Haiti earthquake diary: Sorry, your cousin didn't make it

On Day 1 for me in Port-au-Prince after the quake, the scope of devastation steals my breath. Then, I have to tell Haitian friends in the states that their loved ones didn't survive.

Mary Knox Merrill / The Christian Science Monitor
People walk by the remains of St. Rose de Lima, a church in the Marce Simone (Simone Market) area of Leogane, Haiti, on Monday.

It’s one thing to see the pictures on television – a broken building here or there – but another to see the collective devastation. It literally makes my windpipe close. I open my mouth wide, feel my chest push out as I take it all in.

Up and down the Port-au-Prince streets, rows of buildings that were as familiar as the rooms in my house are now lumps of concrete. Parts of people’s personal lives twist in the breeze.

And it’s so arbitrary. On one block, I count six houses standing, seven collapsed. No pattern. Two streets over, there are only a few houses down. The other side of the street every other house is a shell of what it had been.

A priority is getting over to the Bel Aire area to find news about the family of a dear friend, Pulitzer Prize- winning author Edwidge Danticat. Her first cousin, Rev. Maxo Danticat, has not been heard of since the quake.

When I get to the address, there is a pile of debris on the side where I suspect the house was. I start to feel a bit queasy. I get out of the car and ask around: Has anyone seen Reverend Danticat? A group gathers. No one has seen him, his wife, or their children since the night of the quake. They didn't make it.

I feel myself shrinking. My head pounds. Are they sure? I explain that I am a friend of Edwidge’s, that I have come from the states to find out about her family and they hand me a plastic folder with papers in it, important documents they’ve retrieved from the house – marriage and birth certificates.

They are talking all at once, asking me if I’ve spoken with Edwidge, if I can give her these things. Yes, I can.

My driver takes my hand and leads me back to the car. I don’t try to call Edwidge immediately. I don’t know how I am going to tell her. I send a text during the day to her husband and ask him to call me. I think it will be easier on me if I tell him rather than her. It’s going to be hard enough to tell him.

Edwidge’s poignant Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, "Brother I’m Dying," is centered on the loss of family, and her cousin, Maxo, the late reverend, was an integral part of the story. Now to lose him, his wife and the kids?

Later, I call Ms. Danticat's husband, Fedo. Finally, I get through on a scratchy line.

“It’s not good news, Fedo.” My voice breaks. He waits, not saying anything. I apologize, tell him I’m sorry that I have to tell him what I’m about to tell him. I want the phone line to cut off or go dead.

Fedo says very little and I assume that Edwidge is standing next to him, absorbing all this without hearing a word. He thanks me, and says they will be in touch, and I hang up the phone. Then I sit down on the cold cement, bury my hands in my face, and sob.

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