Melissa Grunow‘s memoir, Realizing River City, is forthcoming from Tumbleweed Books. An award-winning author, her writing has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, New Plains Review, Limestone, Temenos, and Yemassee, among many others. She is also a live storyteller and regularly competes in NPR’s Moth StorySLAM in Detroit. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from National University and an MA in English from New Mexico State University. Visit her website at www.melissagrunow.com or follow her on Twitter at @melgrunow.
Woch nan dlo pa konnen doule woch nan soley.
Translation: A rock in the water does not know the pain of the rock in the sun.
I was in a lounge chair next to the pool while my brothers took turns jumping flips off the diving board when my grandma walked out the back door, shuffling her legs forward at the hips. She wore a black-one piece black bathing suit even though Grandma never went in the pool, and she served my dad and my then-boyfriend each a Manhattan. We asked her repeatedly to sit down, insisting that we could get our own refills. But everyone was always a guest in my grandma’s house, so she waited on us in her bathing suit as though it were perfectly normal for her to do so.
In a few minutes, I would go inside to help her prepare lunch: cold-cut sandwiches, deviled eggs, chips with French onion dip, tuna salad, and grapes. We would eat on the patio and stay out all afternoon until the mosquitos chased us inside. I hadn’t broken the news to my family yet that I had become a vegetarian, so when it came time to eat, I picked at the food, blamed my fullness on all the snacks served earlier, and waited for Grandma to bring out the watermelon.
It was July, and we were celebrating her eightieth birthday.
In the fall, as my grandpa’s physical limitations and Alzheimer’s progressed, they would decide—or perhaps Grandma would decide—that they wouldn’t drive to Florida for the winter anymore, the first Christmas in as long as I could remember that they stayed in Michigan.
Grandpa wasn’t the only one who was changing, however. Grandma’s curves straightened out as she thinned down, and we blamed the stress of being the sole caregiver for my grandfather, who was struggling more and more each day with communication and physical mobility.
What she didn’t know, what none of us knew, is that she had leukemia.
The drill head squeals against the misguided screw. There is a collective groan from the men around me who crouch on the ground and hold the metal frame together.
Miguelson pokes his finger into the air and rotates it counter-clockwise.
“Take it out?” I guess as I drag my arm across my forehead to catch the sweat building on my face.
“Oui,” he says. “Take it out.”
I push the reverse mechanism on the drill. The screw pops out of the hole and falls to the ground.
Miguelson offers it to me.
I reposition the screw and try again, and this time secure the two panels together.
“Good.” Miguelson smiles and nods toward the next hole further down the partition as crewmen scramble to line up the holes. I’m among a small group of Americans who are assembling frames for homes that will be relocated to various villages outside of Les Cayes, Haiti, as part of a grant for Port-au-Prince refugees who fled the country’s capital after the 2010 earthquake. I’m a white American woman volunteering on a crew of black Haitian men. Somehow I’m holding the drill and leading the project while the other members of my volunteer group have each gone to work on a separate project with a separate crew. I’m sweating through a layer of bug spray, sunscreen, and every piece of fabric I’m wearing while working in a field under Caribbean sun. The men are clad in t-shirts and jeans, and accustomed to working outdoors in the heat. They’re sweating, too, but barely.
We’re spread out on the grass next to a row of shipping containers on the grounds of Pwoje Espwa, or Project Hope, a village of sorts that grew from an orphanage of 650 abandoned children. Local children attend their elementary and secondary school, and villagers benefit from the giant outdoor kitchen that serves three thousand meals a day. There is also a medical building staffed by Doctors without Borders programs, wood and metal shops where young men learn skills to earn money for themselves and their families, a small farm, and a guest house called The Quad where volunteers pay a modest fee to eat and sleep for the duration of their stay.
The men on the crew work for Virginia-based Shelter2Home, an organization that is under contract to build more than thirty houses throughout southern Haiti for those families most in need. The crew are local men trained and paid by Shelter2Home to build these houses, whose frames lock together like giant erector sets, and are then covered with mesh and stucco. The homes are designed to be resistant to severe wind and rain, rot, and infestation, all shelter threats in Haiti.
A bell rings and children dressed in pink and white gingham shirts and green shorts or skirts gather around our work site and watch us. Children in Haiti are required to wear uniforms to school, and the Americans call this particular elementary school the Watermelon Patch because of their attire. The children call us over to them, “Please! Please! Photo! Photo!” they say, those who aren’t too shy, at least. I pose for pictures with them, and one girl gets trampled as they scramble around me like puppies, tugging on my clothes and hugging my limbs. They are desperate for affection, and I can’t keep up with their desire. When the bell rings again, I pry them from me, point to their school, and shout firmly, “Au revoir!” to direct them back inside.
