Saturday, December 31, 2011

On the anniversdy of my grandosn's death

This is the time when much of North America grows dark and cold and celebrations become plentiful. It is a time of lights and candles and warm fires.

I grew up with an image that all people contain an inner light that needs only to be nurtured and tended to. I was taught by the great teachers of my childhood, to look for that light in every person and in that way life would never be too difficult. The goal, after all, was not great riches or accomplishments but the ability to good naturedly look for the that light in everyone without undo fear or intimidation.

This simple task turned out to be far more difficult than it was originally explained to me and now as the New Year begins, I sit in the dark early morning of Oregon lighting candles and trying to keep afloat.

You see, a year ago my fourteen year old grandson shot himself rather than return to school after winter break. I did not expect this anniversary to overwhelm me as much as it has. I am trying hard but nothing can keep the grief from rolling over me.

My beautiful daughter has moved into a new house and we buy small things for it at IKEA on his birthday. We try to start over while not wanting to loose him. We walk and wander and I count the moments before his death trying to relive the hours when I could have made a difference and can not make it turn out differently.

In Haiti, once a doctor said to me, "Do you think its okay for NGO's to come to Haiti and let health care workers learn here." I remember thinking in reply ( I did not say this ) "Do you think its okay for an old woman crazy with grief to come to your country because its the only place where loss is normal enough for her to bare it."

He went on to say that we were saving lives so it was better than nothing but not how it should be. I agreed and we talked. I hand him piles of papers to explain what we hope to accomplish in Haiti. I walk out into a sea of people crowding the streets and I think as I had thought many times. "I have run away from home. I am in Haiti, hoping to do some good, but mostly I am trying hard to believe in that inner light in all people and for some reason its proving easier in Haiti than it was in my own country.

How do I say that I feel more normal here than I do in a mall in the United States at Christmas. I have rarely met a person in Haiti who has not lost a child or a parent or a sister or a brother and so in that place and in that context, Nathan's death is woven into a the fabric of life. It is in everyone's eyes and so I feel okay and able to navigate.

Soon these anniversaries of his birthday, of Christmas and his death will pass. I will take down the tree and hug all the people who loved him close and walk out into the day. Morning will spread over the Cascade mountains as 2012 begins. We never know how a year will unfold; the joys, sorrows and challenges. I am crazy with missing Nathan this morning. They say that such pain can open us up and spin us around and help us to see the world through a new lens that we never had before. That when someone dies this is the gift they leave us; the gift to see the world as we never saw it before.

Its a tender earth we walk on no matter where we go or what we do. A friend, who also lost a child about Nathan's age wrote and said its like carrying a rock in your pocket. It is always there.
And so there can be no doubt that I carry the smooth, cool rock that is Nathan with me all the time in Haiti; reaching down to feel it when i am afraid or doubt myself.

It is possible that I would never have gone to Haiti if Nathan had not died; if I had not needed to grasp the world and understand her in new ways so that I could make sense of this loss and the things that would cause a young man to take his life on a winter evening.

I am thankful for Haiti; for holding me in her arms in a way that no one else could and letting me heal in the warmth of her women and children. I hope its okay and that I can also be of some use in return. I see that light I was taught to look for, shining there in the midst of so much loss.

Many people will have a New Years Resolution to hit the gym and get in shape and I will keep at trying to develop my strength and flexibility so as to to see that light in everyone and if possible, even grow it a little. I am not sure what that will look like. I am sure. like last year, it will have its unbarable surprises and turns in the road. I feel Nathan smiling at me and saying, "Oh Grandma, you can do it." and I think, yes, Nathan, what ever it is, I can.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Thoughts on leaving Haiti for Christams

On the morning I leave Haiti, it is raining and warm. I get up at 3:00 am ot have a shower and pack a few things for the trip to Portland. When a woman comes to the center, I do the exam and paperwork so the midwives could sleep a few more hours. I think of how what was once so new to me had become so familiar. I could not be sure if I was going home or leaving my home. For surely that small parcel of earth and buildings and plants and people had become my home.

