updated 01/11/2012 AT 2:35 PM ET
•originally published 01/14/2012 AT 10:00 AM ET
We’re nearing the end of our trip and we head for Fr. Rick’s and the St. Luke team’s weekly visit to the General Hospital morgue.
We pull up and Fr. Rick, beside me, bows his head and clenches his eyes tightly in anticipation for a job he will never be used to. We’re about to pull out as many bodies from the morgue’s lockers as we can possibly carry in three trucks.
It’s a devotion the team performs because of their belief in all human dignity – where the dead are lost or forgotten with no one to claim them, Rick and his men retrieve their broken bodies and give them a proper burial.
I’ve joined the team before in this ritual. There’s the narrow, gray hall with the overwhelming smell of death. It’s inescapable and I have to physically grasp my legs to keep them from giving out.
Raphael and Conan open the first locker, bodies spill across the room, their limbs in all directions, resting atop one another. Each man and woman, some with IVs still in their veins, has a story we’ll never know.
The babies are the toughest to take in. They rest there, unclaimed, no one to give them passage to the next world.
The men, hands gloved, begin singing a vivid Creole spiritual from deep in their lungs. And to combat the odor of decay, they light cigarettes and pour rum from a bottle into their mouths. Fr. Rick takes a drag. There’s no other way to stay in these rooms without passing out. I abstain and hang on.
For two hours we work away, lifting bodies, placing them in clean linen, a new rosary on each chest, then zip their bags. The men beat a rhythm on the walls, singing, willing the dead to be lifted from this earth and sent to a better place. For incomprehensible reasons, I don’t want our work to end.
There are two more lockers and it seems wrong to stop before each body is pulled away to safety. I think we’ve been there 20 minutes when, in fact, it’s two hours. The final body, a man, muscular even in death, frozen in time, is dragged from this fearsome in-between place. Rick bends over his body, gives a blessing. We cover his graceful figure and slide him away. Hand to hand, he’s lifted and placed onto the truck with the others.
In 15 short minutes, Sanford and I, unable to speak change our clothes and go to the living. There are 800 children at the Academy of Peace and Justice (the country’s first free high school) and it’s final exam time in the sparkling new building. We wait to see their faces, joyful and new, all in uniforms.
Just Minutes Between Death and Life
The clock strikes 11 and they pour out of their classrooms, triumphant and giddy. It’s the end of the first semester in a rare free secondary school. I’m acutely aware that life and death and life, again, exist within seconds of each other and that, right here in this compound and outside its gates, all things converge. Events flood and merge, then separate. We walk through this sea of glorious faces – alive, flourishing and safe. They are the new day.
During the evening, Sanford, Mudcat and I go upstairs to the hospital wing where malnourished babies are treated. An infant boy lays in his crib, unconscious, his arms stretched rigid and wide, his breathing labored. I can’t pick him up, so I place my hand on his little chest. I feel his bones and skin so fragile, as if he would dissolve into ash under my fingertips. He fights for each breath and all I can do is hope he feels a warm hand receiving each gasp.
Another baby cries and coughs, and I ask the Haitian nurse if I can pick her up. She smiles sweetly and allows me this moment. The little girl sputters then starts, releases a small cry, then gradually calms. I carry her to the window so she can look outside. There’s a world out there, vibrant and waiting. I have hope she’ll know it in time.
In the morning, I ask Mudcat if he awoke to smoke a cigarette? He shakes his head, starts to tell me he went to look up at the stars, then confesses, of the organization that cares for 900,000 people, “This place is a miracle. Tell me I’m crazy, but all the money in the world couldn’t have created anything like this. There’s power here that I’ve never felt anywhere else.”
I don’t know about things like God, but I’ve seen faith at work in surprising ways. That maybe we see the intangible by being with one another and reaching out to needful strangers, and by taking their strong hands. They rid us of our own aloneness and they give us much in return. I think of the dead in the morgue and of the living all around us and how they’re woven together.
And to this, Fr. Rick writes me:
“The light radiated
by this mystery is subtle
but you know it
the bonds of the invisible world are very
deep and very mysterious
you are already bonded
to the people in the morgue in a real way
and you are giving them strength
and they are pointing
to a deep reality and keeping you focused on it
that margins and exclusion
and loneliness produce hell
and friendship and solidarity produce heaven
even in the most unbearable circumstance
this is heaven
you know it already
and heaven is just
I’ll always come back.