Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Depths

Photo by Dr. Jen Halverson

A mother stands on a pile of rubble, peering down into its depths.

This tangle of cinderblock and rebar was once her home. Her children's home.

On January 12, 2010, when the earth shook, it became her children's grave.

She stands on the pile of rubble, for the second time, three months from the first. The first time she stood here, amidst terrorizing aftershocks, she desperately dug for her children, impossibly buried in layers of concrete. Miraculously, she found her toddler Emmanuel, crushed but alive, in the depths of the rubble. Only Emmanuel, face and body bloody and torn. On that day, she acted with stoic determination. She took the injured form of her child and left the bodies of her three remaining children behind in the rubble. No time to grieve. No time to reflect. Only time to act with direct and forceful intention. To keep her remaining child alive. And, so, for three months, she has fought for his life.

You may remember Emmanuel's mother. Two weeks ago, when her son had his last in a series of painful plastic surgeries to reconstruct his face, she stood up in the center of our hospital and sang a chilling accapella Alleluhia, praising God for the gift of her child's life.

Today, she peered down, for the second time, into her family's grave.

She asked us to bring her here. For closure. She did not know what to expect. Would the house be gone? An empty lot, where her life had once been? Or would it be hauntingly unchanged, the moment of her loss frozen in time.

We worried for her. What does a mother do when she encounters such a challenge? Which would leave a more gaping hole in her soul -- an empty space where her house and children had once been, or an untouched pile of rubble with the bodies of her babies still trapped within? Would she stand and stare at the base of the rubble? Would she fall on it and wail? Would she start to claw and dig at it? Or would her soul just melt away?

She quietly climbed the untouched rubble pile, peering down into the hole from which three months ago she had plucked her little Emmanuel and beneath which her other children's bodies lay entombed. Then she wandered away silently, over the rubble, searching intently, she later revealed, for a precious momento -- a sacred book of hymns that she had carried with her throughout her life. She did not find it.

Nor did she see -- or perhaps, she just did not acknowledge -- the small brown arm of a child that was still visible, pinned under a concrete slab, in the depths of the rubble below her feet.


Tonight, as I left the hospital, she sat with her Emmanuel on a small cot in the corner of the courtyard, staring silently into the distance. I placed my hand on her shoulder in comfort. She stared up at me, with a depth of sorrow in her eyes, despite her ever present smile. I leaned down to hug her from behind and gave her a gentle kiss on the cheek. She lifted a hand to hold my cheek to hers for a moment. Such depths of sorrow. Invisible, searing, devastating sorrow. Just below the surface of a smile.

How does she survive?

A boy of seventeen lies on our procedure table. It is three months from his injury. He still requires sedation for painful dressing changes. One leg is missing below the knee. The other missing tissue from painful, poorly healing skingrafts. He is new to our hospital, transferred from another facility. He has been quiet, stoic, perhaps shy. He keeps to himself. He smiles when prompted with a greeting, but the smile rarely reaches his eyes.

Under IV sedation, we change his extensive dressings. His pain is blunted, as are his inhibitions. As the medication wears off, he begins to cry. Are his wounds still so exquisitely painful? Then he begins to sob. He raises his arm to cover his eyes. "I should have just died..." he cries. "Why am I alive..." In the misty consciousness of his sedation, his stoic mask is lifted, and his soul is revealed. He cries. He sobs. It is heartwrenching.

He cries first about his physical torment -- still so equisitely painful, twelve weeks out from his injury. The physical pain jostles his subconscious, and the suppressed, terrifying memories, are resurrected. This normally stoic and silent boy, still sedated, begins to sob uncontrolledly. Tears well as he rolls his head to and fro, crying about the loss of his leg.

"How can I live without my leg. What will I do without my leg?" he cries.

Then his mind wanders to the loss of his family. He was trapped in the rubble of his house for days. Twelve family members died in his home on that day.

"Why did I survive?" he asks, sobbing.

His mind wanders again, this time to his future.

"How will I live without my leg? How will I work without my leg?" He sobs.

Heartwrenching. Loss of self. Loss of identity. Loss of a future.

"I need to help my family. My father has lost his job. He cannot work. My family is homeless. They are living in a tent. They are starving. We have no money for food. How will we survive? How will we survive?" He sobs again.

"I was a student, but my school has collapsed. Now I have nothing. I have no job. I have no school. I have no leg. I have no life. I have no home. I have no future. Why didn't I just die? Why didn't I just die?"

He tires. Tears stream down his face. Is he sedated? Or is he awake? Is he rambling helplessly? Or speaking with direct, absolute, sober certainty?

It is heartbreaking. It is devastating. We long to reassure him. We long to comfort him.

Yet so much of what he has said is sobering, raw, undeniable truth.

This is far too much burden for such a young man. Far too much sorrow for one soul to bear.

And yet the story repeats, again and again. Patient after patient. Behind each face. Behind each tarp, in each tent city. So much sorrow. So much loss. So much suffering and grief. So much buried in the shallow depths.

But just barely.


  1. There are no words that can do justice to a response Barbie. :(
    Thank you for continuing to write of the 3-Dimensional life you are much darkness, yet so much much wavering just below the surface.
    I read this shortly after returning from Haiti “Suffering is not a problem that demands a solution; it is not a question that demands an answer; it is a mystery that demands a presence.” -John Wyatt
    It rang true. I am glad that these Heartline folks didn't have to do this journey alone today...
    Thinking of you all so often...xoxo

  2. My heart bleeds for these poor people and their great losses. I pray for Haiti, and for all of you trying to help ease some of the terrible suffering.

  3. Thank you for writing. I look forward to every entry on your blog, even if they are difficult to get through. You have helped me to understand the new, post-earthquake Port au Prince in a way that news reports, OCHA updates and short visits to Haiti will never do.

    Thank you for doing the work you do and for writing eloquently about your experiences.

  4. Wow....I don't have the words to say what I feel. You write so well, capture what they feel...I have never lost a child or a leg...I have no idea...I pray for the families there everyday...hoping that someday...maybe soon I too can help...even if it is just one family.

  5. Your gift with words is amazing. Thank you for sharing these stories. I am praying through tears for the comforted part of "Blessed are those who mourn..." and trusting that it is true. but just barely.

  6. And we complain about our lives

  7. Barbie, This post is beyond devastating.
    There needs to be a stronger word than heartbreaking. I pray that someone will start vocational training with people like this young man who are new amputees, surely there are many types of jobs they could do.

    It must be hard not to go to the depths when surrounded by such cruel hardship. Please know there are many of us who want to help, are committed to helping...we just need a way to be involved. Looking forward to hearing Heartline's plans for going forward in the post EQ Haiti so we can help.

  8. Crying also, I bear witness along with you. I am humbled by the depth of spirit you describe - the indescribable losses, the unbearable pain of both body and soul, the determined and loving spirit of a people who deserve so much more. I renew my commitment to financial support for the small organizations that are making a real difference one person, relationship, loving respectful interaction at a time. I renew my commitment to read all of the blogs in my Haiti folder daily. I renew my commitment to talk with others about what is happening in Haiti *now.* I renew my commitment to never forget. All blessings on each of you in the community of healing that you recreate each day. Love, Andrea in Vermont

  9. Another brilliant essay Barb -- you continue to hold up the realities of the Haiti survivors to the harsh light of day, while also showing their innate courage and strength. I just wish your blogs would be picked up by the press so that many more readers could be touched by them. Thank you again for all you are doing, both through your actions and by your writing.
    Gramma Rolling

  10. Thank you. M'ap priye pou Ayiti.