Life’s most sublime moments occur when least expected. It is Thursday night in the construction shanty, my last night this trip. There is a cosmic electrical dysfunction occurring throughout Grand Goave; for the past twenty-four hours we have had power at both Mirlitone and BLB but no lights. Go figure. As dusk settles into night computer screens provide our sole illumination.
Gama is writing the daily report; I help him with spelling words like ‘entire’. His vocabulary gets more ambitious all the time.
Jenison and his brother Jerry are perched on the cooler top, where we relegate children who loiter as we work. I met Jenison two years ago when he appointed himself my helper building temporary shelters after the earthquake. He flits in and out of my Haiti life, and this trip we spent lots of time together. Three days ago I happened upon him in the dentist chair at the medical clinic the Sri Lankan UN troops were running at MoHI. The dentist wanted to pull two teeth but needed parental permission. Jenison has no parents; he camps with his uncle, a laborer for BLB, but otherwise lives by his wits. He reminds of the Artful Dodger, he is a lovable rogue. I sought the uncle out, got permission, held the boy’s hand through anesthesia and extraction and when the pharmacist handed over two packets of pain medicine, I realized that a street kid without pockets would be hard pressed to comply with three pills three times a day. I gave Jenison water and his first dose and amused him enough to keep his gauze packed mouth shut the requisite forty minutes. Then I gave him some bread. I kept the pills and told him to return to MoHI that evening. To my surprise, he did, and each morning, noon and evening since. Maybe he has been in pain; maybe he simply wanted the food I provided with each dose.
On each visit Jenison and Jerry stay longer. Tonight they draw houses, a square base with a triangle roof and a rectangle door in the middle, exactly like kids in America, although Haitian houses look nothing like that. Now they watch and giggle in the dark. They know I am leaving tomorrow; their three squares will be less dependable. They don’t have anywhere else to go but I fancy they like it here. I like having them here.
I am sitting next to Gilbert, a young BLB worker brimming with potential. At the crew meeting before the concrete roof pour, a quiet voice came from behind and translated Gama’s words into my ear. When Gama was finished I turned to thank the voice and encountered a shiny young man I had never seen before. Like everyone here, the earthquake changed Gilbert’s fate. He speaks impeccable English and French, had some university training and an accounting position in Port au Prince, but returned to Grand Goave when no one was left to care for his aging mother. Family runs thick here. Two years later he found his way to BLB and demonstrated ability beyond a standard laborer. He has risen to clerk of the works; he tracks each worker by trade, task and location, providing Gama the necessary data to measure productivity and generate payroll. Every day Gilbert draws a lined chart and fills it in with data. I asked him if he would like to learn how to use a computer so he could work better. He leapt on the opportunity; tonight is our first lesson.
Gilbert proves a model student, an eager sponge already familiar with a keyboard. Still, explaining rudimentary concepts like what is a document, a file, a row and a cell proves a challenge; the elementary language of computers is second nature in my head and utterly foreign in his. We use one of his hand drawn charts as a guide and create a facsimile of his daily work. He is good at data entry; I show him how to copy and edit. At one point while Gilbert types, Jenison catches my eye. I look up as the waning twilight outlines the hill rising beyond our shanty. Jenison flashes me a smile. Thankfully the void from his yanked teeth is in the back. An aura of contented fulfillment washes over me. We are an odd yet cohesive band of brothers.
Once night falls, our eyes strain under the computer monitors’ glow. Gama finishes his report and sends it out, I teach Gilbert the save command, Jenison and Jerry run off down the road. By the time we step outside a silver dollar full moon floats over the mountain and pixilated stars span the galaxy; the billions upon billions of rewards we receive for living in a land of dark nights. “Do you see the same moon in Boston that we see here?” I am startled by Gilbert’s question, perplexed by the knowledge gaps of a well-educated Haitian yet enchanted by the child-like innocence of his query.
I hold his hand in front of his face and press it into a fist. “You are the earth.” I make a fist with my own left and right, “Here is the moon; here is the sun.” I rotate my hands to demonstrate the interplay of sun, earth and moon. “We all see the same moon, but how much we see depends on how much sunlight strikes the moon’s surface and reflects it back to earth.” I explain how three spherical bodies, one rotating around another and another, create complex geometries that result in a full moon only once a month. Half-moons and slivers form as the angles change, and the moon seems to disappear when it has nothing to reflect.
I am not an astronomer, but I get the gist correct. Gilbert seems satisfied with the essential information. This guy is hungry for more than Grand Goave can offer. If we had light, if I could remain here another day, he would gobble up more lessons. But we are in the dark and I must be gone. So I promise another lesson, maybe more, before the moon cycles through and displays itself full again.
Reentry to the United States is always hard for me, much harder than reentering Haiti. I am baffled by our hurried brusqueness, yet I am immediately hurried and brusque myself. On Saturday I find a wonderful little book, The Moon Seems to Change at the Harvard Coop. It is aimed for 5 to 9 year olds, but it seems the right level of graphics and description for Gilbert to get a better idea of why the moon comes and goes so much. I dine out with a friend; have a lavish dessert that satisfies my sweet tooth. We see an outlandish premier of Marie Antoinette at the ART, a scathing yet comic diatribe about the 99% versus the 1 %. Marie is both victim of her station and utterly vile in her deliberate ignorance of the world around her. I know a thing or two about leading a bifurcated life, though not enough to conjure empathy for Marie Antoinette.
I come out of the theater and stop short. I begin to cry. My friend thinks perhaps I’ve gone fou or am going to faint. Nothing so dramatic is happening. It is just the moon that takes my breath away, hanging over Harvard’s deeply endowed steeples in full splendor, the same moon that is shining on Grand Goave’s tenuous shacks, binding our two disparate worlds together.