“Why aren’t you writing, Mister Mitch?”
Chika is lying on the carpet in my office. She flips onto her back. She plays with her fingers.
She comes here in the early morning, when the light is still thin at the window. Sometimes she has a doll or a set of Magic Markers. Other times, it’s just her. She wears her blue pajamas, with the My Little Pony cartoon on the top and pastel stars on the bottoms. In the past, Chika loved to choose her clothes each morning after brushing her teeth, matching the colors of the socks and the shirts.
But she doesn’t do that anymore.
Chika died last spring, when the trees in our yard were beginning to bud, as they are budding now, as it is spring again. Her absence left us without breath, or sleep, or appetite, and my wife and I stared straight ahead for long stretches until someone spoke to snap us out of it.
Then one morning, Chika reappeared.
“Why aren’t you writing?” she says again.
My arms are crossed. I stare at the empty screen.
She makes a grrr sound, like a cartoon tiger.
Don’t be mad.
Don’t be mad, Chika.
Don’t go, OK?
She taps her little fingers on the desk, as if she has to think about it.
Chika never stays for long. She first appeared eight months after she died, the morning of my father’s funeral. I walked outside to look at the sky. And suddenly, there she was, standing beside me, holding the porch railing. I said her name in disbelief—“Chika?”—and she turned, so I knew she could hear me. I spoke quickly, believing this was a dream and she would vanish at any moment.
That was then. Lately, when she appears, I am calm. I say, “Good morning, beautiful girl,” and she says, “Good morning, Mister Mitch,” and she sits on the floor or in her little chair, which I never removed from my office. You can get used to everything in life, I suppose. Even this.
“Why aren’t you writing?” Chika repeats.
People say I should wait.
I don’t know.
That’s a lie. I do know. You need more time. It’s too raw. You’re too emotional. Maybe they’re right. Maybe when you put your loved ones down on paper, you forever accept that reality of them, and maybe I don’t want to accept this reality, that Chika is gone, that words on paper are all I get.
“Watch me, Mister Mitch!”
She rolls on her back, left and right.
“The isby-bisby spider, went up a water spout . . .”
Itsy-bitsy, I correct. The words are itsy-bitsy.
“Nuh-uhhh,” she says.
Her cheeks are full and her hair is tightly braided and her little lips pucker, as if she’s going to whistle. She is the size she was when we brought her here from Haiti, as a five-year-old, and told her she was going to live with us while the doctors made her better.
“When . . .
“Will . . .
“You . . .
“Start . . .
Why does this bother you so much? I ask.
“That,” she says, pointing.
I follow her finger across my desk, past souvenirs of her time with us: photos, a plastic sippy cup, her little red dragon from Mulan, a calendar—
The calendar? I read the date: April 6, 2018.
Tomorrow, April 7, will be one year.
One year since she left us.
Is that why you’re being this way? I ask.
She looks at her feet.
“I don’t want you to forget me,” she mumbles.
Oh, sweetheart, I say, that’s impossible. You can’t forget someone you love.
She tilts her head, as if I don’t know something obvious.
“Yes, you can,” she says.
* * *
There was a night, during her first few months with us, when I read Chika The House at Pooh Corner. Chika loved to be read to. She would snuggle into the crook of my midsection, rest the book cover against her legs, and grab the page to turn it before I finished.
Near the end of that particular story, a departing Christopher Robin says to Pooh, “Promise you won’t forget about me, ever. Not even when I’m a hundred.” But the bear doesn’t promise. Not at first.
Instead he asks, “How old shall I be then?”—as if he wants to know what he’s getting into.
It reminded me of our orphanage in Haiti and how, the moment a visitor arrives, our children ask, “How long are you staying?” as if measuring the affection they should dole out. All of them have been left behind at some point, staring at the gate, tears in their eyes, waiting for someone to return and take them home. It happened to Chika. The person who brought her departed the same day. So perhaps this is what she means. You can forget your loved ones. Or at least not come back for them.
I glance again at the calendar. Can it really be a year since she’s gone? It feels like yesterday. It feels like forever.
All right, Chika, I say. I’ll start writing.
“Yay!” she squeals, shaking her fists.
She stops shaking.
You have to stay here while I do. You have to stay with me, OK?
I know she cannot do what I’m asking. Still, I bargain. It’s all we really want, my wife and I, since Chika has been gone; to be in the same place with her, all the time.
“Tell me my story,” Chika says.
And you’ll stay?
All right, I say. I will tell you the story of you and me.
“Us,” she says.
Us, I say.
Once upon a time, Chika, I came to your country. I wasn’t there the day you were born. I arrived a few weeks later, because a really bad thing happened. It was called an earthquake. An earthquake is when—
“—Mister Mitch. Stop.”
What’s the matter?
“Don’t talk like that.”
“Like I’m a baby.”
But you’re only seven.
You’re not seven anymore?
She shakes her head.
How old are you?
What should I do?
“Talk like a grown-up. Like you talk to Miss Janine.”