I do the familiar things associated with preparing for a trip; making sure the chickens will be fed and the gardens cared for; cleaning my room so others could use it while I was gone and then there was a quiet time to talk with the Gardener's Daughter. She is better now and I tried to help her think about the rest of her life. She wanted to make sure I was indeed coming back and I assured her and everyone I was. I told her that although going to school is not easy now, she can write in a journal everyday and I gave her a beautiful blank book and asked that she write everyday that I was gone. By the time I left, she had already filled many pages with her thoughts and feelings.

Beautiful warm kisses and hugs; the opening of the gate and then the now familiar drive the back way to the airport. Past the market and the river where they wash their clothes, past the market women and the donkeys carrying charcoal for the cook fires. Past the school children so perfectly dressed with bows in their hair, past tap- taps crowded with passengers and trucks filled with produce. Past mountains and fields; the road so full of holes now filled withe mud from the rain.

On the runway we stand under the wing of the plane to keep dry as the pilot checks our tickets. Someone turns on the propelar and with a great wind all the tickets are blown from our hands and the pilots and strewn across the runway. With shrugs and smiles, I am walked from the wing to the door with an umbrella where I find my seat and soon watch Haiti slip from view but not from my heart.

I have not slept al whole night in four months. I know I am exhausted but sleep does not come easy. So many images drifting through my waking and sleeping thoughts. When I step down into Florida and I am out on the street, I begin to cry and have the start of a panic attack. I can not understand where I am and why things look so different. I breathe and keep walking and in time begin to acclimate. The streets seem so empty and the sidewalks bare. I can not grasp that the roads are so flat and there is so much pavement. There are no cows or horses or goats or pigs everywhere. In my mind, I am wondering if everyone is okay without these things and worry a little bit. I have to work to pull myself into the present time.

I have made a cute Haiti Baby Slide Show. I show it to the people on the plane, in the hotel, to my grand daughter; to anyone who will watch it. Perhaps in a few days, I will put it aside as I join in the festivities of Portland with my family and friends but at night my prayers are also with the people I love in Haiti.

In the coming days I will be given opportunities to talk about what i have learned and what is needed. I will try to explain that the goals of maternal and infant health are global and include our own communities as well as those far way. I, of course hope, that my being in Haiti has made life a little better for some women and children and that I perhaps can plant a seed about the global possibilities for maternal care during birth.

It is hard to know these things but I do know that I have become a student of Haiti. I have read every book I could find and have sat very near her heart. When I read her history I know I am reading my own as well. The history is deeply intertwined with the history of the world and of the United States. There are terrible, terrible stories but I do believe that civilization, despite how it looks day to day, is on a great upward journey towards compassion and a shared humanity. People of European descent have a long journey ahead of themselves as they struggle, as I do, with what white privlege has meant in the Americas since Columbus first landed in Haiti. To struggle with what we will do with this inheritance and increased understanding. To not be brought down by our collective guilt and shame but somehow to become the student of life that Walt Whitman asked us to be when he wrote Song of Myself so many years ago. When I first heard that poem, I thought this is who I want to be. I want to step outside and let it all in and let it become me.

So in this interval I will rest and hold my family close and let the places that Haiti became me settle into the nooks and crannies of my soul and blend her song somehow with my own. Thank you Haiti for the chorus that still plays in my ears even when I am far away. Thank you for the hard and painful look in the mirror that knowing you has offered me.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Gardeners's Daughter

Here is a photo of The Gardener's Daughter.

I am happy to say that she has not had a fever for two days and is doing much better. Thank you for your thoughts and prayers for her and her family.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The season for malaria

The Gardener's Daughter has malaria. She lies under curtains of mosquito netting in the postpartum room with a night fever of 104. Her daughter, an eager child, breastfeeds even as her mother slips into a fever induced delirium.

They say here, " Ah yes. It is the time of malaria" It is the season for the big, black mosquitoes that cause malaria. The little ones of summer, however annoying have gone and now with the rainy season the malaria mosquito has come. They say when the mangoes ripen the cholera season will begin.

It is also the time for congo peas and okra cooked into a spicy sauce that is simmers for hours over a charcoal fire. It is also the season for grapefruit sold in piles on the road for only a few gouds.

