Delmace and I have been back in Boston for a little over a week – and I still have not totally unpacked yet. Sure, all the dirty laundry has been washed and returned to dresser drawers; most of the stuff like deodorant, toothpaste, and shampoo is put away; toothbrushes have been replaced; water bottles have been washed (several times); a couple of pairs of shoes have been trashed; and my laptop has been to the repair shop (and back, good as new)… But there is still a suitcase on my bedroom floor with items that need to be dealt with… I know where the stuff needs to go (hall closet by the bathroom), but I guess there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to acknowledge that our big summer adventure in Haiti is really over. We planned and prepared for this trip for such a long time… Even before Delmace ever came home to Boston, I had been planning out his return to Haiti. I never imagined it would take as long as it did for him to get back to his homeland (2 and a half years) – but, looking back at everything, I am now thinking that it was exactly the right amount of time.
Haiti is, and always will be, a big part of who Delmace is. Our home is filled with Haitian artwork. We talk about Haiti, listen to Haitian music CDs, look at photographs, and have maintained very close relationships with friends who live and work at the home where Delmace was cared for. I want Delmace to be proud of his Haitian heritage, and to love the country as much as I do. But, Delmace was only about 3 months shy of his fourth birthday when he arrived in Boston, and I have now come to realize that many of his early memories of Haiti were not so much his memories, as they were mine.
One of the great things about our trip this summer, was that Delmace was finally old enough (and cognitively aware enough) to make his own memories. He knows about the 2010 earthquake. I’m not sure he remembers all the kids at Wings being crowded into one small room and sleeping on the floor for over 2 weeks, or how scared all the adults were. He knows, on some level, that it was because of the earthquake that he got to come to Boston when he did. But he has a kind of “romanticized” version of his departure from Haiti, and although I have told him the “real story” (countless times), he still clings to his “fairy tale”. I don’t want to take that away from him – but I did want to “show” him his roots, to help him to better understand who he is by really knowing where he came from… And now, I really think he does have a better understanding of Haiti and his early years.
Wings of Hope is one of 3 homes in the “St. Joseph Family” in Haiti – and they really do consider themselves a family. Their residences are not orphanages – they are homes. All of the kids who live in these homes consider themselves to be brothers and sisters. Whenever Delmace and I talked about the kids at Wings, I have always referred to them as his siblings, but I don’t think he really understood that until he went back this summer. When we first arrived, he didn’t understand why so many of the older kids kept touching his head, or picking him up, or hugging him. I told him they were all so happy to see him – but it was more than that… He was the littlest brother – who had come home. After the first week or so, he started to really embrace the role of the “little brother”… He would tell me, “Mom, I’m going out to play with my brothers”, or “When the little brother plays with the big brothers, sometimes the little brother gets hurt – but it’s OK ‘cuz they didn’t mean to hurt”…
Even after returning to Boston, he is still embracing the role of “little brother”… The other day, we were weeding through stuff in his room, getting rid of things that were outgrown or seldom used, and I pulled out this old hat, and said “let’s get rid of this – you never wear it”… But he immediately said “No! I need to keep that! I’m gonna wear it all the time because it’s like Jozye’s hat, and I want to be like my big brother.”
Our summer trip gave Delmace the opportunity to re-establish a number of other important relationships as well. Most importantly, his relationship with Gephte, a male staff member at Wings who Delmace has always had a very special bond with. Gephte grew up in the St. Joseph Family at St. Joseph’s Home for Boys in Port-au-Prince. As a young adult, Gephte went to work at Wings of Hope – initially as an assistant teacher, but eventually taking on full teaching responsibilities. Over the years, I have spent a lot of time in Gephte’s classrooms – as an observer, mentor, and friend. He is a natural and gifted teacher – one who is able to command the attention of even his most unruly students. He is also energetic, compassionate, and just plain fun to be around.
During the period of time that Delmace lived at Wings, Gephte was also a “live-in” staff member, which meant he was responsible for supervising (and sleeping in) one of the boys’ dorm rooms each night. Delmace was in his dorm room. Gephte’s sleeping spot was officially the top bunk above Delmace’s bed. But, being the youngest and smallest kid in the room, Delmace cried frequently at night, and Gephte would often lie next to him to soothe and protect him. Everyone at Wings started to call Delmace “Gephte’s boy”, and when he began talking, Delmace himself started calling Gephte “Papa”.