I spent a week with my grandparents when I first moved back to Michigan after graduate school. I didn’t have a job yet, so I drove two hours to their house, where I had my own room and I could lounge in the sun by the pool reading books, dipping my feet in the water to keep cool. I dangled my feet over the edge of the pool, and watched the blue water shimmer around my painted toes. My legs were thinner than usual—as was the rest of me—but they were stark white, always refusing to tan even a little in the summer.
I looked beyond my toes and saw the drain in the center of the deep end of the pool. When I was younger, I would try to swim all the way to the bottom, the pressure increasing on my skull the lower I sank. I would slowly exhale to get closer and closer to the bottom, and by the time I reached the grate, I would be completely out of air reserve. My cousins and I would play a game to see who could sit cross-legged on the floor of the deep end. Kristin could always do it. I was too afraid. Sitting on the edge of the pool, I wondered what it would be like to get to the bottom and to open my eyes, nose, and mouth, and take in water instead of air. I wondered what it really meant to drown.
When I stopped moving my legs, I could see my reflection in the water. The older I got, the more I looked like my grandmother when she was young.
We fly from Detroit to Miami and from Miami to Port-au-Prince, where a hired driver takes us to the Tortug Airport. From there, we are given hand-written boarding passes for a flight to Les Cayes. Our plane sits no more than 18 people and flies so close to the ground that I get to watch the Haitian countryside roll out in front of me. Beyond the mountains, I see more mountains, greenery, and clear water. No evidence of the country’s poverty or corruption or great suffering. Just paradise.
A driver meets the six of us volunteer builders—Christine, Margaret, Darryl, Michael, Dominic, and me—at the airport with a car meant to seat four. The ride is scenic, yet cramped and bumpy. Men, women, and children stare as we drive by. The children wave and shout. There are tin shacks that say “bank” on them along the way, but I’m told they are really casino stands for the lottery that is impossible to win. “It’s the government’s way of ripping off the poor,” Christine says. This is her second time in Les Cayes to work with the local construction crew, and she frequently offers quips about the living conditions and corruption.
Judex is a former Espwa orphan who finds out The Quad has visitors. When I speak with him, I don’t need to slow down or choose simpler words. His English is self-taught and flawless. He speaks just as I do with a nasally Midwestern American accent and an adult’s vocabulary. “It’s how I will live,” he says.
He offers himself as a translator for twenty dollars a day. We decline, hoping to make do for a week of volunteering with one of us speaking broken high school French and the Haitians knowing enough English that we can assemble panels and install doors without compromising the building’s integrity. We communicate on grunts and motions and smiles. Everyone is unnaturally polite and patient with us. Haiti is a happy country, and if the crewmen don’t want us there, they sure don’t let on.
My grandparents came to visit me my first semester in college. After dinner, they took me to the casino where they weren’t sure if I needed to be 18 or 21 years old to get in, but we walked right past the security without alerting them enough to check my ID.
Scenes from movies came to life in front of me. The bright colors; the shiny chrome; the unremitting dinging and ringing of slot machines. My grandparents were seasoned gamblers and showed me around the floor. They gave me five dollars and showed me how to play roulette and the slots. I watched as men and women of all ages and health conditions plunk down stacks of bills or piles of chips or feed coin after coin into the machines. I wanted the feeling of success, of gathering my winnings and running out the door, and into the evening light.
I lost the money within minutes and shrugged as my grandpa laughed and reminded me that gambling was just that—a gamble.
“Now, don’t tell your parents that we brought you here,” Grandma said. She set her lips in a tight line on her face as the flashing lights from a nearby game danced in her eyes. “I don’t want to get you into trouble.”
On our first day of work, the six of us walk through what can only resemble a jungle from my city-minded perspective, to a two-room house that’s already been framed and covered in stucco. We’re met by Pierre Claude, a Haitian crew leader, and some of his men, to install entryway doors that are contractor-grade and shipped from the U.S. The house has two entrances and there are more than ten people trying to help install the doors. They don’t need me. I stand in the front room and watch, wondering why I’m here and how I’m going to contribute, when a woman hands me her baby through the frameless window.
Pierre Claude turns to me and smiles. “This is her house,” he says, nodding to the baby.
“Wellbene,” the mother says through gold fillings, pointing to the baby. “Wellbene.” The child is quiet in my arms, nearly expressionless unless I make cooing noises, and then she giggles and smiles, the mother smiling, too. I try to ask the men how old she is, but they don’t understand my question. That, or they don’t know how to answer. The language barrier divides us.
