The House of Life: Chapter 8

I was born on a Monday in the city of Kumasi on what I’m sure was a sweltering evening in one of Ghana’s most populated cities. My life story, however, has played out in the comfort and privilege of Canada’s peaceful borders, yet I was always painfully aware of the people, the language, the food, and the struggle my family left behind. 

 I decided to become a doctor at a young age. This fall I have had the experience of a lifetime joining an amazing group of volunteers to serve for two weeks at a clinic in Haiti. I could tell you about the poverty in this country, the mothers who are unable to feed their babies, the heart murmurs so loud they can be heard without a stethoscope, or an elderly woman with skin cancer that had completely disfigured the sole of her right foot. I could tell you all this—I suppose I already have—but there are more than enough sad stories that have already been told from Haiti.

So instead I would rather tell you other stories—about the 77-year-old woman with a large growth at the corner of her left eyelid who I referred to our surgeon. When she heard the word “surgeon” she stood up and ran away with fear so quickly the Haitian interpreters laughed, not believing a woman her age could move so fast. I would rather talk about this place where men and women walk boldly in the streets not concerned by the traffic, but, as our Haitian guide comically pointed out, scatter in fear at the first drop of rain. Let me tell you about the parents who walk for miles and wait patiently under the hot sun for hours, sometimes days, so their children can see a doctor. About a people so resilient that even after unimaginable devastation, they still smile.

 

- Adwoa, MD
November 2013

 

*

 

Dick returned home for Thanksgiving in 1998. By the New Year, he had once again left for Haiti, this time with a plan of staying for six months. He was anxious to get started building the clinic, knowing the road ahead would be long.

Barb was still teaching, with a few more years ahead of her before her own retirement. Since she and Dick would be apart for a much longer span of time than usual, Dick tried to stay in touch as often as possible while in Haiti, but it was difficult to call home. Not only did cell phone towers not exist in Jacmel, but if he wanted to make a call, he had to drive into town to the phone company. And because he needed to be at the construction site every day, he didn’t have time to check in regularly. When he did get a chance, making a call was tedious. Dick would have to tell the operator at the phone company the number to dial, and then he would sit down and wait in front of a row of booths that were lined up against the wall, each with a small seat inside. Eventually, the phones would ring, and the operator would tell him which phone to answer.

Sometimes Barb wouldn’t hear from Dick for six weeks at a time. And although she was just fine at home, still working and hosting bingo, it was lonely without him. But Barb knew it was important for him to be there for every part of the construction, even if it meant he was frequently gone—they had a particular vision for a clinic, and it was his responsibility to ensure those standards were met. Dick also wanted to be available in case any problems came up, or if any part of the plans needed to be changed at the last minute. And Barb knew it wouldn’t be long before she would retire and join in, right beside him, in Haiti.

            The medical teams continued to see patients at the Sea of Love during the construction, and Dick was just as involved in the clinics as ever. When the team arrived that February, it was just a few weeks after the construction crew had gotten started on the foundation for the clinic building. It was hectic for Dick to have so many roles. He spent the majority of his time just traveling back and forth between the two places. But he knew even though he was swamped with his responsibilities, he didn’t need to worry—the team was more than capable. So many of the team members were returning volunteers, and they could handle things as Dick bounced around. He made sure the team got to visit the construction site so he could show them the plans and give them an opportunity to imagine the day, in the not too distant future, when they would have the clinic to call home.

 The number of construction workers varied from day to day. Anywhere from ten to over seventy men could be working depending on the stage of the construction. On days when Boss Ken needed cement mixed and poured, he would bring in the largest crews. And it took a lot of men to mix so much concrete. Every single cement block was made by the Haitian construction crew and mixed by hand, on site.

One morning while walking the grounds, Dick noticed that a few men were smashing holes into the wall they had just built the day before. He was shocked. He couldn’t imagine why they were tearing down a wall they had just finished. But then the men stopped breaking up the wall and started sliding two-by-fours into the holes they had created. They then laid other boards across the ones that had been inserted into the holes. The men were making scaffolding so they could climb up to build the wall higher. After they completed another section of the wall, they removed the boards, and repaired the holes. Dick couldn’t stand to see them build this way—it just didn’t make sense to him, and it frustrated him to no end. But the workers would just laugh at him and continue working. Eventually, he stopped complaining, because their methods were getting the job done. After all, the Haitian construction workers were the ones with the expertise on how to build in Haiti.

