On a recent Sunday, I was in the Catholic church on our mountain. The occasion was a happy one. Frenel, my next door neighbor and Mèt Anténor’s youngest brother, asked me to take some pictures at the baptism of his infant son. I was delighted. I like Frenel, and I had never been to a baptism nor – at the time when Frenel asked – to a Haitian religious service at all. The chance to do someone a favor and see something new had quite a draw.
My preparations were a little complicated. I had a shirt, a tie, and some slacks, but no shoes. Haitians really dress up for church – they dress up for almost everything – so neither sandals nor dirty sneakers seemed quite right. I eventually borrowed snappy dress loafers from Richard, a fast-growing teen who lives down the road. They were a size too large for me, and two for him, but he can’t buy dress shoes every year. He seemed pleased to be doing me the favor, and by early Sunday morning he had shined the shoes to stunning brightness and had delivered them to my room. My clothes looked decent enough, I thought, but the trip up the mountain in my book bag left them looking less than freshly pressed. Not so unusual for me. But as soon as I had them on, the whole neighborhood affirmed that I would have to iron them.
Those who know me well would surely doubt it, but I actually can iron. I learned how in Junior High School. We all took “Home Economics ” in 8th grade. When I was in 7th grade, H.E. was for girls and Shop was for boys, but my 8th grade year was when Massachusetts decided that separating classrooms by gender in public schools was not ok. We all took both. So when the neighborhood said that I must iron, I asked for the coal-filled iron, spread a sheet on the kitchen table, and got ready to start. Neighbors gathered in stunned silence to watch. As soon as I started on the shirt, Casnel decided I
wasn’t doing it right. He shooed me away, and did it himself. When he finished, he assigned Toto to do the pants. I got dressed then, but Madanm Anténor wasn’t quite satisfied. She thought I needed a belt, so she called Toto over and sent him to get his. I put it on, she looked me over, nodded and said I would do.
I walked down the road to the church together with Frenel himself. It’s a pretty little building, with a high-peaked roof and a small steeple. Its pale yellow walls and concrete floor are kept as clean as the sometimes-dusty, sometimes-muddy mountain will allow. It sits up on a slope overlooking the road, with a spectacular view of the plain below. On a clear day, you can see the Caribbean and the island of Lagonav to the west, and the Dominican Republic to the east.
The service was chaotic. The priest only visits once a month or so, and the baptism had to be planned well in advance. About ten children were registered to take part. That itself would have meant ten children, ten pairs of parents, and ten pairs of godparents gathered around the priest on the small platform in front of the congregation. But the population on the mountain is growing quickly. Maybe too quickly. More than twenty infants showed up. There was paperwork to been done. The qualifications of more than ten extra sets of godparents had to be checked. The president of the congregation and his teenage assistant worked furiously – the former almost ferociously – to get forms filled out. They themselves had lots of writing to do, and they had to help the many illiterate parents as well.
Despite their frenzy, we were well more than an hour late. The congregation and the choir chanted prayers responsively while we were waiting. It was terribly hot, there were young children crying and older ones fidgeting all over the place, and time seemed to pass slowly.
In the end, though, it was a beautiful afternoon – an afternoon of lovely prayers and happy people. Our whole neighborhood returned as one to our lakou for a great feast that Madanm Anténor and Toto’s mother, Madanm Boby, had been preparing at Frenel’s house.
Unfortunately, Sunday’s mass was my second in two days. The first trip was not a happy one. The Saturday before the baptism, I went to the cathedral in downtown Prtoprens for a funeral. The brother of a close friend here had died after a long illness. He was a young man, slightly younger than I am. All the usual things you would say about a funeral were true. The man’s family was miserable. Friends converged on them with attempts at consolation. My friend stood in the middle of it all, taking it courageously upon himself
to offer his mother such support as he could. Such support as is possible under the circumstances.
But what struck me most of all was that it was not one funeral, but four. I know nothing of the other three deaths. The four stories were entirely unrelated. But just as too many infants are born here, too many people die here, too. The cathedral cannot handle each funeral separately. Four coffins were before us; four unrelated families had to grieve together.
That’s not all. My friend John and I were at the funeral together. We got there by motorcycle taxi. After the funeral, as the driver drove us up the hill out of Pòtoprens, he told us the following story: While we were in the cathedral, a six-year-old girl had been found dead nearby. It seems she had been sent by her family to fetch water from the local cistern. She lost her balance, fell in, and drowned. Nobody was around to see her fall, no one to hear her cry. I don’t know how many families will be grieving together with hers.