84: Rescue

84: Rescue

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Kind (of) America


The most beautiful people I’ve known are those who have known trials, have known struggles, have known loss, and have found their way out of the depths.

~Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

In 2010, Jacques and his sister Marie survived the earthquake that destroyed Port au Prince, Haiti. Their mother and father didn’t survive. They were rescued by an uncle they barely knew. At the time of the disaster Jacques was six and his sister was only four. They had no food or water, no place to sleep, and no place to keep dry. They were just two kids on the verge of death along with thousands of others. Their uncle and his friend managed to smuggle them on board an old freighter that was headed to the Bahamas to bring back food and supplies.

They were both very hungry, and Marie cried most of the time. She was seasick and hurt from the quake. They huddled together to keep warm all day while the old ship chugged north to Nassau. The captain of the ship told his passengers that if they were discovered in Nassau, they would be sent back to Haiti, so he dropped them off at a small island where the authorities were more lenient. They found many Haitian families living and working on the island, and for the first time in a month they had food, water, and a dry, warm place to sleep.

Their uncle and his friend wanted to cross the Gulf Stream and wind up in Florida. Jacques told me later that he can remember his uncle telling anyone who would listen that America was the “Land of the Free,” and that their lives would be better there. Several large fishing boats passed by the island on their way to the fishing grounds on the edge of the Bahamas bank. They hitched a ride and landed at another small island close to Bimini, just forty miles from Florida. They had already travelled more than a thousand miles, so another forty didn’t seem like much of a problem.

It took a month for their uncle to repair the old wooden boat he had salvaged from a junk pile. He added a mast and made a sail from some tattered bed sheets. He patched the holes in the hull with tarpaper and resin, and built a small covered deck at the front so Marie and Jacques could keep dry. He calculated that the forty-mile journey would take about twenty hours if the wind stayed steady from the east. Jacques scrounged a loaf of bread and a dozen stale buns, and together with a plastic jug of water they set sail for America.

For three days and nights, they searched the horizon for land, but saw nothing but waves. They had eaten all the food and were out of water. Marie was constantly sick. She shivered with fright and winced in pain whenever Jacques hugged her. As Jacques told me later, “We knew we were lost, and we prayed silently for a miracle. On the fifth day, our prayers were answered.”

The Coast Guard cutter Bluefin found them drifting northward in the Gulf Stream. They learned later that they thought they were all dead. Petty Officer Jeanne Dumas was assigned to care for the two children. They were both carried to the sick bay, where they were cleaned up and given some water and liquid food. Marie was not conscious. The Petty Officer stayed with them throughout the night and refused to be replaced until she knew they were going to survive.

At the Coast Guard base in Miami, Marie and Jacques were granted a thirty-day stay due to their physical condition. Their uncle and his friend were due to be sent back to Haiti, and the two kids would also be sent back at the end of their stay.

Petty Officer Jeanne Dumas visited them almost every day. She spoke French and told them that her mother had been born in Haiti and had married an American sailor. From the X-rays it was discovered that Marie had been crushed in the earthquake and would have to undergo an operation to repair some internal damage. The doctor was amazed that she had not complained of the pain she must have been in. Her operation secured them both an additional ninety-day reprieve from rehabilitation to Haiti.

During the next three months, they became very close to Jeanne and me. We treated them like our own kids, and were generous with our love for them both. As the days ticked by, they knew that the day of departure back to an orphanage in Haiti was approaching. Jacques knew that the prospect of a life of poverty would be impossible for Marie to understand after having endured the journey to America. Her sad future sat heavily on Jacques’ mind every night when he went to bed.

Marie was finally released from the hospital and declared fit and healthy. Jeanne decided to have a small party to celebrate the occasion, but Jacques knew that Marie’s bill of good health meant the end of their stay with Jeanne and me in America. He didn’t feel like celebrating, and his mood put a damper on the party. Jeanne knew why they were so sad and told them she had some news to share with them. We had secretly applied to adopt them, and the adoption had been granted. They could both stay!

Jacques is thirteen now. His little sister Marie is eleven and a typical American kid sister. As Jacques confided to me one day, “Don’t let her know, but she’s the bravest kid I’ve ever known, and I’m proud to be her big brother. Not a day goes by that we both don’t thank God and the U.S. Coast Guard for bringing us safely to America.”

~Derek Hawkins

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