As my grandmother’s life approached its end, I reached out to Edwin, a man who would never be my boyfriend because he was a bit of a mystic, an overgrown lost boy, a misguided hippie, and a broken-hearted. He teetered on the line between alone and lonely. He was a genius and clueless, a connector who struggled to communicate. He was emotionless and full of emotion, fascinated and disinterested.
Edwin lived in a realm of universal energy, a space of love, truth, and healing, and he tried to get me to live there, too.
“My grandma is dying,” I said. I called him from my bedroom in my apartment, face down on the mattress, unsuccessfully trying to cry. We hadn’t seen each other or spoken in months, yet he was the only person who could crack me open so that I could mourn.
“Completely surrender yourself to this moment.” Edwin’s argument was that when you surrender, you’re allowing the release of all things you want to control. “Love,” he said. “Don’t grieve. Just love.”
Edwin said he had been in a dark place. That he missed me. That he hadn’t met anyone like me since our brief affair had come to an end a few months prior. He said our connection couldn’t be matched.
“And plan to stay the night,” he said after calling me up and inviting me over for dinner.
I accepted his invitation. I couldn’t save my grandma, but I could try to save Edwin.
In the end, I failed them both.
“Melissa, there’s one next to your head.”
I open my eyes, and my ears slowly adjust to the whirring of a large industrial fan propped up in the corner of the room. I’m lying under a screened window and a thin sheet. The fan had cooled the night just enough for me to fall into a sound sleep, despite the heavy humidity in the air.
I fold forward, crawl to the foot of the cot and stand up. It isn’t until that moment that I am actually awake enough to realize that Margaret, my roommate and fellow volunteer, is standing next to me with a flashlight in one hand and a flip-flop in another. It’s our first night in Haiti.
“There’s a what next to my head?”
Margaret hands me the flashlight. “Here,” she says. “Look. It’s on your bag.”
My duffle bag is on the floor next to the cot, and sprawled on the side is a spider.
“My god,” I say. “It’s the size of a Frisbee.”
Grandma couldn’t drive anymore; not for long periods of time, anyway. So I called in sick to spend the day driving my grandpa to doctor’s appointments, run errands, and buy their groceries. I put gas in their van knowing the tank would likely be just as full on my next visit. I was working two jobs, and for that reason, didn’t have time to go up and help, aside from that one day when I hoisted my grandpa in and out of the car, my grandma nagging him the whole time to adjust his shirt, pull up his pants, stand up, sit down, step closer, and don’t go too far.
My grandpa died first. A heart attack, Dad told me. Alone in his room, he was found by an orderly at the nursing home where we moved him after my grandma became too weak to care for him. At the funeral, I sat in the fifth row and cried quietly but hard, cousins and siblings piling into the rows around me. I wouldn’t look at any of them, just at the floor and at my niece who was too young to know not to laugh, who didn’t understand loss. My grandma had told me not to cry, not be sad. She spoke through a white mask while seated in a wheelchair, barely healthy enough to not be lying in a hospital bed. Months later I would wonder why I cried so much at my grandpa’s funeral, and not a single tear at my grandma’s. No, at her funeral, I half-carried, half-dragged my thin sister to her seat, holding her tightly, knowing her grief had overcome her, wishing I had someone when I was the one who needed to be carried.
Today is my ten-year wedding anniversary. Or at least it would be if I were still married. Instead, I am five years divorced and in another country while my ex-husband is in Utah doing whatever it is that ex-husbands do.
The volunteers and a few crewmen ride in the back of a pickup truck with two doors propped up between us and speed down a dirt road into a neighboring village. We are headed to a house that will belong to a young woman who lost her leg in the earthquake.
When we arrive, the woman shouts greetings to us in Kreyol—Haitian Creole—the crewmen shouting back at her. She hobbles over to us and kisses my face, leaning in on her crutches, as one of the children wraps his arms around my thigh and giggles. Some of the men unload the doors from the pickup truck. A quick measurement tells us that we need to clear the frames of screw heads and additional mesh. We use whatever tools we can find: rocks for hammers and our keys as pliers since there are not enough tools to go around. At one point, I use the bottom of my metal water bottle as a chisel and hit it with a rock. Pierre Claude laughs at me, but the technique works, so he nods and moves on to the other door frame. It’s another hot day and one of the crewmen offers to take over for me when I pause to fan my T-shirt out. I’m grateful to have a break.
Children from the village are crowding the crew, so I take them a few yards from the house and teach them hand-clapping games and Ring Around the Rosie. One of them is wearing tights for pants, another just a cloth diaper, and another a matching tank top and shorts set that should belong to a young boy, but is worn by a little girl. None of them are wearing shoes except the girl with the tights. When they get bored with clapping and skipping in a circle, they take turns clutching my hands and climbing up the front of my body then flipping backwards, landing on the ground, a game I used to play with my dad in my grandma’s pool when I was young.