She takes my wrists and guides them back to the keys. I feel the warmth of her little hands and I revel in it. I have learned I cannot touch Chika, but she can touch me. I am not sure why this is. I don’t get the rules. But I am grateful for her visits and hungry for every little contact.
I start again.
I wasn’t there the day you were born, Chika. I arrived in Haiti a few weeks later, to help after a terrible earthquake, and since you tell me I should talk like a grown-up, then I can say it was seismic enough in thirty seconds to wipe out nearly three percent of your country’s population. Buildings crumbled. Offices collapsed. Houses that held families were intact one moment and puffs of smoke the next. People died and were buried in the rubble, many of them not found until weeks later, their skin covered in gray dust. They never did get an accurate count of those lost, not to this day, but it was in the hundreds of thousands. That’s more people killed in less than a minute than in all the days of the American Revolution and the Gulf War combined.
It was a tragedy on an island where tragedy is no stranger. Haiti, your homeland, is the second poorest nation in the world, with a history of hardship and many deaths, the kind that come too soon.
But it is also a place of great happiness, Chika. A place of beauty and laughter and unshakable faith, and children—children who, in a rainstorm, will hook arms and dance spontaneously, then throw themselves to the ground in hysterics, as if they don’t know what to do with all their joy. You were happy there in that way once, even very poor.
* * *
The story of your birth was told to me as follows: on January 9, 2010, you entered this world inside a two-room cinder block house by a breadfruit tree. There was no doctor present. A midwife named Albert delivered you from your mother’s womb. From all accounts, yours was a healthy birth, you cried when you were supposed to, you slept when you were supposed to.
And on your third day of life, January 12, a hot afternoon, you were sleeping on your mother’s chest when the world shook as if the dirt held thunder. Your cinder block house wobbled and the roof fell off and the structure split open like a walnut, leaving the two of you exposed to the heavens.
Perhaps God got a good look at you, Chika, because He didn’t take you that day, and He didn’t take your mother, even though He took so many others. Your home was destroyed, but you were both left intact—naked to the sky, but intact. All around, people were running and falling and praying and crying. Trees lay on their sides. Animals hid.
You slept that night in the sugarcane fields, on a bed of leaves, under the stars, and you slept there for many days that followed. So you were birthed into the soil of your homeland, Chika, all its roiling rage and beauty, and maybe that is why you sometimes roiled and raged yourself, and were so beautiful.
You are Haitian. Although you lived in America and died in America, you were always of another place, as you are now, even as you sit here with me.
“That’s better,” Chika says, lying on her back.
Good, I say.
“I know about the tranbleman tè.”
“It was bad.”
Yes, it was.
“I have to tell you something.”
“I can’t stay.”
Her big eyes look up at me, and I swear, even if I were a mile away, I could still see them. They say a child’s eyes are fully formed around age three, and that is why they appear so large on the face. Or maybe those years are just so full of wonder, the child can’t help it.
Can I keep going? I ask. For now?
She purses her lips and shakes her head back and forth, as if she just tasted a bitter lemon. She did this all the time when she was alive, as if every thought needed a tumble through her brain.
“Keep going,” she decides.
Once, late at night, Miss Janine and I were crouched next to your bed and you said to us, quietly, “How did you find me?”
I thought it such a sad question that I could only repeat it. “How did we find you?” And you said, “Yes.” And we said, “You mean how did you come to us?” and you said yes, again. But I think you meant it the way you said it, because life before the orphanage was foggy in your memory, like being in a misty forest, so “How did you find me?” makes sense, because to you, I suppose, it felt as if you were found.
But you were never lost, Chika. I want you to know that. There were people who loved you before we loved you. Your mother, Resilia, from what I have been told, was a tall, strong woman with a broad face and a stern expression, like you have sometimes when you do not get your way. The daughter of a yam farmer in the seaport of Aux Cayes, she came to Port-au-Prince when she was seventeen. She liked to read and eat fish and she sold little things on the street to earn money. She had a friend named Herzulia, and they would take walks together and laugh about men and eventually your mother got involved with a man of her own, an older man with sad eyes whose first name was Fedner and whose last name was Jeune, which is your last name, too. Jeune, in French, means “young,” so it suits you.
Your mother and Fedner had two girls who preceded you, your older sisters, and when your mother got pregnant with you, she told Herzulia that you would be her last child. Together they chose an elegant name for you, Medjerda, although very soon everyone was calling you Chika. Someone said it was because you were a stocky baby. Someone else said Chika is a term of endearment. It doesn’t really matter. We have names we are given and names that just attach to us, and Chika was yours. And had your mother been right, had you been her last child, she might be alive and I might never have met you.
But she and Fedner had one more baby after you, two years later, a boy. He arrived in the hottest month of the year, August, in the early hours before the sun came up. Albert, the midwife, was again present, but this time something went wrong.
Your new brother lived.
Your mother died.
