“I’d rather be killed fighting for Narnia than grow old and stupid at home and perhaps go about in a bath-chair and die in the end just the same.” Jill in “The Last Battle” by C.S. Lewis
Today I watched my beautiful daughter Claudine receive an award. Routinely on Fridays, her school holds a pep rally of sorts but they don’t just cheer the basketball team or fastest runner. They honor children who have displayed unusual moments of character, conviction and service.
Claudine is only six and she received an award for courage.
Her teacher chose her because even though she began the year speaking very little English (Mommy it seems, is a bit too adept at learning Creole) she has persevered continually. Her teacher says she works harder than any other child in the class without complaint and her determination is fierce. In awe of her amazing attitude, her teacher chose her to receive the courage award.
I am quite speechless at the thought of this because I know this amazing tenacity is only a shadow of the true courage that lies within my child. It is this facet of her spirit that has always inspired me most.
I once heard someone say that courage is not the absence of fear but the determination to face one’s fears and then press pass them to do what must be done. There could be no better description of my daughter. The traumas of her short life have been many and therefore, her fears have been many as well. If I were to use one word to describe her emotional state from the time she was brought to the orphanage until the time she at last felt secure at home with us, it would be the word “terror”. When she worked past these things and was able to communicate how she felt at each stage of her journey she would say over and over again, “Mommy, I was so afraid.”
But she never let it stop her.
I remember one of the first times I really recognized this about her was when we were attempting leave for The States from the Port-Au-Prince airport. One of the things Claudine was really afraid of was that someone would take from her what little she had (this was from experience, I think). When we went to Haiti to bring her home, I took a little pink backpack for her with some things for her inside. She was very protective of it. So, when we arrived at the airport in PAP, she was in for some trauma.
First of all, she had never been anywhere even remotely like that airport. Secondly, the PAP airport frightens many adults. When departing passengers arrive, the first thing they do before they even make it all the way into the building is go through the first of several security checks. They have a baggage scanner right at the front door. It is crowded and everyone is pushing and shoving. Men are desperately attempting to “help” you with your baggage for a fee. It is intimidating. When they took her little backpack from her and put it on the conveyor belt and then forced her to walk alone through the metal detector, I thought she would break. She wailed and wailed. “Maman, Papa! Maman, Papa!” (Mommy, Daddy! Mommy, Daddy!)
It was not the end, however. Next we stood in line to have our luggage checked manually. We then went through at least one more baggage scan before we reached the gates for American Airlines where we faced not only a metal detector, and baggage scan but were all patted down as well. I told her in Creole what must be done and watched in amazement as she lifted her chin and walked through the next metal detector, coming to a stop at the guard who ran her hands up and down my tiny little girl’s body. Claudine did not cry or utter a word, not because she was okay with the process; she hated it! She just did it because it had to be done. Then, she was faced with the dreaded baggage scan again. She paused for a moment as a look of fierce determination came over her face. Then, my strong little girl did an amazing thing. She put her backpack up on the conveyor belt all by herself.
So, it was fitting that courage was required of me as well when I boarded the plane to go to Haiti to meet my babies for the first time. Sometime before, I had begun reading The Chronicles of Narnia to my children at night. Captivated by them, I read ahead and had The Last Battle in my hand as I headed to Haiti. When I read the above quote on the plane, it seemed all too appropriate.
I remember thinking the night before I left about the dangerous conditions in PAP at the time and it struck me with such clarity that I could die! Then on the heels of that thought, I was struck by the thought that if I knew I were going to die on that trip my main sentiment would be “Wow. That went by fast! (My life that is.)” Then, it occurred to me that feeling would be the same if I was 50, 80 or 100 years old. No matter how long we walk this Earth, it is only for a moment.
When I realized that, I thought, “I’d better start living every day as if it were my last. Life is too short to waste in the fear of losing it. Who really wants to get to the end and say, ‘Well, I lived safely. I did not see much, do much, love much, or be a blessing very much, but I was so, so safe.'”
Before I knew it, the airline attendants were passing out the customs forms. I was so inexperienced, the man next to me had to tell me what to do. We began our descent and I gazed eagerly out the window at my daughters’ homeland. There were majestic mountains and an azure blue ocean. In between, there stretched a multitude of tiny dwellings constructed of sheet metal stacked one upon the other. Haiti.
My heart began to beat hard as the plane screeched to a stop. The man next to me seemed to be worried about me and later I realized he kept a watchful eye over me until he saw I made it where I needed to go. Angels in disguise….
I whispered a prayer as I lifted my backpack onto my shoulders and descended the stairs onto the tarmac. A suffocating heat enveloped me. Reggae drifted on the air. The sky was impossibly blue. Everything smelled like smoke.
I followed the crowd to the building and then to customs. There were several lines. I did not know where to go so I just prayed and then picked one. Somehow, I made it through. (At the time I knew no Creole.)
I prayed again and walked around the corner to find the baggage claim. Occasionally, men would approach me speaking in Creole and offering to “help” me but I had been warned to be wary and turned them down as politely as I could. I stood for a long time waiting for my bags. They were among the last off of the belt and I began to fear my driver would give up on me.
Finally, bags in hand, I followed the crowds to the double glass doors that exited the building. Outside these doors were probably fifty men, pressed close to the exit shouting and jostling for position. All of them were trying to earn a living by carrying someone’s bag. They were adept at spotting newcomers and even more adept at spotting women traveling alone.
“Madanm! Madanm!” They shouted at me. Time and again, one would reach for the handle of my bag in an effort to “help” me. At last, I saw a man with my name on a piece of paper and relief flooded through me. He took me to my driver and loaded my bag into the back of an older white mini van. I wearily sunk into the seat. The driver stifled a look of amusement as I buckled my seat belt but I noticed he was careful to immediately lock the doors.
He pulled into the chaotic bustle of Port-Au-Prince traffic and we were on our way.
Next entry: “White Mom, do you not speak?”