 

*

 

On most days while the clinic was under construction, it was not very interesting for Dick. Sometimes he did little more than watch the crew work all day long, something that made his extended stretches of time in Haiti tiresome. Building the clinic was a slow process, and, frankly, quite boring. It didn’t help that he was alone in the evenings. So when he reconnected with an old friend, Dick welcomed the companionship. The friend’s name was Paul, and, like Dick and Barb, he was from Peoria.

 

Paul had come to Haiti in his sixties, after his wife passed away. By the time he and Dick reconnected, he had been in Haiti for more than 15 years. He was a gynecologist who delivered babies at a hospital near Cité Soleil in Port-au-Prince. Paul had delivered over ten thousand babies and had been very prominent at the hospital before the administration changed and he was told it was time for him to be done. Having worked well past retirement age, he was getting too old, and the new administration felt he was not cut out for the work anymore.

Dick had known Paul in Illinois—he had a medical practice in Peoria, and he was Dick’s mother’s doctor for a while. Paul had also worked with St. Anthony’s Medical Mission at St. Dominic’s Church. Dick had recruited him as a medical volunteer, and Paul thought highly of what Dick was accomplishing in Haiti. He was especially excited when he learned, many years after volunteering with the medical team, about Dick’s plan to build a clinic.

When Paul lost his position at the hospital, he didn’t want to go home to the United States. He had enjoyed his time spent volunteering with Dick, so when he heard Dick was in Haiti, he tracked him down and asked if he could stay with him at Linda’s house. Dick agreed, even though Paul couldn’t be much help with construction. But Paul loved being in Haiti, and he was happy to simply have a place to be. Most of the time, he just followed Dick around and was content just doing that. Dick didn’t mind. He knew Paul didn’t want to leave, because he didn’t have any reason to go back home.

Dick and Paul would walk over to the clinic every morning, and after a long day of supervising the construction, they would walk back to Linda’s together, usually stopping at the local store, Son Son’s, on the way. Located on the main highway right at the top of the clinic road, the store is owned by Son Son himself, a serious and quiet Haitian man. He has a kind face, yet rarely smiles—he is usually wary of the blancs, until he gets to know them. But Son Son got to know Paul and Dick from their evening visits, and he welcomed them to stop by whenever they liked. At the time, he only sold a few items at his store. He mainly carried soda, rum, beer, and dry food snacks, along with whatever Madam Son Son, his wife, cooked—chicken, rice and beans, breadfruit, fried plantains, and pork. She cooked under a little lean-to right outside of their house, directly behind the store. The air around the store always had a delicious scent no matter what time of day.

Linda was a religious woman, and she didn’t allow beer in her home. Dick and Paul respected her wishes, so their stops at Son Son’s were usually to have a beer, or two, or three, each night. The store had a little bar with only two bar stools. It was so cramped and hot inside that Dick and Paul never wanted to sit at the bar, so they would take the two barstools outside to the front of the building where two chairs sat. Sitting in the chairs and using the barstools as their individual tables, the pair would talk and drink beer, and smile and wave at the Haitians walking by. Trucks, tap taps, and motorbikes drove up and down the road, and children road bicycles, kicking up dust in the dry heat of the evening. This was the most relaxing part of the day for Dick and Paul, and it was really the only thing to do outside of working or sleeping.

One afternoon while sitting in their usual spot, Dick noticed Son Son’s wife stirring something in a large pot under the lean-to. Right below the large pot was a smaller pot on top of a little pile of rocks. Madam Son Son walked away, heading into the house, leaving her food to cook. After a few moments, Dick pointed over to the pots and said, “I’ll be damned, Paul, look at that.”

“Look at what?” Paul responded, turning his head.

Dick pointed to the pots. They both watched as a chicken jumped up from the ground and landed on the edge of the lower pot. It then jumped up to the edge of the higher pot. And while perched on the larger pot, the chicken pooped into the smaller pot below. Dick and Paul started laughing uncontrollably, holding their bellies and rolling out of their chairs.

And that was about as entertaining as it got for Paul and Dick.