I know it makes no sense to have birth and death in the same bed, Chika, but that is what happened, and that was the last you saw of your birth family for a long time. Herzulia carried you off after the funeral. She said your mother had chosen her as your godmother and had insisted, “If I ever die, you must take Chika.” So she did. Your father did not object. He did not keep any of his children. Maybe he was too stunned by your mother’s death, and he literally did not know what to do.
Whatever the case, your oldest sister, Muriel, went with an aunt, your second oldest, Mirlanda, went with a family friend, your new baby brother, Moïse—whose namesake in the Bible was raised by an Egyptian princess—went with your mother’s brother, to a cramped apartment he shared with his wife.
And you went with Herzulia, a short, strong woman with a high, thready voice who loved your mother very much and who cried the whole day of her funeral. She took you and two sets of your clothes that afternoon and together you rode off in the back of a Haitian tap-tap bus.
Those clothes were all you got to keep from your first home, Chika. It is not a lot, I know. I can only say that God was merciful by not letting you remember those days. Your mother was buried in a large grave with other people, and there is no marker for her anywhere, nothing with her name that you can visit or pray over, although you can always pray wherever you are, you know this from your teachings.
Your next home did not last long. Less than a year. It was a single-room apartment in a cinder block structure that you shared with Herzulia’s family. There was no bathroom inside. At night, when the electricity went off, it was total darkness, and in the mornings, you would carry dirty bedsheets up the stairs to the rooftop, a dangerous undertaking for a child not yet three years old. A woman saw you doing this and grew concerned for your safety. She suggested to Herzulia that you might be better off in an orphanage. She knew of one not far away, in the section of the city known as Delmas 33.
That is the orphanage I have operated since 2010, the year of the earthquake, the place you called misyon an, “the mission,” specifically, the Have Faith Haiti Mission, a rectangular piece of land behind a high gray gate on Rue Anne Laramie, a terribly potholed street that gathers water like a small lake when it rains.
And that, Chika, was the beginning of providence moving our lives together, or the continuance of it, I should say, since the Lord doesn’t get ideas partway through a life.
* * *
Do you remember meeting me? You said sometimes you did, but other times I wondered, because you were still so young, only three. You had clips and ribbons in your hair, and you were wearing a pink dress that Herzulia picked out, because the Haitian adults who come to us often feel if their young ones are well attired, we will be more inclined to take them. This is not true, of course. At times it seems incongruous, dressing up children who are being brought to us in poverty. Perhaps it is about pride, which is something you must respect, especially in a foreign country, because you won’t always understand it, and there were many times in Haiti I did not.
To be honest, Chika, for my first few years, I didn’t understand a great deal about Haiti, or the orphanage, or how I was supposed to make the place work. The power would go off every day, the water would run out, deliveries of rice and bulgur would start and stop, and we never had enough medicine. Repair people would say they were on their way, then never show up. Paperwork—from receipts to government documents—was done by hand. I was a writer by trade, living in Detroit, and while I had overseen some charitable operations in America, in Haiti, I often felt like a man trying to read assembly instructions in another language.
On top of that, Miss Janine and I had no children of our own. So despite my enthusiasm, I was inexperienced with parental things. I fumbled with tiny zippers and buttons. I overreacted when a child threw up. I stumbled through explaining puberty to our boys.
But I knew this: when children were brought to our gate, I had to look past their appearances, because there were so many, and so much need, and for every child we could say yes to, even now, there are ten to whom we cannot. The majority of Haitians live on less than two dollars a day, and many have no power, no clean water, and must rely on charcoal for cooking. For every thousand babies born, eighty will die before their fifth birthday.
Keeping children safe and fed is a desperate priority for many Haitians, Chika. A place like ours can offer that hope. Perhaps that’s why so many come. And when they do I must ask questions. Such as, how are the children living? How are they eating? What dire conditions have brought them to us?
You should know that when I ask such things, the adult will sometimes burst into tears. One mother in her early twenties came to us so pregnant I thought she might give birth in the office. She had a son, maybe four years old, standing beside her, and an infant in her arms. She begged us to take them both, because she had no money, no job, no home, no food to feed them. When I asked how she would provide for the baby she was carrying, she cried out, “Ou mèt pran li tou,” you can have it as well.
She was not being heartless. I believe that she loved her children—so much so that she wanted a safer life for them, even if it meant she could no longer see them every day. It takes a special strength to take care of a child, Chika, and a whole different strength to admit you cannot.
Perhaps Herzulia felt this when she brought you to us. She said she had three children of her own and no money. As we talked you watched in silence, Herzulia occasionally straightening your dress.
Here is what I remember the most. After a while, you crossed your arms, as if you were getting impatient, and I looked at you and you looked back, and I stuck out my tongue and you stuck out yours, and I laughed and you laughed in return.
Most new children, when brought to our mission, are shy and nervous and look away if I catch their glance. But you went eye-to-eye with me, right from the start.
And even though I knew so little about you, Chika, I could tell that you were brave, and I knew that being brave would help you in this life.
I did not know how much.