Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Day 48: In Remembrance

“Hey, you want to go to a bullfight?” You smile as you finish the sentence, half-excitable puppy, half-proud young man.

“A bullfight? They have those in Haiti?” I didn’t know that.

“I guess so. So you want to go or what? Jenny told me it’s right near her house at four this afternoon. Her mom is going to make food for all of us. I’ve already got it all set up.”

Wow. Impressive. I remember not more than three weeks ago sitting down with you over a few cold Cokes and trying to help you get a basic understanding of Haitian Creole. You approached me the next day, lighter held high, and threw out a triumphant, “Briket!” Yep, that’s a lighter alright. You were beaming. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me then that, a few weeks later, your enthusiasm for digging into this place would get you an invite to something us long-termers didn’t even know existed.

“I’m in.” That smile of yours man. It’s infectious.

Marie Michelle, Jenny’s mother, is excited. I wonder if she’s ever played host to a bunch of internationals before. It’s doubtful. She’s proud to have us meet the rest of her family, to invite us into her community and her home. We’re really out here. I didn’t know this place existed. The smells of food cooking come from within. It smells good. Outside she’s set up a big table for us. We sit. “Kikote Chris?” she asks.

“He’s coming. I think he said he was going to the beach.” You did, but before too long the familiar whine of the motorcycle engines announce your arrival.

“How awesome is this!” You’re excited. You’re always excited. I love that about you. You’re smiling. Of course you’re smiling. Marie Michelle runs over and takes you by the hand, she wants to show you everything she’s cooking. “Man, look at all this food!” You aren’t kidding. For a family of limited means, Marie Michelle and her daughters have pulled out all the stops on this one – fried chicken, plantains, fried fish, piklis, a bucket of cold sodas. It’s a feast.

“Chris, Chris!” Jenny calls out to you. She wants to show you her room, her things. She wants to show you her life. Her little sister Onella takes you by the hand. “Chris, I have something to show you too.” You compliment her on her English as they take you around to the back of the house where the tent they sleep in is. You come back five minutes later and sit down next to me.

“Man, that was so cool. They just showed me all these family photos they have.” Having talked to Jenny before, I know that Marie Michelle lost her husband and son in the earthquake. They are in those photos. They wanted you to see who they were. I understand why. There is something that radiates in you. It’s warm and natural, and it’s rare. With you, it’s effortless. It’s just who you are. I could feel it that first night we met, when I was making sure that, should you ever need one, you’d know exactly how to ask for a lighter in Creole. It doesn’t surprise me at all that now, a few weeks in, everyone can feel it, including this beautiful family you’ve befriended.

We eat. It’s fantastic. Marie Michelle is beaming. You’re complimenting her after nearly every bite. You’re sensitive to her situation too. I know you’ve made sure she didn’t have to pay for this. We finish eating. You buy some of their artwork – gifts for your family and friends back in California. It’s late afternoon. “Alright, we doing this or what?” You’re up, that smile on your face again. That’s right, we do have a bullfight waiting for us, don’t we?

It’s a different bullfight than any I’ve ever been to. There’s no ring. There’s no matador. It’s just a riverbed full of bulls. They’re excitable. I’m guessing it’s the female cows the locals have brought with them. There are quite a few people gathered. You’re talking to Jenny, talking to me, talking to the rest of the people you’ve brought with you. We decide to get a closer look at one of the bulls.

“C’mon Chris, ride it!”

You’re laughing, keeping a conservative distance from it. “Oh heeeell no!” We all laugh with you.

Two of the more excitable bulls decide to do something with their energy. They clash heads, pushing each other back and forth, kicking up water. It goes on for a while. Eventually one bull accepts he’s not up to the task at hand and turns tail. We all cheer. “Man this is so cool!” You say it but we all feel it. This is Haiti. This is something entirely new. This is a door you’ve opened for us.

They fight a few more bulls. One establishes himself as the winner. Some of the locals are getting a kick out of us, but most of them are too busy betting on bulls to be bothered with the group of blancs. Marie Michelle, Jenny & Onella are braiding our hair, talking to us, talking to you. The sun begins to set and we make our way back to their home. You thank Marie Michelle, she embraces you. She’s beaming again. You have that effect on people don’t you?

“I’m coming back, I promise!”

“OK Chris, OK!” The family waves farewell after helping us find motorcycles. The engines rev into life and we’re off. It’s a ridiculous path back to the main road and you’re loving it. Perched on the back of the lead motorcycle I can hear your voice behind me. “Oh man! Here we go! This is crazy!” You’re laughing, alive and here, in this moment, and now I’m smiling again. I can see that Haiti, as is her nature, is giving you as much as you are giving her. You’ve been giving her a lot.

Ten minutes up a dry creek bed and we’re back on the national highway, back in Leogane, back home. It’s been an amazing day. Everyone feels it. Thank you for that.

