THE END OF A CHAPTER

You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart always will be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.

I can still remember the moment so vividly, like it was yesterday, and yet also a lifetime ago. It was just two months after I had first moved to Haiti. I sat in the back seat of the white Kia as it rattled and bounced down the gravel road, a truck that had seen many miles and transported even more people than it was probably capable. The sun had begun to set below the horizon, painting the sky with vibrant Caribbean colors – hues of orange and purple and blue. I gazed out the window, the dark trees providing a silhouette against the beautiful background as the beat of the music on the radio matched that of my own heart. And I thought, in that moment, perhaps I could live here forever. It was an overwhelming feeling, one that felt valid and real as I began to dwell on the possibility of my future and the trajectory of my life. Perhaps Haiti would become my permanent residency, my forever home.

Over three and half years have come and gone since I experienced this.

Over three and half years have come and gone since I experienced this. I envy that girl who once had a fire in her spirit, a girl with fresh perspective and tangible motivation to accomplish the goals she had set for herself. She had dreams, some which have come to fruition but many of which have ended in failure. She loved Haiti with everything that she was.

Some days, I yearn to go back, to pick up the pieces of my old life – a life marked by a naivety and innocence and perhaps even ignorance. Oh, to remember Haiti as bliss. Some days, I ache to be that girl again, unaware of the brokenness I would experience over the coming years, unaware that weeks spent visiting Haiti looked much different than a life here. And most days, I long to unlearn and un-understand the gravity of suffering, the realness and rawness and pain, because if I don’t know, it doesn’t really affect me, right?

Sometimes, I want to tell that girl, don’t do it. Do not move to Haiti. It will ruin you forever. I want to tell that girl that she could have normalcy – a normal life. I want to tell her that she could save herself from deep hurts, wounds that may never heal, even with time and counseling and self care. I want to tell her that the scars on her heart will not be forgotten.

I have struggled to write about myself this year, about that which I have traversed, because I struggle to put into words all that has happened. In many ways, I have become calloused to the stories and the pleas and the cries of those in need. Traumatic events happen daily, and yet, they are normalized here because it’s just a part of the daily grind. A man is shot on his motorcycle at the intersection of the route I take to get to work, so the traffic is horrendous…I think I’ll take the other way around. What?! How do you see a body on the side of the road and think nothing of it? How do you turn someone away who genuinely has nothing and retreat back into the comforts of your home? How do you look someone in the eyes with money in your pocket and repeatedly tell him or her no? How do you justify the extremities of poverty and wealth, existing in between the two, unsure of how to navigate such a complicated and complex position, two worlds so far apart?

Sometimes people knock at the gate where I live, searching for me, wanting to see me, whether they know me or not. And I cringe because a visit is never just that. I pretend like I’m not home. Then I proceed to ignore my phone as it rings. I read the texts and choose not to respond. Someone needs something, usually money, and I grow tired. No one cares about me. They just see the color of my skin and the financial status associated with it.

My patience wears thin. My compassion grows dry. Enough is never enough. My enough is never enough.

And now, here I find myself, broken, bruised, arguably defeated, asking God, who am I that you would have chosen me?

Haiti has taken a toll on my wellbeing in more ways than I could have ever expected – emotionally, spiritually and physically. Severed relationships, broken promises, shattered trust. My body is tired. My hope is waning. The light is dim.

I could push it. I really could. I could hang on, scrape by, just enough that my weary smile would disguise my broken heart.

This year has been really difficult. And now I face the truth of a more difficult reality. Sometimes, despite how hard it may be, there comes a time to say goodbye, to say goodbye to sweet, precious friends who have welcomed me into their home, their country and their lives in perfect love.

I know my time in Haiti, in this chapter of my life, is coming to an end. It breaks me to say that because it has become everything I know and love and cherish. But I also know that if I don’t take care of myself, no one else will. I need to rest, to heal, to rebuild. I have begun to lose sight of my own value and worth in the midst of helping others find theirs.

People, with well intentions, often assume Haiti is just a season for me, something I need to get out of my system, something from which I will move on. But the reality is, Haiti will always be a part of who I am. As I have begun to share with those in Haiti that I will be moving back to the States, I always remind and reassure them, Ayiti ap toujou ret nan kèm. Li nan tout san mwen. Mwen pap janm ka kite l nèt. (Haiti will always be in my heart. It is a part of my blood. I will never leave forever). I used to think, prior to moving to Haiti, that I had the ability and the power to change it. Oh, but let us not forget that that girl was also naive. This part of her, I do not envy. No, I could never change Haiti, but rather, Haiti has changed me.

