Was I Ever Really There?

I didn’t want a going away party when I left Haiti. I got sick the day before I left and used that as an excuse to avoid the fuss-making over my leaving. I ended up going out for a drink with some friends and then catching the tail end of a larger party that was apparently also meant to be a farewell to me.

The next day I crammed my morning so full that my office goodbye was nothing more than a fly by of waving arms, air kisses and brief hugs. I am not even entirely sure that everyone there knew I was actually flying home that day and not returning.

And I did this all as if I were the only one to consider.

I did not give the friends I had made there a chance to really look me in the eye and tell me goodbye. I did not let it settle in to the people I worked with that I would no longer be a part of their work lives. I did not give anyone a real chance to have closure with me. It felt clean and tidy at the time. Today it feels selfish.

Working on a three-month assignment in a country as intense as Haiti is really such a strange beast, after all. It is such a short time, as it turns out. Enough time to learn that what you had originally thought you would do was not doable after all. Enough time to determine the best path forward, which is always a looser, more organic-to-the-culture approach. But not enough time to get anything like that going. Not enough time to see anything more than the flickering of success somewhere far on the horizon. Not enough time to have something to hold in your hands to show what your time meant there.

But the hardest thing about three months in that kind of situation is about relationships. I lived in close quarters with some great people there. Every day we would either be in each other’s rooms or we’d have only our tarped walls separating us, which encouraged constant conversation. I had many more friends to whom I sent demanding emails all the time for them to “Get on Skype” so we could chat…or “don’t even think about going somewhere without me this weekend.” I knew more about the habits and needs of everyone there than I know about any of my very close friends here. And every day, we’d share the frustrations of the day, the weirdness everything going on around us and whine about stuff that would not be worth whining about back home, but which gave us something safe to bitch about in a place where none of us really felt we had the right.

I have been home now for a month and a half, and I have been completely disappeared from that place in a way you can only understand if you have been there to see it happen. No one emails me. No one asks me questions or looks for counsel on what I know. Short term volunteers must flow through there now who have never and will never hear of me. The international staff that was there when I was closed the gap around the void I left, before I even got back home. To a newcomer there, I never was.

And I know this with certainty, because I was part of that gap closing in the past. My hands too drew the curtains behind those departing for home. It becomes so routine that the day someone has left, it is as if they were never there. There are occasional mentions in the context of conversations, but nothing much more than that. I never called or wrote either. And I understood it then every bit as much as I understand it now, which is to say…not at all.

Except to say that, in an environment like that, it is hard to become attached and lose people all the time. And it is not just the mushy and emotionally expressive ones who suffer those losses. Even the solid ones who do not show it feel the chipping away until they cloister themselves away to avoid as much of the attachment as possible.

The strange and unfamiliar sadness I feel over this is so complex that it is difficult to explain and I don’t process emotional things as clearly as I used to before Haiti. But, if I were to try, it might look like peering through a foggy train window toward a spot on the horizon that you can’t quite see, but know is there all the same.



5 thoughts on “Was I Ever Really There?

  1. Thank you Kim for putting into words my exact feelings of Haiti. I cannot speak of Haiti as I am unsure how I feel. When people ask I am completely stopped. It is too complex to confine to a group of words. We do our best, as words are a path to our truth. The truth about Haiti….she is thriving, surviving, happy, sad, frustrating, beautiful, mad, gentile, innocent, simple, complex, etc. See…. I can easily define other places in terms of people. Hong Kong is a high tech geek. Kuala Lumpur is a naturalist, Beihai China is an orphan, Tibet is a deeply spiritual guru, Chandigarh is an artist, Christchurch is a gardener, and Haiti is an abused child. It always comes down to how does this experience relate to me. This child is here to teach us patience, wisdom, humility, and most of all love. The thrill of watching her grow carries a little growth for all of us.

    • I am surprised at how many have told me that this is how they feel as well. I didn’t realize that everyone was having as rough a time talking about Haiti as I have had. Comforting to know that it is not only me whose words are failing them.

      I hope all is well with you guys. I have a feeling our paths will cross again…

  2. Kim

    As I read your words two things came to mind;
    1-You descibed my time in the army. Forced to create life long bonds with people who, under different circumstances, I probably would not have given the time of day, and

    2-only those who were there and left, will ever truly understand how you feel. As you know, I cheated a bit. I would come back every few weeks for 2 months, so I was able to wean myself away. Where as you came for 3 months and left. As shocking was your arrival, so was your departure. I remember your first few days; you could not believe that I did not want to go swimming. You were so hot and so ready to make the difference. After a few days went by, I senced a bit of frustration in you as reality started to set in. I left after you were there only about 10 days. When I came back 4 weeks later; you were a vetean. You were full steam ahead. You then left and went home and could only think about what you just went through. I am sure that as you told people about your experiences, they were politely gazing back at you. Like looking at 100 baby pictures of a stranger; “enough already” they thought, and you hadn’t even started to explain yourself. We all did little things that made our time enjoyable. A very fond memory of mine was helping a certain newby settle in. I remeber seeing this misplaced flower walk in from the garage. She was dumped into this sterile cubicle of a room. All I did was set up a mosquito net, donate a chair and table and hang two pictures on the wall. The sterile room became a home. I could tell it made her happy. But it made me happier. Weren’t we all there just to help??? The little things we take for granted, but its those things that make a world of difference. You may not be aware, nor has many told you, but you were a spot light to many. You may not have changed Haiti, but you certainly changed your little corner of Haiti. Enjoy the Moment.

    • Tucker, thank you. When I think of you, I will always think of a booming voice, first thing in the morning…showers of pooled rain from your tent flap (for which I was grateful to the point of tears)…your contrarian conversational style (telling me you hate marketing people on the first day I met you makes me laugh to this day)…and a tour through Delmas 32 that showed me a different side of Haiti. I am so glad you were there, Tucker.

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