20: Home from Haiti

20: Home from Haiti

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Spirit of America

Home from Haiti

September 11 is one of our worst days but it brought out the best in us. It unified us as a country and showed our charitable instincts and reminded us of what we stood for.

~Senator Lamar Alexander

All I wanted in the aftermath of 9/11 was to get home to my husband Ken. The United States Embassy assured me I’d remain safe in Haiti, where I’d finished staging an HIV/AIDS prevention seminar for Peace Corps volunteers and their counterparts.

“Reagan National will remain closed indefinitely,” the ambassador’s aide explained. “You can get on your flight for Miami Sunday, but once there, you’ll be stuck. All the rental cars are long gone. People will wait days to grab a seat for Dulles or BWI.”

“I understand,” I said, “but I’ll risk getting delayed. If worse comes to worst, my daughter-in-law’s parents live there and might put me up for a while.”

My husband had still been asleep in Silver Spring, Maryland, that Tuesday morning when, a dozen miles away, a hijacked jet smashed into the Pentagon. He hadn’t learned about the day’s events until the early afternoon when one of his sons phoned to check on him.

I’d been 1,500 miles away, in a rustic hotel in coastal Montrouis, two hours north of Port-au-Prince. Still newlyweds, we’d grown used to separations during our first year of marriage, since I traveled overseas frequently for my job. This, though, was different. I needed to be with Ken right now for mutual solace.

When the news reached us in our hotel conference room, we’d taken a break. We’d poured into the adjacent bar, where the manager had switched on a generator-operated black and white television. We stared in disbelief as CNN showed reruns of the collapse of the Twin Towers.

“We should cancel this training,” a few volunteers suggested through tears.

“No,” others countered. “People are travelling here from all over the country. Some have to hike miles to catch a tap-tap. We can’t disappoint them.”

Tap-taps, the gaily-painted vehicles that provide public transportation in this Caribbean country, follow fixed routes on rough roads. Some of the counterparts might walk for most of a day or more in torrid heat to reach the nearest pickup site.

The Haiti Peace Corps health programmer and I exchanged glances. We had not even considered canceling. Though HIV/AIDS prevalence rates had diminished from the horrendous highs in the 1980s, mother-to-child transmission rates remained shockingly high. This long-planned event would be Peace Corps’ first training effort here.

We somehow struggled through the conference. The Peace Corps nurse, an energetic Haitian woman, drove from the capital to counter the myths that had sprung up about the disease. In Creole she set her superstitious countrymen straight that voodoo played no part in selecting victims. The volunteers translated for their counterparts and engaged them in the interactive skits and scenarios that are the hallmark of Peace Corps trainings worldwide.

Most volunteers reported their counterparts now had a better understanding of the disease and would spread the word back in their villages. We were happy with this positive outcome.

Sunday morning, the embassy drove me to Toussaint L’Ouverture International where I boarded an American Airline flight for Miami. The flight attendants all wore black armbands to honor their colleagues who had died on 9/11. They informed us we needed to remain seated for the entire flight. Everybody seemed uneasy at takeoff, some Haitians weeping. Air conditioning couldn’t mask the acrid odor of perspiration.

Once in Miami, I buzzed straight for the American Airline desk. I produced both my return ticket to Reagan National and my government passport.

“Sorry, we don’t have any seats available on any flights right now,” the check-in agent said. “Wish we did. We have one flight diverted to Dulles tonight at 11:00, but the last economy seat got taken about ten minutes ago. All I can do is put you on a wait list.”

I went to a nearby pay phone and called Ken. I knew he’d be relieved that I’d at least made it back to the mainland.

“I’m here at Miami International,” I said when he answered. “Might be here for days. Things don’t look good.”

“Call me again tonight, baby,” he said. “I miss you so much. I’ve been on the phone with all my sons today. We’re all hoping you get home safe… and soon.”

I sat down near the gate and began to read Herbert Gold’s Haiti: Best Nightmare on Earth, when a young man sat down beside me. He looked exhausted and angry. I realized that nearly everybody in the waiting area wore similar expressions of anxiety and defeat. It had been a terrible week for us all.

“Haiti?” the man said, peering at the book in my hands. “Why bother to read that? That country’s done for.”

“Not quite,” I replied. “I work for Peace Corps and our philosophy is a positive one. I’ve just come from conducting a health training there.”

His scowl faded. He blinked. He shifted his gaze to my face.

“Tell me more,” he said. “I’m in pharmaceuticals and we’re always looking for new markets.”

I explained a little about how HIV/AIDS had devastated the country and what efforts had been made to counter the disease. Soon he was telling me about his family in Virginia, and how lucky he’d been to get on the 11 p.m. flight there.

“I got the last seat,” he crowed.

“Oh, it’s you. I came ten minutes later.” I fished in my purse and hauled out my wallet.

“Here’s a photo of my husband. We’ve been married a little over a year. He’s alone in Silver Spring, and I’ve been yearning to get back to give him a hug. I’ve never missed anybody more.”

He studied the photo. “Looks a lot like my dad. He died a few years back. I always could go to him for honest encouragement. Your husband has the same kindness in his eyes.”

I nodded, and smiled.

Soon the man rose and walked to the check-in desk. I returned to my book. First class had already boarded for that last Dulles flight. I pictured my companion settling into his seat.

The loudspeaker crackled. “Will passenger Elders come to the check-in desk?”

I approached, steeling myself for the bad news about how many hours or days I’d have to wait to get a seat on a flight.

“Here’s your boarding pass. You’re in the last row, but you’ll be home tonight.”

“But…”

The clerk smiled. “The guy who had this seat upgraded. He said to tell the lady who had been trying to do some good in Haiti to give her husband a hug.”

Finally I released the tears I’d held back all week.

I phoned Ken from Dulles. “Not everything is a nightmare. Prepare to be hugged in a couple of hours, thanks to a stranger’s kindness.”

“I’m ready,” my husband replied.

~Terri Elders

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