And so it would seem that the seasons are marked not by changing leaves or snow storms but by the rains and the fresh fruit and by the tropical diseases that claim millions of lives each year around the world.

I had not prepared myself really for this season of malaria. I do sleep under a mosquito net and take my malaria pills, when I remember, but I was not prepared for it in the clinic. I was not prepared to test and treat and wait with it. I was not prepared for the way the women walk and sleep and the high fevers.

The Gardener's Daughter is the second case this week. She did not sleep with mosquito nets nor did we give her chloriquin and she suffered from severe malnutrition and so, in this season of malaria, perhaps I should not have been surprised.

I look it up when the internet is working. I read every book we have laying around. There are several kinds of malaria and Haiti has the worst and most damaging. We should be passing out a malaria net, a bar of soap and malaria pills to every pregnant woman but we are not. We give iron pills and pills to kill hookworms. We set priorities and make choices.

Her fever scares me but we give her clean water and food and vitamins and a place to bathe and the medicine and watch the fever spike and come down and take its course. I learn to adjust my fear and to replace it with faith and knowledge and a simple prayer.

I have a new understanding of seasons. It once meant the coming of fall leaves or spring flowers but now I know that people note the seasons by the diseases they bring.

The nights are beautiful here and the days have a breeze. It is a beautiful season here- a perfect season - if only it wasn't also the season for malaria. Mosquitoes breed quickly where there is standing water, where there is little clean water and few latrines.

Morning spreads over the mountains, a cow calls to be milked, roosters crow all around and downstairs the babies stir and a mother works her way through labor.

I think of all the songs about seasons and hear Pete Seeger gently sing "a time for every season under Heaven" So I will quiet these words for now and go down to feel her forehead and begin the day.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A little poem in Creole for the midiwves here

Here is a simple poem I wrote while practicing creole. I love the way the words sound and come together in Creole.

Isit la kantan kay

Anpil bon travay nan isit la

dousman, dousman

Bon reve

Pra ke, mwen zanmi

tann pou nouvo jou.

I was playing around with words as the day was ending and volunteers were tired and discouraged.

Here is a happy house
Much good work is in this place
Gently, gently
Good dreams.
Take heart, my friends
Wait for a new day.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Happy mom and baby photos - the pictures not shown

This happy mom enjoys breastfeeding and to smile for me

I have a few days where I go around taking happy breastfeeding pictures and tell myself I will make posters one day. But really I do this to make myself feel better.

My camera is full of pictures of very think and sick babies. I tell myself I take these photos because one day I will show them to a doctor and they will help me with diagnosis and treatment. I have so many though and I wonder at my desire to capture the pain and suffering of babies in pictures. Perhaps I take them to make it real; so that I don't think I am living in a nightmare. Mo

Most always malnutrition goes hand in hand with skin diseases. I study them on the internet but then they all look mingled together on a tiny or swollen body and I end up using my best thinking at the time ( as well as whatever soap I have at the time.) And taking their pictures for a future time.

I can not or do not post these photos; instead I send out into the web universe the most beautiful picture of breastfeeding I have. If I trick you, will you believe this is true of all mothers and babies in Haiti or have I failed to convince you, even as I fail to convince myself.

Remember Peter Pan when we were all suppose to say " I believe" and Tink would live. Perhaps it is like that. I think if you see this photo it will be like magic - everyone will believe the babies are fine and then it will be true. Perhaps I believe if the world sees this photo and not the others that there will be jobs and farms and manufacturing and Hatien rice and all the children in schools.