When Grandma was initially diagnosed with leukemia, she was given six months to live. She made it almost two years because it took that long for her body to take over her spirit.
“I’m not afraid to die,” she told me once on the telephone as I drove the hour from my day job to my evening job, negotiating traffic and accepting her acceptance. “I just don’t want my mind to go first. Don’t let that happen, Okay? I want to know who I am and where I am at all times.”
In the end, her mind stayed sharp, just like she wanted. She contracted pneumonia, fluid built around her heart, and she couldn’t get enough oxygen on her own. Her body deflated and drowned itself in a hospital bed, my dad and his brother by her side.
I’m blan, or white. A foreigner. There is a Haitian proverb, Milat pov se neg, eg rich se milat, which translates to, “A poor mulatto is black, a wealthy black is mulatto.” Race and wealth are positively correlated in Haiti. A white woman, an American woman with a fleshy physique like me, is a prize in a crane machine, and the men all seem to line up with a pocket full of quarters.
Judex tells me, “I’ve always wanted to try white.” He’s nineteen. I’m approaching thirty. I turn away, embarrassed that he is so brazen.
Michele is a crewman who wants to bed me. “Maleesa,” he says to me, my name a magical word in his mouth, “I need you. I need you tonight.”
Kevins is a vakabon, a former street kid. He often works by himself as the others see him as a hoodlum or a freeloader. He doesn’t care. He hugs me tightly and flashes a peace sign when we pose for a picture together.
Fritznel tells Miguelson that he loves me, and Miguelson translates.
I shake my head.
“What?” Miguelson asks. “You don’t like black?”
I immediately think of my grandmother who would answer for me in a situation such as this. “I like black just fine,” I say. “But I’m going back to America in two days.”
Legoute introduces himself to me as Son Son, a common nickname. We talk, smile, even flirt for three days while assembling wall panels together. On the last day I give him a bracelet I had made for him with “Son Son” stitched on it. I show him the one I had made for myself with my own name on it and say, “See? So you will remember me.”
He hands me his bracelet back and tugs on the one on my wrist.
“You want to trade?”
He nods. “Your name. On my heart.” He gives me his phone number and requests that I call him. “I want to have your words,” he says.
They call me a lespri blan, or White Spirit. “They have never seen a woman work the way you do. They’re basically calling you a freak of nature. It’s a compliment,” their foreman tells me.
No matter their English skill level, they all ask me the same question, “When will you return to Haiti?” Always when, when, when, because once you have Haiti in your heart, you will find a way, and a reason, to go back.
My cousin Heather picked through my grandma’s closet after she died and stacked a huge pile of clothes on the bed to take home with her, while her mother—my aunt Carol—sorted through piles of my grandma’s jewelry, all of us still dressed in our funeral clothes. I sat in my grandma’s bedroom and watched them, wondering how it was so easy for them to collect her belongings for themselves so soon.
My uncle told me to take the Asian-inspired table with the peacock and bamboo stalks painted on it that my grandma promised to me during a conversation while she was sick in the hospital.
“It’s that one you said you liked,” she had reminded me. “The one we used to have at the house in Florida.” It had been twelve years since I said I mentioned liking the table. Twelve years, and she made absolute sure that everyone knew I was to have it when she died. Heather could have the clothes, the TV in the den, and anything else she picked off that day. The table was my grandma’s legacy to me.
We arrive at Dan’s Creek, a resort in Port-Salut, on our last day in Haiti after a week of installing entryway doors and assembling frames for new houses that the local crew will finish on their own. While waiting for our lunch to be served on the outdoor patio we drink Prestige and go swimming in the warm ocean, and the sun reflects light in all directions for miles. The resort is positioned at the top of a rocky hill, and the only way to get to the water is to climb down stairs and ladders or to jump from a cliff that overhangs the ocean.
Christine and Margaret run and jump into the water without hesitation, not at all intimidated by the twenty-foot drop. I am worried about rocks and heights, and scared for absolutely no reason. When I finally get the courage to jump, the water hits me hard, and I sink to the bottom, my feet brushing against the gravelly sand, the bandana once covering my hair now floating out to sea. I expel the air from my lungs, air bubbles floating up from my lips, and try to sit at the bottom. The water is too buoyant, and it doesn’t let me do more than kneel. I can feel the sun, even on the ocean floor, and the water pressure compresses into my body. I linger, I let my lungs plead for a moment, and then I kick my feet, spread the water with my arms above my head, and take in air when I surface. I make my way to the beach to climb the stairs, walk the plank, and jump again.