This is another essay published in conjunction with the third anniversary of the Haiti earthquake. This appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine on January 20, 2013 under the title ‘The Boy Who Adopted Me’.
I reach down; a small black hand places a pair of nails in mine. We are building temporary houses after the Haiti earthquake, wooden frames covered with plastic, held taut by flat-head nails with concave washers. Our crew, American volunteers and local Haitians, erects a tin-roofed house in two hours. The boy under my shadow proves useful and reliable; whenever I drop my hand another nail appears.
We hike to the next site; my helper clutches the nail bucket. “Dieunison” he responds when I ask his name. “Over there” he answers when I inquire where he lives. Gestures and smiles communicate better than my Creole or his English.
Over the next week we build dozens of houses. Dieunison finds me every morning; I never have to bend over for a nail. I give him water and snack bars, fair wages for an eight year old Haitian. We hug before I fly home.
The first January after the quake I return to stake an orphanage I designed, five months later to lay out a school. Each time Jenison stands along the highway as if he hasn’t moved since I left. He wraps his skinny legs around my waist. I am his blan, he is my Haitian.
The second January after the quake I scratch a mid-life itch, quit my job and volunteer to supervise construction in Haiti two weeks every month. On my first trip back Dieunison’s eyes tear as he tells me his mother died, then he throws back his head yowling like a goat; I can’t decide if he’s joking or masking grief. Every month his life twists. He lives with his aunt Michelle in a compound of lean-tos and simmering stew. She ships him to Port-au-Prince when she can no longer feed him. I search for him frantically until one afternoon his thin figure appears outside our shanty. I shower him with food and questions; Dieunison’s eyes dazzle at the chicken leg on top of his rice. We find him a place to live, clothes, a bed, but once I return to the States, he flees. We forced too much too fast on a boy used to being on his own. Dieunison becomes a phantom, sightings are reported but he never shows his face to me. Locals say, “Forget him, he is a street kid”, but Dieunison chose me; I cannot give up on him.
“Are you the man who loves Dieunison?” A boy I have never seen approaches me. Dieurie is Dieunison’s half-brother; they live with a new assortment of relations. Dieurie is more mature, he cajoles Dieunison to reappear. The boys frequent the construction site, enjoy hot lunches, and agree to attend school. My next trip brings cash for tuition, uniforms, books, meals and ‘consideration’ for teachers willing to accept eleven-year-old’s in second grade. The boys go AWOL at our first school meeting. “Nothing is free”, I lecture when they show up later, guilty and sheepish, “you want meals and clothes; you must attend school.” I banish them from two days’ lunch.
The third January post-quake arrives with the orphanage complete; my regular visits to Haiti are finished. Dieunison and Dieurie have been in school three months. They are filling out, sometimes they cannot finish the food on their plates. They contemplate the leftovers with dismay; getting what you wish for can be disturbing. When I explain that my next visit is far off Dieunison pleads to stow in my suitcase. But they are Haitian, they belong here. I want to give them opportunities, not steal them away.
Construction is an intense activity that ends abruptly. But Dieunison has tethered me to Haiti for the long haul. It will take years for these boys to graduate, but if they do their part, I will do mine. Time does not factor when a boy hands you a nail and stakes a claim on your heart.
Beautiful. He is a magical child and has really stolen your heart!
I just have to add that this is the best one ever!
Dear Mr. Fallon,
We are Mrs. Rondolet’s 8th Grade Literacy class, at Laconia Middle School in New Hampshire.
We liked reading your essay. We have a couple of questions that we would like to ask you.
What made you decide to write this story?
Do you think you will ever adopt these boys?
Do you know where Dieunion’s father is?
What made you decide to help these kids?
What makes you continue to go back and visit Haiti?
Would you consider taking the kids on a trip to America?
Can you let us know how the kids are doing today?
We hope that we will hear back from you soon.
Noah, Quincy, Sam, David, Jordan, Sabrina, Tori, Nicolas, Zach, and Nicole
I am so happy that you read my essay and decided to write with your questions.
I have enjoyed writing for many years. When I got involved with work in Haiti I began to write about my experiences here because writing helps me grapple with things around me that are difficult to understand (and Haiti is so different from the United States) and then I started sharing my writing so that other people could learn about Haiti as well.
I do not think I will ever adopt these boys. They have extended family and friends here in Haiti; this is their home. I think it is best for me to give them opportunities in Haiti rather than bring them to the United States.
I do not know anything about Dieunison’s father. I decided to help these boys because I believe they have great potential but needed someone to lend them a hand. After all, Dieunison helped me when he handed me the nails, right? I knew right away he had motivation and ability that could not be nourished without help.
I have visited Haiti 18 times, all to help build three projects here. I am Haiti right now on my last trip for some time; we are finishing the roof on one of my projects. Haiti is a wonderful place but it is very poor; after the earthquake Haiti needed people to lend the country a hand and I was fortunate to be able to do so.
I have told the boys that I will bring them to visit the United States if they graduate from high shcool. That would be a huge achievement for them.
The boys are very well right now, busy in school and working hard. School here is taught in French, so I brought them each a TinTin book in original French.
If you have other questions, please let me know. Best to find me at firstname.lastname@example.org
This was a good story Shorty. I hope you can stay in touch with them.