We rarely take brothers and sisters into our orphanage. It just seems unfair, when so many in Haiti are suffering, that two of our limited slots go to the same family. Frequently, when children are brought to us, they are the youngest of the lot, an infant that tilted the balance for a single mother teetering on survival, or a child that a neighbor could not afford after taking in so many others.
But once in a while, we make an exception to the sibling rule. Eight years ago, a pair of brothers were brought to us by an impoverished single mother who so desperately wanted them educated, she offered to bring them from an hour away every morning, sit outside our gate while they went to school, and take them back in the late afternoon. We were so struck by her perseverance, that we agreed to try it. The first day they arrived they had holes in their pants, and we could see they didn’t own underwear. Within a few months, they were both living with us.
There was one other time we bent the sibling code.
It was more personal.
Some of you are aware of a brash and funny little girl named Chika (I wrote a book about her called “Finding Chika”) who was brought to us when she was three after her mother died giving birth to a baby brother. There was no doctor present. There rarely are for poor pregnant moms in Haiti. Hospitals are not easy to get to. Money is always an issue. So many babies are born at home.
Chika’s mother died in the same bed where she gave birth. The newborn son was taken away by an uncle.
Chika was brought to us.
Suffice it to say that Chika’s personality was twice the size of her diminutive frame. She bossed the other kids around, told them who could use the bathroom, who could use the soccer ball, where they should stand in line, you name it. The older kids just laughed. We laughed, too.
Then, at five years old, Chika developed a brain tumor. A killer called DIPG, which doctors said would take her life within four months. We stopped laughing. But Chika never did. Not once during the two amazing years in which she became our adopted daughter, did she ever fret or complain about her health. We traveled the world with her, looking for a cure. Along the way, we became a family.
“Mr. Mitch, where are you going?” she asked me one day, near the end of her life, when the cancer had robbed her ability to walk and I had to carry her from place to place.
“I’m late for my radio program,” I said, rising from the table where we were coloring. “I have to go.”
“No, stay and color with me,” she instructed.
“Chika. I have to work.”
“Mr Mitch. I have to play.”
“But, Chika, this is my job.”
She crossed her arms and made a face.
“No, it isn’t,” she said. “Your job is carrying me.”
Instantly, I knew she was right. My job was carrying her. It was the best job I have ever had, the biggest honor, the most important weight. For much of my life, I had filled my arms with books, broadcasts, films, work, accolades, money – and suddenly, all that had to be dropped to carry a 7-year-old from place to place.
There was no comparison.
Your job is to carry me. Our job is to carry all our children. Through hard times. Through illness. And if we have the means, then it’s our job to carry the poor children of the world, the sick, the forgotten, the orphaned. At least that’s how I see it.
When Chika died, we brought her back to Haiti to be buried. After the funeral service, we invited those in attendance to come back to the orphanage. Amongst the guests were Chika’s uncle, who had been raising her baby brother. After an hour or so, he wandered over and asked to speak to me in private.
“Moise (the little boy) is now three years old,” he said. “We have children of our own and we don’t have money to take care of them, let alone him. But I see this place” – he motioned to the orphanage – “and I wonder…could you take him in?”
I looked over to Moise. He had the same wide cheeks as his sister. His mouth hung open as hers often did, curious at his surroundings. I called his name and he turned to me and blinked his big eyes and in that moment, having just said goodbye to our little girl, I swear he resembled her so much I almost cried. I opened my arms and said, “Vini”, which is Creole for “come,” and he ran to me and jumped into my embrace.
He has remained there ever since.
Moise, we discovered, has Chika’s love of laughter, sense of mischief, rock-hard stubbornness and incredible strength. Chika was always strong, but Moise is like Bam-Bam of the “Flintstones.” Honestly, he can climb your body like a wall, no help from you, then hook his legs around your waist and drop himself all the way back, then pull himself all the way up, no hands necessary. He has been ripped since he was six years old.
He has become an integral, attention-grabbing, joyous part of our orphanage. I see Chika’s spirit in his smile, and I hear her in his voice.
The story doesn’t end there. Not long after we took Moise in, we were contacted by the people who were taking care of his and Chika’s older sister, a nine year old named Mirlanda. We invited her to come visit us and her baby brother, whom she had never lived with, since their mother died when Moise was born.
Mirlanda was tall, quiet and polite. She spoke no English, but she played with the other girls at the orphanage as if she’d known them forever. The next day, when time came for her to go back, she went to our security guard, on her own, and told him “When those people come for me, tell them I’m not here.”
When I heard that, my heart broke.
A month later, she was living with us as well.
Mirlanda and Moise are the only brother and sister duo we currently have. They are bookends to Chika, and the kids love having them. As I say, we don’t break the sibling rule very often. But in this case, it felt like we were pulling a new family together just as ours — Chika, my wife and myself — had been ripped apart.
Moise and Mirlanda, little brother, big sister, are a reminder of how life goes on in this hot and weary nation, and how families here and everywhere blend and bend, but do not break.
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Top photo: Chika dressed as a sheep in the Christmas pageant, December 2013 / Courtesy of Have Faith Haiti