Her name was Alicia. I was flipping through old notebooks at work and I found her story, written in chicken-scratching blue ink. I need to tell her story. She’s one of the invisible ones in Haiti, probably dead by now. I need to tell her story because I’ve been so sad, and I must remind myself I am blessed when there are people in this world who have absolutely nothing. Not even a dying dog to lick their knees and bark joyously when they get home.
I met Alicia in southern Haiti in July 2001. It was the summer I wrote The Falcon & The Dove. I wanted to write about an Egyptian sheikh and an American heroine because I figured I’d never get published and I wanted to write what I wanted to read. The old warhouse laptop came with me, and I'd write in the room at night. During the day we toured, and one day we visited a nursing home that was refuge to those all alone in the world. Except it wasn’t like any nursing home you’d see in the States.
They had no running water. No electric. The elderly and frail residents used water from a runoff canal to bathe, water contaminated by farm animals defecating in it. The water was grayish and foul-smelling, and made their skin itch. The residents were growing corn to take to the market to sell, but they ended up eating it because they were hungry and there was no other food.
There was no soap. Most of the residents shuffled along the cracked concrete floor in their bare feet. Many of the beds, lined up dormitory style inside, were rotting, stuffing leaking out of their sides. Windows were broken in the building, ceiling tiles missing, like a gap-toothed smile. An elderly man kept his spoon hidden under his pillow because he feared it would be stolen. Your spoon is like your life in this little corner of Haiti. It may be cheap tin, worn at the edges and scratched, but it’s all you have when people are competiting for food scraps like, well.
Alicia was sitting outside on a broken wooden bench. She thought she was 80, maybe 82. Most people in Haiti don’t live past their 50th birthday. One brown shoe and one dark blue one adorned her feet. She didn’t have a pair that matched. I kept staring at the one brown shoe. It was frayed, scuffed, old and worn. Like Alicia’s life.
Alicia had no teeth. But you don’t need teeth to tell your story. She told hers. I listened.
“My mother died when I was young. I am in pain from my head to my legs. I don’t have any relatives. There’s no one to care for me so God placed me here. I have children, but no one cares for me. God gave me three children, one died, but it’s okay. God is taking care of me because my children do not. My daughter was in the States and last year she came back to Haiti. She never came to see me.”
She rambled on, as if glad to parlay her tale. Glad to have someone, anyone, listen to an old Haitian woman who had beaten the odds and lived, and was all alone in the world with no one to listen. No one to care if she had soap to wash with, food to eat, shoes on her feet.
“I liked to dance when I was young,” Alicia reflected.
“Can you do a little dance for me?” I asked. “Show me.”
She grinned a toothless smile, struggled to stand and picked up her skirts. Then she shuffled her feet, doing a twirl. The other residents watched. Laughed. Applauded.
Alicia sat down, arranging her skirts primly like the belle of the ball. I thanked her for her dance. I asked her about her children again.
“God knows my children’s names,” she said. “I don’t remember them.”
Maybe she didn't want to remember them. Maybe it’s less painful not remembering names when your two grown children forget you, when your last days are spent in a ramshackle building with only corn to eat, foul water to bathe with, and hopeful faith as your companion. But Alicia said she was fine. I had to believe her. What else could I do?
God only knows I’d go stark raving mad if I lived like that. If I had nothing else in this world. If no one else cared if I died alone, broken, in pain, no one to stroke my forehead and whisper a prayer as my body gave up the fight. But Alicia said she was okay.
“I’m all right,” she insisted. “God knows I am really all right.”
Then we met a priest who was struggling to help the home. I asked the priest, who was poor himself, and begged for the people in the home, why he kept trying to help them.
“These are my people. They are all alone. The first day I came here, an elderly man saw me and said, 'Father, welcome, I know you will do something for us.’ They are so happy to see me. I promised I will do whatever I can to help,” he explained.
The priest was hopeful someone would help. Someone would care about people no one cared about. “One of these days we will get what we need. I am an optimist,” he insisted.
Even then, long before the riots, the kidnappings, the deterioration of Haiti to what it is today, he had hope. I couldn’t have optimism. But I could cheer on his. And I do have hope. Hope that he still maintains that endless optimism that life will improve for the forgotten residents … and that more people will care. Some day.
“Even the poverty in Haiti, I have hope that it will change,” he said. “One day. I have hope. I do. Someone will care.”