And while I could dwell on all of that which has gone wrong, it would be a shame to forget all that which has been right. If I had the opportunity to go back and to choose whether or not I’d relive it, I would absolutely live it all over again.

The other night, we sat around the table in the bakery at the Caribbean market, arguably the nicest grocery store in Haiti, celebrating Anne Marie’s fifteenth year of life over good sandwiches and extra cheesy pizza. In the midst of ordering food, tallying drinks and selecting the perfect birthday cake, I observed the kids at a distance, cherishing this moment as my time with them draws to a close. The kids have grown up before my eyes because here were not children, but young adults, teenagers, each navigating their own journeys, battling their own obstacles, and figuring out who they will become.

I watched them, with pride, knowing and understanding that life will certainly look a lot different without them. It will be devoid of much stress, anxiety and worry as my day-to-day will no longer be consumed by meeting the needs of ten dependent kids. There will be no more knocks on my door in the early hours of the morning, no more incessant, very non-urgent phone calls that definitely could have waited, no more jealousy or anger or bitterness over who receives more of my attention, no more drama, constant nagging, questions, requests or demands. All of the things that drive me crazy, that have pushed me beyond my level of patience, will be gone.

And yet, I will miss it. I will miss all of it. Because even in all of that which wears on me, which makes me tired, I will miss this unconventional life with them. I will miss being called Mama Lolo. I will miss going back and forth with Anne Marie, calling each other sweet names until we run out of them. I will miss Bony’s tender heart and the way he and Fedner challenge one another in picking me up off the ground. I will miss Robenson’s demeanor, his soft, gentle voice and the way he never gets angry. I will miss Kimberly’s mood swings, and the way she always forgives despite the fact someone wrongs her. I will miss Peterson’s hugs and the way he grabs on so tightly and buries his head into my side, just like he did years ago, when he was just a little boy. I will miss Johnny’s wit, and how he always seems to have a joke ready at the most perfect time. I will miss Lovely, and how she is just that, lovely, even on those typical teenage girl days. I will miss Ricardo’s smile and the way he grabs my hand when I walk through the gate, and always, always asks to call his brother on my phone. I will miss Adriano and his very unique love for animals, a love quite rare in a country like Haiti. And even though he has since left, I will miss Gervens. I will miss visiting his home, hearing his fingers grace the keyboard, watching him interact with his parents, and witnessing his strength, a strength that had been hidden for so many years.

Oh, how I will miss them. These kids have taught me more about love than I could have ever taught them. They have stretched me, broken me, but above all else, they have loved me. They have loved me well.

I will miss Manmi Dadet, Odette, the woman who has protected me like my own mom, who has made me countless egg sandwiches and who has taken care of me in ways for which I could never repay her. I will miss Stephanie and Scindie and Jean, Sanon and Jean Mak, the kind of people I could have only dreamt of for the Lighthouse. I will miss Junior, my best friend and brother, who has sacrificed much to make me happy. I will miss all of the guys at the top of my street – Jacky, Souvenance, Moise, Herby, Toto, Castro, Jean, Waking, Wolking, David, Clarence, Nesly, Marco, Raymond. I will miss my sweet, precious friends of Bon Repos – Snida, Caroud, Tèt, Peterson and Jean Raymond. I will miss friends, Patrick and Mendes, who have since passed but who always made me feel loved. I will miss Wadson, even though our personalities often clashed in a work related setting, because at the end of the day, he has always had my back. I will miss Frisner, a man who walked alongside me during one of the most trying circumstances and reminded me that I was never alone. I will miss seeing Jay, Steven, Derson, Tyson, Sonson, Rebert, Ronaldo – guys I have known for the past ten years who have grown into young men. I will miss Erlange and Nellie, Manouchka and Marin, gentle yet strong women who daily fight against the stereotypes of their culture. I will miss the familiar faces in Source Matelas and Cabaret, those who have never forgotten me or my name, and who never fail to greet me when they see me in the village. I will miss Roger and his steady kindness, and his constant encouragement in that I am enough. I will miss Georgie and the way he has shown me a side of Haiti I could have never seen without him, the way he has given me a home in this place. And I will miss Jamie; yes, indeed, I will miss Jamie – my James – my confidant, my partner and my sister with whom I have shared everything – the heartache and the joy. You will always hold a special place in my heart.

There are so many people, so many things and so many places that I will miss. This country, in all of its frustration, has become so much of who I am. When I think about that girl, about who I used to be, I am grateful to know what I know now. Even though I will live with the burden of seeing and experiencing and understanding poverty for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Haiti, you have shown me beauty in ways I didn’t know possible, and you have proven to me pain I could have never expected. You have revealed the ugly parts about me and you’ve refined me through struggle and sorrow. You have stretched me in grief and loss, but you have brought me joy and victory and have somehow always given me hope. You have broken my heart, but you have also rebuilt me into someone I could have never been without you. Haiti, I cannot explain you because you are miserable and wonderful all at the same time. You have given me an abundantly rich life. And for that, I will always love you.