A few weeks later you invite me back. I can’t go this time around, but you do, as you said you would. Marie Michelle mentions it to me. She mentions you a lot. She asks me where you are every time I leave the base and she’s there. “Kikote Chris?” “I don’t know. I think he’s working on one of the schools right now. They don’t come back to base for lunch.” Jenny wants to know too. She calls me to ask when you’re coming back to visit their house again. “He is leaving soon. He has to finish school.” “Li benzwen ale?” “Yes, he has to. He loves Haiti though. He’s going to miss it.” “Mwen pral manke li.” Me too. We’re all going to miss you. You’ve made a lot of friends in two months. I imagine that’s a pretty easy thing for you to do.

The base has just been told the news from Miami. We don’t know exactly what to do. It doesn’t seem possible. Jenni, your adopted big sister from Los Angeles, is devastated. I take her away from the group. We sit alone for a while, thinking about you. She tells me about the time you demanded that she learn how to properly use a hammer, and committed yourself to teaching her until she got it. She’s laughing and crying. She’s not alone. I’m thinking about you. It’s hard to stomach that this is happening.

I think about the day of the bullfight and realize there is someone I need to talk to, someone I know loves and cares about you. I leave Jenni and walk toward the entrance of the base.

Onella is there. She approaches me. They’ve heard about the accident. They want to know if what they’ve heard is true. She looks up at me. “Chris mouri?” I don’t even know what to say. Onella is eight years old. “Yes sweetheart, Chris is gone.” She is silent, her face still. She turns and walks to the truck behind her, leans on it, head down. Marie Michelle is there.

“Mama, Chris mouri.”

It hurts to watch, but it needs to happen. Marie Michelle begins to cry. She’s sobbing now, sitting on the bench. The men next to her are solemn. They remember you. I sit with her for a bit, but I know I can’t do anything to help right now. We’re all in the same place. We’re in shock and we miss you. I go back inside. Marie Michelle’s older daughter Jenny calls me. She’s heard. She wants to know if it’s true. I tell her. She’s silent for a while. 

“Mwen tris.” “Me too.” Everyone is sad.

I’m back at Joe’s, sitting at the table where I helped teach you some Creole. We’re a small group, together thinking about you. We’re telling stories about you, and laughing remembering the myriad ways you brought laughter to anyone around you. You radiate. You still radiate.

A local friend of mine asks me for a minute. I walk with him to meet another local man. They tell me they know about what happened. They tell me the community wants to do something. They want to gather here and pay tribute to you. “He came here to help us. We want to remember him for that.” I smile. You sure made an impression didn’t you?

The base is silent now. Night has come. People are quiet, huddled together. We all feel you. I overhear someone say that the community has left flowers and a candle burning outside the base. I find comfort in that. You did what you came here to do.

I walk outside this morning. The neighborhood is quieter than it normally is. Haiti is never quiet. I have to smile a little at that. People here respect you, and what you’ve done for them. The smile grows when I see the flowers, a little pile of them underneath our public info board. They grow in number as the day goes on, and we continue thinking of you.  You’ve still got me smiling. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me anymore. It’s who you are.

- - - - - -

Godspeed Chris. You’re an incredible young man, and I feel lucky for having had the time with you that I did.

The day of the bullfight. (Mid-June, 2011)
Chris (closest to the fire) with some of the All Hands family. (July 3rd, 2011)
The tribute inside the All Hands base. (July 20th, 2011)
The tribute outside the All Hands base. (July 20th, 2011)
Chris with the kids at Plaza Playtime. (June 24th, 2011)
Chris & Onella at Plaza Playtime. (June 24th, 2011)

All Hands Volunteers - Remembering Chris Zahuta


  1. Thank you so much for writing this Quinn. Although I didn't know Chris personally, I know and understand the bond that develops between volunteers. And I know that it takes a certain kind of person with a certain kind of spirit to pack up and decide to volunteer in Haiti. So as a part of the Project Leogane family, I am deeply saddened by this loss as well. I can't even imagine it. You all should feel blessed to have known him. He sounds like he was an amazing young man. Sending prayers out to his family.

  2. I am sorry for the loss of your friend Chris, who touched the lives of the people he was there for and for those whom he never intended to touch with his infectious spirit of living. I sensed it.
    In the beginning of the read I wasn't sure if you were referring to yourself thru another character because you too have the gift of smile and dedication to your purpose.
    I'm sorry that it ended with the stark reality of another young life moving to a higher purpose, one can only assume.
    It is the best writing you have done
    thus far. it's sad that a tragedy can produce a crystal, but keep moving forward carrying Chris with you and your smile will widen in the end.
    L, UnckL

  3. Awful news. Stay strong. God Speed, soldier.

  4. I feel like I know Chris after reading this. Bon Travay Quinn.


  5. Thanks Quinn. But I still cry every time i read this.

    - Papa Chris Zahuta