, full of wonder. She was the most glamorous woman in the world with her tiny waist and full skirts, her perfume. We’d ridden the horses across the Haitian countryside, she and I. She was plucky, always up for the next adventure, the star in my father’s sky.
At some point that awful afternoon she took me onto her lap and explained that the medicine didn’t work for Danny and he died before dawn, before they’d even got there that morning. And then she was crying again, gulping for air. I looked at my father. He was always so calm. Present. Gifted. The writer of poetry and essays and music, the jazz pianist and the teacher who brought stories alive, and told me a different Greek myth every night while tucking me in. He sat like a rock, not moving. And then I saw the tears trickling down from the corners of his eyes. He was silent. His silent tears really scared me.
And then, mercifully, my nervous system slowly wrapped me in cotton until I couldn’t hear any more. The sounds faded and I looked away, and it’s as if the soundtrack of the next 4-5 months ended right there. All my circuits overloaded and I went numb.
I think each of us going through a moment like this has a default mode. After Philando Castile was shot through the window of his car in 2016 and his girlfriend was narrating those awful moments live, her little girl in the back seat piped up and said to her mother, ‘I can keep you safe’. She was taking responsibility right there, as if it was up to her and she was determined and reassuring.
That’s not how I reacted at all. Of course I had no idea how final death was. At that age, the time between one Christmas and another, or one showing of The Wizard of Oz and another on TV was incomprehensible.
My default at that moment was to become as quiet and undemanding as I could possibly be. I slowly withdrew, trying not to disturb any of the adults, went into my room, and closed the door. I put all my books on my bed and tried to read. I figured I’d just wait for things to go back to normal, and in the meantime I tried to be the easiest little girl to have around as possible. Because if I needed anything or wanted anything, I knew my parents would obviously die from the stress of it.
My parents both spoke fluent French and had fallen in love as freshmen at Oberlin. They were active in the civil rights movement from the beginning and they continued in New Orleans, where Dad was a private high school English teacher for several years. Going to Haiti with the US Information Agency was a way of making a difference as world citizens (once they made it through the separate husbands’ and wives’ interviews!). My mother and I wore white gloves on the plane over, my father wore a suit. We plunged into Haiti like anthropologists, stopping to talk and bargain in the teeming markets, driving into the hills one Sunday, and seeing the people walking to church wearing pure white (though I was terrified of the car falling down the mountain on the narrow roads)… doing watercolors of the mountains from the Citadel fortress. I loved the chickens, the fried bananas, the limeade, dodging the bulls and the cow patties in the fields, the beans and rice, the warmth of every Haitian we met as they responded to my mother’s enthusiasm for their craftsmanship, their gardens, their pigs, their paths, their drums.
But from that moment on the back porch, there is no more sound in my memories. I retain just a few visual snippets… The funeral near my grandmother’s house in Princeton, with a big box, trying to image Danny inside it. Lots of grown-ups standing around, tentative, whispering. They were all so tall. I felt invisible and totally confused… Stopping in Puerto Rico for a few days on the way back to Haiti, where I met another girl with her family and told her my brother had just died. My parents silent at meals…. Then back in Haiti, my setting the table for lunch, and automatically setting it for four places and my parents coming in to sit and looking down at the place settings and pausing. Not long after that, my parents realized they didn’t have the heart to stay in Haiti after all, and I remember turning to look out the back window as we drove away, trying to memorize Suzanne’s and Paul’s faces as they waved and got smaller and smaller.
What had started in the fall of 1961 as a great adventure was all over before Christmas.
Next…Too Much Resilience.