PORT AU PRINCE , HAITI – As I write this, on Father’s Day weekend, I am overlooking a small courtyard of 46 children. Some are barefoot. Some run in circles. One pushes a wheelbarrow. Six or seven are reading. Several girls are having their hair braided by nannies. A group of boys kicks a soccer ball across the dirt. There is squealing, giggling, yelling, some singing.
There is no crying. Not because they never fight. Not because they never fall or skin a knee. But there are no tears of hunger, loneliness or abandonment. If there is one thing emphasized in the eight years since we have been coming here monthly, to the Have Faith Haiti Mission/Orphanage, it is that the children are loved.
Loved. Embraced. Kissed goodnight. Held while they read or fall asleep. Told the words “I love you” in English, in Creole, in French.
I’ve been thinking about that this weekend, because some of the kids have wished me
“Happy Father’s Day.” I smile. I am not their father. I never pretend to be. They don’t call me Daddy or Papa or any such thing. In fact, I was taken aback when I first heard them say it.
But this Father’s Day, I understand a little more.
Because I lost my own father seven months ago.
Life without dad is surprisingly lonely
He died at 88 from stroke complications, a withered man, reduced from his once wise and deep-voiced guidance to the occasional moan or whispered goodbye.
I miss many things about him. His confidence. His reassurance. The way he’d nod and say, “It’s going to be fine.” His undying devotion to my mother.
I miss the Father’s Days we used to have with him, the brunches or dinners, him insisting that he didn’t need a fuss as we made a fuss anyhow, reading his greeting cards out loud, insisting he eat a dessert he otherwise would have skipped.
More than anything, I miss the security of his love, even thousands of miles away. I miss feeling there is someone in the world who knows every day of my life, who cared enough to feed and shelter me every hour of my young existence.
Knowing he’s not here has been strange and surprisingly lonely, even this deep into my adulthood. With my mother having died a few years earlier, the heavy sense of being without parents is a daily struggle.
Which got me thinking about the 2,000 children who reportedly have been separated from their parents at the borders of our country, in efforts to crack down on illegal immigration. Some children are being sheltered in abandoned box stores, crying for their mothers and fathers where racks of clothes and shoes and tires used to sit.
The facts that brought them here are not irrelevant. Critics will argue their parents were breaking the law, and, after all, when a mother or father is arrested in this country, they are also taken away from their families. Supporters will argue that the act of seeking asylum is not breaking the law (it is not) and this business of separating children from parents is a new, harsh policy, not a law, and policies have room for mercy and compassion, things we pride our country on having.
I don’t have a resolution to these arguments.
All I think about are the kids.
Children need their parents
When I read a Washington Post story about the daily routines at these “shelters” — one is a former Wal-Mart in Texas — they struck me as eerily similar to what we do here at the orphanage. The children have to line up for meals. They sleep many to a room. School is run in shifts. Kids make soccer fields out of any open space.
But what was not written in that story — and what I know is true — is the hours those kids spend looking off into space, tears welling, waiting for parents to come back into their lives.
I know it, because I’ve seen it here. When children have been orphaned by an earthquake or a hurricane. Or when a mother with nine other children, no home, no money, asks us to take in her youngest and keep him or her alive.
I suppose, at such moments, I could make the stern arguments that are made in comments sections and on talk shows. Why is it my problem? She should have thought about that before getting pregnant. Why not hunt down the father, wherever he is, and make him responsible? Why are poor people having so many babies if they can’t feed them?
I could say all that, and I could feel justified. But I couldn’t feel good. Not about myself. Because life put me in a position to help needy children, and I can’t just walk away.
In realizing that, I grow closer to my departed father, because he did the same. He never walked away. He took care of me, my siblings. He made sure we felt love, a love that allowed our days to pass without emotional longing, and our nights to be blessed with peaceful sleep.
All children deserve that. Even if their parents have done something misguided. Even if their parents have done something against an immigration law. Critics often boast, “My grandparents came here legally,” but they may have benefited from a time when our borders were more open, when seeking a better life or the end of persecution was justification enough to scrap your way to Ellis Island, where you were allowed in to this wonderful land.
What if the laws back then were more draconian — as they have become? What if the new “zero tolerance policy” were in place? How many of our grandparents would have risked it all to get here? How would you feel if they were labeled criminals, and their children — your parents — were pulled away from them?
Maybe you would have asked for compassion. If so, that’s all I’m saying here, as I sit watching 46 children who are not my own, who have been separated from their parents for various reasons, yet who hear “I love you” every day of their lives.
“Tomorrow is Father’s Day,” a boy named Lengee says to me, sitting down as I finish this column.
“Yes, but I’m not your father,” I say.
“I know,” he says. “But spiritually you are.”
He is 11.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“Without you, our lives would not be like this,” he says. “You could have been working, but you are here with us. You take care of us.”
The words make me tear up, not just because they are remarkably kind, but because they are what I want to say to my own father today, on Father’s Day. You took care of us. I can’t tell him. He is gone. But if there were any way I could be with him, I think I’d justify pretty much anything to make it happen. Kids need, desperately, more than anything, to feel the love of their parents, whatever form those parents take. We should never be so righteous as to forget that.
Contact Mitch Albom: email@example.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.
Happy Father’s Day!