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Perm J. 2010 Fall; 14(3): 82.
Published online Fall 2010.
PMCID: PMC2937855

Mes Quatre Fils (My Four Sons)

Watershed: a chiefly British term that means the crest or dividing line between two drainage areas or bodies of water. In American English, this term has come to mean an important point of division between two phases or conditions. In early 2010, I was badly in need of a watershed. My life had become a complicated morass of the personal and professional, and in my late 30s, a watershed moment was needed to restore balance and perspective as I moved into my next decade. As I remember the call I received on Sunday morning, February 7, 2010, asking that I come to Haiti, tears sprung to my eyes, because at precisely that moment, a watershed began.

… a watershed moment was needed to restore balance and perspective as I moved into my next decade.

Why would answering a call to humanitarian duty lead to such an important inflection point in one's life? How could a mere two weeks create the transition that only a watershed moment can establish? For those who have been part of relief efforts in the past, the answer is clear: the unique relationships in which one participates in this kind of intense situation are the answer. In particular for me, a unique family that I built with four interpreters who had lost their parents, siblings, and many friends, Christophe, Robenson, Hilaire, and Wilson helped to refine my perspective and re-align my life with my personal moral values.

As an only child without siblings, my experience of family is of intimate isolation, not of the broad, sweeping ties that a large extended family grants and for which I have often pined. The many Haitians who lost their families and were left without children, siblings, and parents were relegated to a condition both alien and devastating. Indeed, the loss of family was perhaps one of the greatest tragedies of the event. For me, my distance from my partner and 19-month-old son was also alien and challenging. In this catastrophic period in Haitian history, these personal and environmental factors collided in a way that was unexpected, but extremely enriching.

Humanity is defined by relationship. Loss of physical health, economic prosperity and even basic needs such as food and water, are tolerable when our fellow men and women help to nurture us through the chaos. For Haitians, as for many societies worldwide, the basic unit of relatedness is the family or the family of choice: a source of advice, reinforcement, guidance, and support. As I arrived in Haiti and experienced the temporary loss of my own family, distant from my own support system and alone in a foreign land, I needed that same support and strength. In a way, my experience with these four interpreters taught me that I cannot live in a vacuum anymore than they. Although I had not experienced their profound loss, I understood their need for companionship. Our very different experience of aloneness led to our mutual need for a surrogate family.

On February 28, 2010, this family was disrupted, and the difficulty of separation from my adopted, Haitian family had its own special level of intensity. Leaving these four young men when I wondered if I could have done more for them was tempered only by the realization that in a short day, I would be reunited with my own family. As I ascended from Haiti on the jet that would carry me back to my daily routines, familiar personal life, and career aspirations, I realized the importance of intense personal relationships with strangers in a unique situation: not just with my adopted sons, but also with the volunteers, dedicated relief workers, and Haitian nationals who had helped to create the watershed moment for me.

Life-changing experiences breed intensity and a unique brand of relational intimacy, the essence of which is felt forever. My experience in Haiti was indeed a watershed moment. As a young woman named Dominique, another interpreter at the hospital told me: “Haiti is a land of contradictions and paradoxes, as it holds you tightly in her arms and never lets you go, even as you may try to leave her. Haiti Pou Tou Tan (Haiti Forever) is how we refer to our Mother Land.” Indeed, Haiti will live in my mind and heart forever.


Articles from The Permanente Journal are provided here courtesy of Kaiser Permanente