And so here is my photo- truth or deception or some of both.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Gardeners Daughter

The Gardener’s Daughter
The Gardener’s Daughter has given birth. She has labored for many days and we have had several sleepless nights. But now the baby is at last born and they are resting in the soft misty light of an afternoon rain.
The cook says she will make a special squash soup tomorrow. The farmer has brought us a beautiful stripped squash that has sat on the counter for many days now. It is the custom to eat this soup on Independence Day but that is not until January 1st and the squash will not keep. It seems a good day for a festive pumpkin soup.
I first met the Gardener, as everyone has come to know her, on a busy clinic day. I noticed a tall, thin mother with her pregnant daughter standing there trying to catch my eye. When the hall way, in time, became quiet and nearly everyone had left, the mother approached me.
There are many stories in Haiti and many people who need an extra hand. It is easy to become resistant to individual stories and need; to put up a wall that says I can not bare to hear anymore. Perhaps I was too tired to not listen or perhaps there was something about the strength and dignity in her face that caused me to stop and gather one more story into my heart.
The two of them and the one soon to be born, I was told, had no where to sleep that night and for the days to come. The daughter was 18 and they had not eaten all day and the day before. The daughter was eight months pregnant.
I am not aware of any women’s shelters or places where meals are served or clothes closets or food banks; all the things in my community that we maintain to offer a minimal standard of humanity and survival.
I was quiet for some time, waiting for some thought and then I looked out on the gardens that were in such need of care and then I suggested a plan.
She should go out and see what she could find in ways of housing and I would help her if she would help me with the much neglected gardens. If she would be my partner in reviving the gardens each morning for a few hours, I would pay the rent and she and her daughter could eat breakfast with us each morning.
She returned that evening after finding a small one room house with a dirt floor. It cost $37 for the whole year. “The whole year?” I asked in disbelief. “The whole year.” They had nothing to put in the little house so I gave them a bucket to carry water and a sheet to lay on the ground. It was so little to offer.
At 6:00 the next morning and every morning after, the two of them arrived at the birth center ready to weed, water, plant and clean the gardens. Cheerfully, they made their way through the yard; planting flowers and vegetables and herbs along all the borders and in the shade houses. They rested for a breakfast on the porch and then when the sun got hot, they walked down the road to their little house. It was their only meal of the day.
In time, I took my share of meat or eggs that I did not eat, and gave it to them. The daughter had lost 8 pounds and she was painfully thin. I poured vitamins and water into her as she leaned on a shovel or hoe. I sent her to birth classes over and over again just so she could sit and rest. The Gardener, like many women in Haiti has perfect posture, long strong arms and a beautiful piece of cloth tied around her head. She smiles easily and was happy to meet everyone here and make new friends. In time everyone came to call her, The Gardener and her daughter became “The Gardener’s Daughter.”
There were six other children, living with relatives. When the daughter became pregnant they could no longer live where they lived and everyone had to move out.
It was not until the second day of labor that I felt I had to ask about the baby’s father and then learned of the abuse of her daughter by the landlord, that drove the gardener from her home even if it meant having no where to live. I learned that the oldest son had killed himself and that shortly after the father had left them all. They had moved in with an uncle whose elderly friend had, through force, caused the gardener’s daughter to be pregnant.
Somewhere in the midst of this long labor, we talked of these things and how they happen the world over. We acknowledged their many sorrows and loses and how it would be understandable not to want to bring a baby into such a world. We also talked of how much hope and joy a baby can bring.
I thought of the Diary of Lewis and Clark and how they describe Sacajawea’s birth as particularly violent. I thought perhaps it was the same for The Gardner’s Daughter and that when we give birth after a great violence has been done to us, it takes a special form of courage to open up to the great love that mothering asks of us. I thought of Pomp, Sacajawea’s son and how much she loved him. I told myself that other women have survived unwilling conceptions and have gone on to love the children and to heal themselves.
After we talked to the Gardner and her daughter about all they had worked to overcome there was a change. Our sweet laboring mama, held us close and in time and with much work, opened up and pushed out a baby girl whose eyes found and held her mothers; a little girl with soft, black curls and a mouth that smiled even as she slept.
Perhaps I have a soft place in my heart, for young pregnant girls, barefoot in the garden or for strong determined women who hold their families together and their daughter in their arms no matter the hardships. I watched them; grandmother, daughter, grand daughter all nested one within the other.
Later they asked me to name this baby and I named her Maddie Mae because I always thought it was a name that had a cheerful way of rolling into the world and because it reminded me of the names they love and most of all because I know a Maddie Mae who is strong and wise and kind and I thought that might be a good name for the baby of the Gardner’s daughter.
And so as in all birth stories, as my tale ends it also is just beginning.