 

*

 

Paul stayed with Dick the entire time the clinic was under construction. Their friendship continued, and eventually Paul moved into the completed clinic right along with Dick. He even had his own room. Paul enjoyed being at the clinic and was just as excited as Dick was about the medical teams working in the new building. He would work along with the other volunteers, even though by then he was too old to do much of anything at all—he would scrounge up patients that needed suturing, or he would invent problems, like bandaging scratches that didn’t need attention. Eventually, though, Paul’s health deteriorated to the point that Dick and Barb began to fear for his well-being. It was a real possibility that Paul could get ill in Haiti, or even pass away, and they didn’t know what they would do if that happened. Even though it was going to break his heart, it came time for them to tell Paul he needed to go home. Paul didn’t protest. He knew he had become a liability and that it was time for him to leave Haiti. He agreed to go back to Peoria to live out the rest of his life. He passed away within a few years of returning home.

 

*

 

Part of Dick’s role in Haiti during the construction of the clinic was managing payroll for the crew. He had always paid the Haitian staff that worked during the medical missions, but it was usually only a few translators for one week at a time during the year. Now, Dick was dealing with a large group that needed to be paid on a weekly basis.

It was Jean Michel’s responsibility to work with the Haitian bank, which was located in Port-au-Prince. Since it would take most of the day to travel to the bank and back, the first time Dick needed to do payroll, he sent Jean Michel by himself to Port-au-Prince to withdrawal money, with plans of meeting him the next morning.

Early the following day, Dick drove over to Jean Michel’s house. He stopped the truck out front and honked the horn. Jean Michel didn’t come out of his house. Dick honked again, and he still didn’t come out. He laid on the horn and started yelling for him. Finally, the front door opened, and Jean Michel poked his head out.

“I will be right there!” he yelled, as he ducked back into the house.

A few minutes later, Jean Michel walked out of the door holding a small cardboard box. Dick noticed as he walked toward the truck that he was struggling badly. When Jean Michel finally reached the truck, Dick asked him what was in the box. As Jean Michel heaved the box up into the front seat, gasping for air, he said it was the money from the bank. Dick couldn’t understand why it weighed so much that Jean Michel strained to carry it.

Dick removed the lid. The box was filled with an enormous amount of coins and Haitian two-dollar bills (equivalent to approximately twenty US cents). The bills were wrapped tightly with rubber bands, in stacks of various sizes and shapes. Some of the stacks were wet and stuck together. Jean Michel said it was exactly how the bank had given him the money—a mangled mess of Haitian currency.

Dick had to make payroll that day, and he couldn’t take the time to go back to the bank. But he also knew he couldn’t give the workers wads of damp bills and handfuls of loose coins. Instead of going to the construction site, Dick drove to Linda’s house so he and Jean Michel could try to sort out the money. When they got there, they sat around the kitchen table peeling apart bills and laying them out to dry. After the money dried, it still took hours to organize it all.

 Later that afternoon, Dick and Jean Michel took the payroll to Boss Ken to distribute. The workers were not pleased about receiving handfuls of change with their pay, but Jean Michel explained that the bank had no choice—they didn’t have anything else to give. Without any notice of the large payroll withdrawal, the bank only had small bills and coins, some in bad shape.

After the incident, Dick knew he couldn’t keep doing payroll like that every week. To sort out the problem, he went to the bank with Jean Michel the next day. The teller apologized and told them if she knew in advance how much they needed, she would see that the money was given to them in reasonable condition next time.

Dick never had another issue with the payroll after that, but he did find that the bank wasn’t the only thing he was dealing with that led to unexpected situations. Just as banking was different in Haiti, so was getting electricity to the clinic. Although Jacmel had more reliable electricity than Port-au-Prince, the so-called City of Darkness, power was still distributed on a rolling schedule—different parts of the city had electricity at various times of day, and those times rotated, meaning few Haitians had power all day long. Dick needed to make sure the clinic had enough power to operate and that it would be consistent, and he realized early on that he was going to have to figure out how to do that mostly on his own.

Since the property was a kilometer off the main road, no electrical poles were anywhere near where the clinic was being built. Dick found out that it would be his responsibility to purchase the poles and have them installed—the local power company in Jacmel, EDH, did not install poles or electrical wires. In fact, EDH didn’t do much more than turn the power on. They didn’t even deliver the power bill—Dick would have to go looking for it where it usually ended up at Son Son’s. Dick was able to hire an off-duty EDH employee to install the poles and connect the electricity, saving him money, since his only other option would have been to hire a private local company, which would most likely have been expensive. And even with electricity installed, the clinic still required the use of a generator to guarantee the power would stay on throughout the day and night.

