How I lost her but learned a lot about myself along the way.
I would like to start this by saying that this isn't a typical love story about a woman who wakes up one day and falls face first into self-discovery — but it comes pretty close. When I was sixteen, my mother died after battling breast cancer for the second time, passing through a rotating door of radiation treatments that eventually left holes in her lungs. I remember feeling empty. Like there was this large piece of me missing and I couldn't find it — A hole in the center of my chest for everyone to see.
But, that's not what this story is all about. You see, until this point, I had never even been around this country, let alone another one. When I was younger, my mother used to go on a lot of trips; once a year, she would travel the world – She always went alone, and never to the same place twice.
Looking back on it now, it's like she knew she was going to leave earlier than expected and wanted to take everything in before she left. Her death made me realize that I could also die young without having seen anything. Hell, I could die at forty too and what would I leave behind? I immediately knew that the country I had to see was Haiti, where my mother was born. She left at sixteen and never went back. The problem was that she never told me anything about it; all I knew was what city she was from, and that she struggled to get out.
I thought that if I could get to know her through her roots, I'd find the part of me that collapsed when she died. My parents would often tell me about the Haitian Revolution. It was the first revolution among black slaves to create a free country. I can still remember the pride in her eyes, as she told the story — Both of them. My parents would stand in front of us standing in front of us, telling and tell us the story in unison as if they were a part of it. Like they were soldiers in that very same battle.
When I told him my father that I wanted to go, I could tell he was excited. I think that once you become a parent, you want your child to know who you are; part of him wanted to go with me and show me his world but he made me take the trip on my own. He knew what I was going for. At sixteen years old, my mother took the biggest trip of her life, and she did it by herself. At twenty, I had to do the same.
When I got to Haiti, his family greeted me. No one on my mother's side lived there, so my search had to be done with the help of people who knew nothing about her. They drove me around Jacmel and took me anywhere they thought I should see. There I found what my father told me about. I found the rocks he played with on the beach of Jacmel, and the water he swam in so often that he developed vertigo and a tick that looked as if he were trying to get the water out of his ears. I saw the house he slept in as a child, and the barbershop his father owned. I saw his brothers and sisters, and neighbors that would never forget his face or his last name. I found a lot of him.
I wasn't disappointed. I could picture his little feet as he ran about misbehaving in the streets. I loved it. But none of it was a surprise. I already knew where to find him. He told me these stories already, and although it made me feel good to finally see the setting for all of his stories, it didn't satisfy me. I could see his childhood, his teenage years, his ex-wives, the bars he was kicked out of for being too rowdy, and even the jail he sat in at twenty after he was arrested during a fight.
But as for my mother, there was nothing. Her secrets flew away with her ashes. I couldn't put any of the pieces together because there were none left to find.
I almost gave up. I wanted to. I mean, she wasn't there. She hadn’t been there in twenty years and she wasn’t even on Earth now. I would have given up if my cousins hadn’t taken me to the city. They walked with me around Port-au-Prince so I could take a look at where she was from.
One stop on our tour was an old church which looked just like the ancient ruins you would find in Europe. A pink cross stood nearby, adorned by a white image of Jesus that I had to fight the urge to touch. There was no ceiling because it had crumbled during the earthquake; all that was left was a large open space.
Maybe she never went there, but I know she used to see it. She probably used to pass by that church and stare up at it like I did. A small girl in front of this massive pink church. I looked up in the sky, and thought about the songs the choir sang. Were they singing the French songs she used to sing on Sunday mornings? Her voice was nowhere near perfect, but she sang those songs in a way that I knew God must have loved. I could see her as a little girl, ribbons in her hair and pressed Sunday clothes. Her feet dangled as she sat back in the pews, and when she sang with the crowd, she had the voice of an adult. I walked around the open space, mesmerized that I could feel her here, even if she had never stepped foot into this church when it was still standing.
This happened to me everywhere we went. I sat in the car and ate the mangos that the merchants cut for me on the sidewalk. The more we did, the more I could remember. I remembered her stories of buying mangos for a quarter on the street and that they were her favorite fruit. I could see that girl with her ribbons, and her hands all sticky and covered in fruit juices. I could picture her at these schools where the little girls ran in their uniforms. I could see the ghosts of things she may have seen or done. I saw her as a teenager, top of her class, wanting to be a doctor. I saw everything from her first steps to her first kiss. I began to see it all clearly.
She never really talked that much. Maybe it was just too hard for her or maybe I just wasn’t listening. She never told me about herself in words. There were some things we couldn’t talk about when she was alive. But I could see how everything she did was affected by her life in Haiti. From the food she cooked to the songs she sang and the stories she told.
I went to Haiti to find my mother. I hopped on that plane alone to experience her world, and I did. Of course, most of her life was in America with me. But going to see where she was born changed things. It was different. It was like we started over. I could see her being born into this world. I saw her past. I had grown closer to her in her death than in life, because there was nothing to hold back. I didn't know what love meant until I found her in the warm summer streets that I breathed. When she died I felt like there was a hole in my heart. I still have that hole, but I think it got a little smaller.
I know this may not be conventional but this is a love story because it's a story about loving someone so much that you want to know everything about them. All of her experiences accumulated to a life well-lived, even if her legacy lies only with me and my father. By knowing her, I loved her more. By loving her more, I got to know myself.