I heard about the Jan. 12 earthquake by voicemail; I was five days into my master's program for creative writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. This was the last of my required four nine-day seminars and I was really excited about the courses. My phone had been off for an hour. When I turned it back on there were 10 messages. Ten different numbers. Something was wrong.
I played the first message as I walked out into the cold. I detest the cold, warmth being of the many things living in Haiti for a decade had done to change me, but this time I didn’t feel the freezing wind on the way back to my room.
I just kept thinking: Earthquake? Haiti? Was Jean Raymond – my former husband (a Haitian) and father of our son, Kadja – OK? And my friends! Gisele, my closest Haitian friend of 24 years; Francoise, my French friend whose daughter and my son grew up together like brother and sister; and Martine, my Canadian soulmate. Were they OK? Was our house still standing?
Then I was in front of the television, hand over my mouth, listening. Had I just walked home?
I called Jean Raymond’s number, couldn’t get a connection. The networks were down. (A week later, they’re still down.) I listened to the rest of the voicemails.
Some were from friends in the states wanting to make sure that I knew about what happened. Others were from journalist colleagues asking first if my family and friends were OK, then quickly trying to hit me up for information and contacts. I was furious that some of them didn’t know me well enough to know that, for me, this wasn’t just a story.
This is a country I love, a place where I have family.
By the time I spoke with my mother in Cleveland, I was in tears, complaining of the insensitivity of the media, but mostly I was overwhelmed with fear and the frustration of not knowing what was happening to my friends.
Was Gisele’s handicraft store OK? Were Francoise’s dental clinics still standing? And how was Martine handling the fact that she was in the countryside while her son and husband were in Port-au-Prince. Had she reached them? Had all of them reached each other?
I wanted to be there, even as pictures were coming across the screen, even as I started to realize exactly what a 7.0 quake meant.
I’d suffered a few tremors in Haiti over the years, and larger tremors in San Francisco, but not a 7.0 in a country that was already fragile in every sense, including its infrastructure. I’d seen crumbled buildings but had no way of understanding that this was now going to be the new Port-au-Prince.
When ABC-TV offered to fly me back to Miami and get me on their charter flight the next day, I was past my ambivalence about leaving my master’s program early. Even if I stayed, there was no way I was going to be able to concentrate on the seminars. I loved all the discussions about voice, point of view, character development, but I wasn’t going to be able to talk about first or third person, the use of adjectives and adverbs, novella or novel.
So I said "yes" to ABC and spent the rest of the night on the phone, checking e-mail, calling Haiti, changing my airline reservation, calling Haiti, packing my bag, calling Haiti.
I finally got through to Martine, who was on her way back from the countryside. She was fine. Our other friends Jacky and Adrien were fine, and all of their immediate friends who lived in my old neighborhood were fine.
But still no word from Jean Raymond. And no word about Gisele, who lived further up the hill.
Around 1:00 p.m. I finally reached Gisele at her home. I could imagine her on her porch, her sister at her side. She’d survived a traumatic drive back up the hill after work and saw a gas station crumble in front of her. She was huddled on her front porch, she said, just as I thought, with others in the neighborhood. No one was going back inside.
But still no word from Jean Raymond. Not knowing that, not knowing what to say to our son or his daughter about his whereabouts, also drove my decision to go to Port-au-Prince.
At least from there I could go find him.
I didn’t allow myself to explore what I would do if I didn’t.
-----For all stories, blogs, and updates on Haiti after the earthquake, go to the Monitor's Haiti page.