For Dick, such challenges weren’t as discouraging as they had been in the past. Over the years, he had learned to just go with it. It was a different way of doing things than at home, and by now he knew getting things done would be harder if he expected anything to happen like it did in the United States. Dick was learning how to do things the Haitian way, and he was just fine adjusting, because he knew that is what he had to do to make it all work in the end.

 

*

 

By the fall of 2000, the clinic was only a few months away from completion. The building was finished and the security wall around the property had been built. All that was left were the final touches. A shipping container had been brought in from Peoria with bedframes, mattresses, kitchen cabinets, countertops, and ceiling fans. The walls inside and outside the building were painted white.

Since the once-overgrown property had been plowed and smoothed out for construction, Dick was looking forward to bringing in plants and trees to beautify the landscape—he pictured the foliage growing tall and providing shade for the medical volunteers and the Haitian patients, as well as offering some additional privacy for the clinic. Thick foliage would also act as security for the goats, chickens, roosters, rabbits, and dogs that wandered the property freely, not belonging to anyone, but welcome all the same.

One morning while the workers were busy planting bushes, Dick noticed a goat was eating one of his new plants. He walked over to the goat and shooed it away. But the goat just turned back around and found another plant to chew on. Dick tried again to get the goat to move on, but it only scurried away for a moment before returning to nip on a different plant’s leaves. Fed up, he picked up the goat and tossed it over the six-foot wall. But before he even had a chance to turn around, the goat had jumped back over the wall, so suddenly it was as though it had bounced off a trampoline on the other side. Dick and the Haitian workers couldn’t stop laughing at how funny it had looked to see the goat soaring through the air, so Dick just let it stay and continue chomping on his plants.

 

*

 

Although the years of planning and construction had not always been interesting, there had been certain times when Dick did get excited. Phases in the construction where he could see how the clinic was starting to come together were especially enjoyable. At those moments, he felt how promising the new possibilities were—how much the clinic was going to provide for the volunteers, and how much more the volunteers would be able to do for the Haitian people.

One particularly special day for Dick was when the construction crew finished the floor of the second level of the clinic. When he was told that the concrete was dry and that he could go upstairs to see how it looked, he was ecstatic. He couldn’t wait to see the progress. He entered the empty building, where the rooms on the first floor had been completed (if only barely, since the walls and floors were nothing more than gray concrete). None of the doors or windows had been put in place, but the stairs had been built. Dick started up the stairwell. He could see blue sky above him coming through the hole at the top of the staircase. When he reached the last step, he walked out onto the open floor. The sun hit his face as he squinted in its glaring brightness. He looked around. For the first time, he could see above the tree line—he had never before seen where the building was situated on the property. He hadn’t known where exactly the clinic was in that part of Cyvadier, in that part of Haiti, in that part of the world.

As he stood there, Dick’s mind flashed to a significant vacation he had taken with Barb and the children when the kids were still young—many years before he would ever set foot in Haiti. They had traveled to Nevada with their camper and stopped for the night at a campsite. Dick unhitched the camper from the car, and Barb and the kids got busy unpacking and setting up camp. As they did so, Dick decided to take a little time to himself to think. He got back into the car, and he drove out as far as he could into the desert. When he became tired of driving, he stopped at the side of a small, rocky cliff and hiked a short distance up out to the edge of the cliff and sat down. He looked out over the dusty reds and golds of the desert landscape, and he thought about what he wanted to do in his life. His mind wandered to what God wanted him to do. But instead of just wondering, Dick started a conversation with God. He didn’t ask questions while he spoke. He made demands. He told God that if He put him in a place between the mountains and the ocean, then he would do anything that was asked of him. When Dick was done talking, he made his way back down to the car and returned to Barb and the kids, feeling doubtful that he had been heard.

 

            Now, many years later, as Dick stood on the second floor of the clinic, nothing blocked his view and he was able to see his surroundings in every direction. And as he looked out, he saw that in front of him was the ocean, and behind him were the mountains, and, when he looked off to his side, he could see both at the same time, so close that it seemed as though they were touching. The mountains. The ocean. Together.