My gratitude could never truly be expressed into words to those of you who have walked this journey with me. To say I am grateful for you would be an understatement. Thank you for believing in this with me, for supporting me in every aspect of that word, for listening to me even when you didn’t want to, for crying and rejoicing with me through the valleys and the mountaintops and for loving me, for always loving me. I could have never done it without you. Thank you from the very bottom of my heart.

Within the next two months, I will be transitioning back to the States. For those of you who would like to know the details of my future plans, please feel free to privately message me because I would love to hear from you. But for now, I will be resting, taking some time to debrief and to process these past four years and grieving the departure. The Haitian people have shown me the beauty in living in the present and I intend to honor that. Because while I don’t know exactly what lies ahead, I am okay with that, and am I looking forward to the next chapter of life.

Oh, how I will miss them

Oh, how I will miss them. These kids have taught me more about love than I could have ever taught them. They have stretched me, broken me, but above all else, they have loved me. They have loved me well.

I will miss Manmi Dadet, Odette, the woman who has protected me like my own mom, who has made me countless egg sandwiches and who has taken care of me in ways for which I could never repay her. I will miss Stephanie and Scindie and Jean, Sanon and Jean Mak, the kind of people I could have only dreamt of for the Lighthouse. I will miss Junior, my best friend and brother, who has sacrificed much to make me happy. I will miss all of the guys at the top of my street – Jacky, Souvenance, Moise, Herby, Toto, Castro, Jean, Waking, Wolking, David, Clarence, Nesly, Marco, Raymond. I will miss my sweet, precious friends of Bon Repos – Snida, Caroud, Tèt, Peterson and Jean Raymond. I will miss friends, Patrick and Mendes, who have since passed but who always made me feel loved. I will miss Wadson, even though our personalities often clashed in a work related setting, because at the end of the day, he has always had my back. I will miss Frisner, a man who walked alongside me during one of the most trying circumstances and reminded me that I was never alone. I will miss seeing Jay, Steven, Derson, Tyson, Sonson, Rebert, Ronaldo – guys I have known for the past ten years who have grown into young men. I will miss Erlange and Nellie, Manouchka and Marin, gentle yet strong women who daily fight against the stereotypes of their culture. I will miss the familiar faces in Source Matelas and Cabaret, those who have never forgotten me or my name, and who never fail to greet me when they see me in the village. I will miss Roger and his steady kindness, and his constant encouragement in that I am enough. I will miss Georgie and the way he has shown me a side of Haiti I could have never seen without him, the way he has given me a home in this place. And I will miss Jamie; yes, indeed, I will miss Jamie – my James – my confidant, my partner and my sister with whom I have shared everything – the heartache and the joy. You will always hold a special place in my heart.

There are so many people, so many things and so many places that I will miss. This country, in all of its frustration, has become so much of who I am. When I think about that girl, about who I used to be, I am grateful to know what I know now. Even though I will live with the burden of seeing and experiencing and understanding poverty for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Haiti, you have shown me beauty in ways I didn’t know possible, and you have proven to me pain I could have never expected. You have revealed the ugly parts about me and you’ve refined me through struggle and sorrow. You have stretched me in grief and loss, but you have brought me joy and victory and have somehow always given me hope. You have broken my heart, but you have also rebuilt me into someone I could have never been without you. Haiti, I cannot explain you because you are miserable and wonderful all at the same time. You have given me an abundantly rich life. And for that, I will always love you.

My gratitude could never truly be expressed into words to those of you who have walked this journey with me. To say I am grateful for you would be an understatement. Thank you for believing in this with me, for supporting me in every aspect of that word, for listening to me even when you didn’t want to, for crying and rejoicing with me through the valleys and the mountaintops and for loving me, for always loving me. I could have never done it without you. Thank you from the very bottom of my heart.

Within the next two months, I will be transitioning back to the States. For those of you who would like to know the details of my future plans, please feel free to privately message me because I would love to hear from you. But for now, I will be resting, taking some time to debrief and to process these past four years and grieving the departure. The Haitian people have shown me the beauty in living in the present and I intend to honor that. Because while I don’t know exactly what lies ahead, I am okay with that, and am I looking forward to the next chapter of life.

January 18, 2018 – by Lauren Neal

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Feet in Cincinnati, Heart in Haiti