The only information we know about Delmace’s natural parents, is that when he was about 10 months old, they brought him to Grace Children’s Hospital in Port-au-Prince for treatment. He was suffering from Malaria, TB, and malnutrition, and at 10 months old, his physical disabilities were likely becoming more apparent. He was admitted to the hospital, and his parents came back once to check on him – but then never returned. He stayed in the hospital for 8 months, until he was taken in to the Wings family. Delmace doesn’t remember anything from his time at the hospital. The first people he really bonded with were the staff and kids at Wings. And I have therefore always referred to Gephte as Delmace’s “Papa”. Two years ago, when Delmace needed to bring in photos of his family for a class project, he brought in 2 pictures – one of me and him, taken in Boston, and one of him and Gephte, taken in Haiti. And last year, when some kids in his class told him “you don’t have a daddy!”, he told them that yes he did, and that he called his daddy “Papa” and that he lived in Haiti. This past year, he also started asking a lot of questions about how families are formed; about how babies grow, develop, and are born; and about adoption. He understands that he had another mother before me, that he grew inside her belly and that she gave birth to him. He also knows that his first parents couldn’t take care of him so they took him to a hospital and asked the hospital to care for him, and that eventually, he found a new mom – me. But I was Delmace’s mom in his heart – and in my heart, long before his adoption became final. And, in much the same way, Gephte has been Delmace’s Papa for as long as he can remember… We don’t need a legal document to say that this is so – we all just know it. And it was so wonderful this summer to watch Delmace as he got to spend time with Gephte – and strengthen the bond that he has with his true father.
Another very important relationship that Delmace got to rekindle this summer was with his “best friend in Haiti” – a little boy named Dad (pronounced “Dodd”). Delmace and Dad were always together when they both lived at Wings – always on the go, and always getting into mischief… So much so, that they earned the nickname “Double Trouble”. Dad was not abandoned. His mother brought him to Wings so that he could get therapies and go to school, and because it was difficult for her to care for him at home. Raising a child with a disability is difficult in any country – especially when, like both myself and Dad’s mom (Lulu), you are a single parent. But it is even more difficult in places like Haiti – when you need to work to support your family, but you have a disabled child at home… In most cases, that child can not go to school because they are not accepted at any of the schools, they are not deemed worthy of an education. So unless you have some family member or friend who can watch them during the day, you cannot get a job. That was Lulu’s dilemma, and that was a big part of why Dad ended up at Wings. But he was only there for about 2 years – his mom missed him too much, and about 5 months before the earthquake, she took him back. Initially, he still came to Wings a few times a week, for therapies and school – when either she or a relative could bring him. It was a long distance to travel each day, and eventually they stopped coming. But Dad was still part of the Wings family, and Delmace has always considered him to be a very special friend. There have always been several framed photos of Delmace and Dad in his bedroom in Boston.
And when I returned to Haiti during the summers of 2010 and 2011, Delmace sent me with numerous presents for Dad each time. I took tons of photos of those visits – Dad opening the gifts, playing with the new toys, modeling the t-shirts and baseball caps… I took photos of his house, his mom and his brother, Didi – to share with Delmace when I went home. But even though he loved seeing the photographs, I knew what he really wanted was the chance to see his special buddy again for himself. This summer, Delmace was beyond thrilled to have the chance to visit and hang out with Dad… I think it was one of the things that he was most looking forward to before the trip! We took Dad for special swim days at a fancy hotel pool (twice!) and then brought him back to Wings with us to spend a couple of days each time. The two of them had a blast just being together again. It didn’t matter that Delmace doesn’t speak much Creole anymore and Dad only understands a little English – some things don’t need to be translated… And true friends are often able to communicate without words.
There are so many more things I could say about our trip… Things that were special to both of us – moments that really mattered, and made an impression on Delmace – some of which he may not even realize yet – but, he will… We met so many wonderful people, made new friends, and got to spend time with people who we both consider to be family…
Was it worth it? Did the experience live up to my expectations? I think it did… A few days before we left, one of our American friends who lives at Wings, asked me how I felt after being there for 5 weeks… My response was, that it felt comfortable – like being home, among family… And I think it felt that way for Delmace too… He’s already talking about “when we go to Haiti next summer” – like it’s not even a matter to be discussed, it’s just what we do in the summer… We go to visit family – hopefully for many, many years to come.