As we conclude our January Clinic operation, we mark eleven years since a destructive earthquake struck Haiti, our neighboring country to the west. We were at the clinic and felt the quake over 100 miles away! Three months later, I went with a photographer friend and we spent eight days traversing the country and chronicling what we encountered through photos and blog posts.
Many Haitians were suspicious of us—white, clearly well-nourished, carrying our bottles of water and wearing relatively clean clothes. After we got permission to take their photo, nearly everyone we met said we would forget them. But it’s impossible to forget them; maybe not all their names, but I remember their faces and situations.
Each year, I read and/or post one of those blogs in the clinic on the anniversary of the earthquake every year in honor of Daphne:
Late March, 2010
With the help of a hired motorcycle, we were determined to dig deeper into the remains of Jacmel. A boy wearing an Obama t-shirt and carrying a bucket of water caught our eyes and suggested with his eyes that we follow him down a street completely impassable to cars because of the piles of debris. We entered a small courtyard where there obviously once stood several homes.
We met the boy’s mother, Daphne, and his three siblings, all younger. In the courtyard there were other women and many young children, but we didn’t see any men. Oblivious to any sense of modesty, Daphne lifted her tattered shirt several times to wipe away tears as she recalled the earthquake. Her husband and the father of her four children died in a spot near where we sat, a spot marked only by fallen blocks and twisted rebar. The only clothes Daphne and her children now owned were what they were wearing; her son’s Obama shirt offered imaginary passage to another world they would never know. As she wept and recounted the twenty seconds that changed her world, the other women and children gathered around. Some of the adolescents turned their heads and feigned smiles in embarrassment. The other women clutched the younger children as if to reassure. They too had relived that day many times. Apart from the sobbing, the silence was painfully loud. In this small courtyard, 27 people died. They were husbands and fathers, mothers and wives. Children. And one could only imagine the horrific sounds that broke the silence on that day. Surely not all 27 died instantly, although perhaps that would have been a blessing. The screams of agony and helplessness, the cries of loss and surrender echoed around us. Daphne and her children and neighbors still hear those sounds as if January 12 were yesterday.
A year later I gave the commencement address at Columbia University’s Dental School, and I asked for indulgence as I remembered Daphne then too, and so this paragraph is from the address:
And why do I even bring this up? Of course because Daphne deserves to be remembered and because I promised her I would. But I tell you her story not to make you feel bad or guilty. But to make you a little uncomfortable? Yes, that’s it. To remind you how fortunate you are and that there is a bigger world out there. That people are suffering. That for some people the concept of going to a dentist would be the least of their worries. Your obligation and my request of you is simply this: remember Daphne and all the others like her… in Haiti, in the Dominican Republic, in New York City and in your home towns. Even in your success, always live your life with a conscience. Jan de Hartog, the Dutch playwright and a social critic, said, “Do not commit the error, common among the young, by assuming that if you cannot save the whole of mankind you have failed.” None of us on our own is going to save the world. But what we can do is connect with others in a meaningful way, reaching out to them in solidarity and peace and with whatever gifts we have, whether that’s dentistry or something far more modest. But if each of us feels that we cannot possibly make a difference, then we should all just pack up right now.