From Notes From Extraordinary Women On The Layers, The Laughter, and The Litter of Love
On December 5, 2008, I was witness to the most unselfish act of love I could have ever imagined. More than a year before the devastating earthquake in January 2010 that claimed more than 250,000 lives in Haiti, I went to visit the impoverished but beautiful country and my life would never be the same.
I had traveled with a group of friends to the opening of Kay Germaine, the first hospital for disabled children in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. My friend, Paul Haggis, had met Father Rick Frechette, a priest and doctor who had been working with the poorest of the poor in Haiti for twenty-three years and invited a group of us to witness his work. The first thing you notice about Father are his striking blue eyes and his ever-present smile. He looks like Paul Newman but with a hearty laugh and wicked sense of humor. Father had been a priest working in Haiti for twenty-two years; an American boy from Connecticut, he had gone to Haiti to work with the poorest of the poor in the slums, and when he realized they needed a doctor as much as a priest, he started traveling back to the States each week to take classes and get his medical degree.
Over his years of service, he has built three orphanages and thirty-two schools in the Cite Soleil slums. He delivers the only free drinking water there, feeds 3,500 people a week and gives free medical care to children. He built Saint Damien’s pediatric hospital, a bakery, a mechanic shop, sewing facilities, and now Kay Germaine for disabled kids. Give Father a dollar and he will turn it into a hundred in a day to help those in need.
Though I was present as much as I could be, I was not in a very good place in my life. I was traveling with my then boyfriend, and our relationship was falling apart. We would visit the hospital and then come back to our little room and fight like crazy. My eight-year-old was at home in LA, and I was beating myself up for leaving him for three days. I hadn’t worked for months and was worried about how I would pay my son’s tuition in the spring. I was perhaps experiencing a bout of depression, which I have struggled with my whole life. I was beating myself up constantly over all of the things I should be doing and feeling worthless that I could not do them all. I felt lost at sea and couldn’t seem to find my footing and somehow couldn’t remember who I was. I was overwhelmed and exhausted and on the first night ended up crying myself to sleep.
For three days, we followed Father through his community. During the first two days we spent with him we stood by him as he expertly diagnosed a malnourished child, held the mother of a dying boy, delivered huge bags of rice, visited his schools in the slums, lead the most joyous service for the disabled children at the new hospital, and drank red wine with us at midnight. The man, it seemed, never slept. And on the evening that he took us in an open-air truck to what is called the “most dangerous slum in the world,” men, women, and children ran after us, laughing and yelling in Creole, “our Father, our Father!” And he laughed and extended his hand and introduced us to the children who attended his schools, living in streets littered with mountains of trash and eating “mud cakes” made of mud and flour.
We spent our afternoons in Saint Damien’s hospital, holding children and changing diapers and giving a hand when one was needed to the tireless and committed staff. On the second afternoon, there was a baby who caught my eye I was particularly drawn to. She looked like she was about six weeks old and had tubes in her nose and arms. Her name, I saw on her chart, was Fedaline. She was one of many abandoned children in Port-au-Prince and was left at the hospital perhaps because her limbs were atrophied and her parents could not take care of her. Of all the many sick children there, for some reason I was most drawn to her. She lay in her bassinette whimpering, too exhausted or sick to really cry. She looked up at me with wet, brown eyes, and I reached down and saw that she was sopping wet. Like any mom would have, I picked her up and changed her diaper. I held her for a bit til she stopped crying and laid her back down.
In the midst of such tragedy, I couldn’t help thinking about my own small life. I thought, “Look at these people who work tirelessly every day to help these kids. What the hell am I doing with my life? Fighting with my boyfriend? Making movies?” Needless to say, I felt like a bit of a dope. My contribution to this world, whatever it was, suddenly didn’t seem to matter in the least. Leaving Fedaline, my heart was heavy with self-judgment.
Being witness to all this helped me for a moment not to fight with my boyfriend or obsess about my child, but nothing could have prepared us for what we witnessed on the third day. We had heard rumblings of Father “burying the dead,” and that day we were to discover why people spoke of this with such gratitude and respect in their voices. Children died in the hospital every day, and the overwhelmed city morgue received two hundred or so bodies a week, so Father and his crew would pick up the bodies and bury them in the papier-mâché coffins that he taught his staff to make. He does this most unselfish act every day to give these poor men, women, and children with no names some dignity in their deaths, which most of them probably never had in their lives.
On that sunny morning, ten of us accompanied Father to the front of the hospital as he blessed the hundred or so women who lined up every day, holding sick children in their arms, hoping to be admitted. (Only the sickest ones would be.) Then, silently, we followed him to a tiny room on the third floor of the hospital. Seeing him dressed in his priest robe for the first time since we’d met him, and standing in the prayerful silence of his crew, we knew something holy was about to take place.
There were two small tables in the room. On each one laid a package in white butcher paper. As Father started to speak, we realized what was in those packages. It was the children who had died the night before. Father spoke of the innocence of these angels, how, no matter if they were abandoned, nameless, and faceless, they were all God’s gifts and had touched this world in some way. He talked of Mary Magdalene, who washed the feet of Jesus, and what a selfless act that was, a sign of respect for all people. A woman stepped forward and unwrapped the first package and started to wash the emaciated frame of a twelve-year-old boy as Father told us how, when Mary Magdalene washed the feet of Jesus, it was a blessing to him and to herself.
Father joined her and gently washed the child with a warm sponge; he held him in his arms and prayed for him and wrapped him in linen cloths, which a group of women from a church in the Midwest had embroidered with crosses and hearts. We watched silently and in awe as he gently placed one of the children back down and opened the next package. The tiny baby inside was Fedaline.
Father looked at me with a kind smile. It was as if he knew why my connection was to her and that I was supposed to step forward. Part of me thought, “Man up and do what needs to be done.” The other part, the lost part, thought, “No fucking way, I’m no saint. If I had to do a confession with Father right now it would take thirty days and nights.” And yet when I looked at Father, I felt somehow that it was my duty to wash her, as if the synchronicity was too great to ignore and something was forcing me to walk toward her. And I did.
I took the sponge and began to do what I had seen Father do. As I bathed her arms, which were soft and limp, I forgot about my boyfriend and how unworthy I was and how I wasn’t enough and how little my life meant. I suddenly felt that she had blessed me by choosing me to hold her in her last hours of life, and I was now a proud witness to her passing. And something shifted in me at that moment. I think my heart became a little more malleable, a little softer, a little more forgiving of myself and others. I truly felt that she was now an angel, blessing me with the words, “It’s okay. You are loved. And you ain’t half bad.” Words I needed to hear.
After the ceremony, Father took off his robes, gave us a smile, and said, “What a beautiful day!” before climbing onto the roof to fix an antenna.
All of us who witnessed Father’s grace that day will never be the same. I know that somehow he sensed my pain and believed that in the gift of service I could be healed. He understood the gift of grace that caring for a dead child could bring. He did this every day. Could there be a more selfless act of love than to bury an abandoned child? There is no one to say thank you, no parents weeping and taking the child away, no pats on the back. I got a taste of his life, his deep humility in the face of grace.
Now, two years later, having spent much more time with Father Rick, I know he would be mortified to read this! He would say that I made him sound like a saint, which he is not. He would say he is just doing what needs to be done. That it is the poor in Haiti, living in the most horrific conditions but making a decision every day to believe in beauty and hope and love in the midst of their poverty, who are the real heroes. He would say that grace isn’t a gift only given to priests and saints but to nameless children and actresses who have forgotten who they are.
Note to self: There is grace in pure love.