I ride on the back of the motorcycle, holding onto the driver who is young and smells of junior high cologne. Behind me is a mother from a small village near the clinic. She is twenty four and we are part of a small funeral procession for her two year old daughter who died the day before. Another volunteer sits behind her. On the next moto, her baby daughter rides in a small wooden coffin covered with grey flannel. She is squeezed between two cousins and another moto driver. These two motos make up the entire funeral procession that makes its way from the end of a long dirt road to the public cemetery located in a larger village some distance away.
I have been to other funerals in Haiti; ones with church services and bands and a procession to the graveyard. I have seen whole schools, in uniform, follow behind coffins and so I am aware of how small we seem. The men taking the cow down the road and the children with sugar cane in their mouths stare at such a small coffin but I can tell it is not so strange a site for a Saturday morning. These things happen.
We weave in and around the large, muddy ruts and holes of the dirt road; getting out to walk when the holes get too deep for the moto to manage with all of us and the coffin.
We have been at the house of the baby’s father. He himself had died in July, leaving his wife pregnant and with three other children to care for. I first met her when she came into the center and gave birth minutes after arriving. She said the father was run over by a bus in the Dominican Republic but really I am not very sure as she also said he died of cholera one afternoon after work. I had paid her a small amount of money to clean the center on Sundays. Her mother, who has not walked in twelve years makes castor oil from the beans she collects. She has a garden plot for the family and some say she sells sex to buy her kids food but she has never told me this but only comes for a regular supply of condoms that she says she is getting for her sisiter.
The father’s family, when they found out the little girl was sick, had come and taken her and so for some weeks we had not seen or cared for her.
This house, which was her last home, is made of woven branches, stucco and is covered with a metal roof. When I get there, the baby is lying on a mattress and the neighbors are peering in the shuttered window. The baby girl is dressed in an old white, too big, fluffy dress and wrapped in a curtain. After some time, they try to put her in the small box but it is difficult and requires many adjustments. A rock and rusty nails are brought to hammer down the lid. The women and young girl cousins begin to cry and scream while the men play dominos on a table outside the house. I remember the sound of the dominoes being thrown mixed with the sound of the women crying and screaming and the pulling at their hair. These sounds and motions, one on top of the other.
The coffin rests on a table in a small room. There is a dirt floor that is in need of sweeping. The mother sits outside and stares straight ahead. She does not cry. Nor does she touch her daughter or kiss her but holds onto her red phone and talks quietly to the men from time to time. Her body, stiff and hard.
I sit with the baby girl and cry until I can not cry anymore. I ask Nathan, my grandson who has died, to take care of her. He was nice to young children and I trust her care to him. I call on all my ancestors and the people who have gone before me to catch her as her tiny soul floats their way.
I watch the grandmother, her hair tied in a blue head scarf. Her face tells me that she has buried many babies, children and a son. An old man with a machete and big yellow boots comes in from the fields and shakes his head and then goes back out to his work. In time, they carry her out to the waiting motos and we move down the road; the sounds of the crying following us into the morning.
I lean into the moto driver, afraid of the ride but too exhausted to care if I too die here in Haiti. I am worn down.
We stop at a graveyard that is locked. They yell for the grave digger and when no one comes climb over the wall and at last a man comes out and lets us in. The mother stays behind but I crawl over old tombs and weeds and human bones to the hole they have dug for her. It is clear that I am peering into a common grave and that many people have also been buried in that space. There are pieces of coffins, bones, cloth and garbage. I am weak with my inability to change what I am a part of. They toss her little box in the hole. I collapse and watch as her little body is covered with whole human bones, cloth and old rotting coffins. I make a small effort to pick wildflowers and throw them in the grave. It is too much for me and in my mind I lash out silently at all the architects of her death.
She has died of malnutrition and starvation. Some children here only die of malnutrition but she has died of both. When I met her, which was long after I had been her mother’s midwife, she was close to death. Her mother brought her late one afternoon and we quickly took her to the hospital.
I remember that she was wearing a too big green velvet dress that covered her swollen legs and I remember being confused at her splitting skin. I remember that she was in so much pain. Here when people want to comfort me, they remind me of how much she suffered and how much pain she was in. I remember but I am not comforted. I am a mixture of fury and exhausted grief.
Come night, I dream I am Peter Pan. She has on the green velvet dress and we are flying over the blue sea and I am showing her great pods of whales and dolphins. More children join us as we fly to an island where we rest and eat and are all-safe together.
There is no marker for her grave so I will record her life and death here. Her name was Valenda Juliene. Her father was Vernel and her mother was Melove Pieerre. Valencia died at 3:00 pm on February 9, 2012. She laid down in a patch of sunshine in the dirt and just died. She is survived by a twin brother, an older sister and a baby.sister. When asked why her daughter died, she said that some people say it was bad breast milk and some say a person was mad at her and the doctors say she had malnutrition.
She is here at 6:30 am to clean. We feed her and her children warm bowls of pumpkin soup and keep them close. When asked why she did not cry at the funeral, she says, “everyone is sad in their own way and I did not want to faint.” She has been on her won since she had her first baby at 14. She is beautiful, smart, tough and tragic and we can not help but love her.