Dear Danny Middleton
It was 2013 when I met you on that mission trip to Cap Haïtien, Haiti, to build a church/school for underprivileged children. It was my first missions trip, and the first trip I ever went on without my family.
It wasn’t your first mission trip, or your second, or your third. You and your wife lived in Arkansas with your many children and grandchildren: biological, adopted, and fostered. You looked a little like Santa.
I remember your voice better than your face. Like an old log, kind and crumbling. A little decadent, soft with returning its nature to the earth. Low as the ground, a quiet rumble. I remember you made a joke about our trip leader, irreverent and completely at peace with your irreverence. We laughed in surprise and delight.
Two of my fellow short-term missionaries were from my church — a guy about my own age and his father-in-law. Both Italian, loud, warm. I didn’t know either of them well before, and after we rarely talked. But everyone becomes friends on a mission trip, a pilgrimage. It’s called communitas. I read about it, years later, in Victor and Edith Turner’s books on pilgrimage and anthropology. How strangers are lifted out of their worn-in contexts and stripped down, transplanted, by a common quest or goal. And in this state, they are uniquely vulnerable to friendship. Fast, intense, temporary (almost always temporary) bonds form. Naked of categories of career and class and race, their identities scrubbed down to the bare imago dei, barriers dissolve. Communitas.
We stayed on the east side of a mountain. I still don’t really understand how we came to be there, or what kind of place it was, or how the connection was made between our church and the evangelist who ran the trip and the couple who owned the villa. The official story was that the couple had been out of the country for five years, in which time the mountain they owned (they owned the mountain) had been colonized by “squatters,” who had been their long enough to lay claim to squatter’s rights and escape eviction. The couple decided to educate them instead, build them a school and a church and eject them from squatterhood from the inside out, as it were. They had a connection to Dave, the evangelist, because he was in the area drilling wells so impoverished neighborhoods could have access to clean water. Dave rounded up a contingent of untrained, eager-eyed volunteers and shipped us out.
I didn’t understand; I don’t understand. The people we built the school for were children. We played soccer with them and danced with them and painted their faces. They spoke Hatian Creole and called me Blanc, called us all Blanc. There used to be a feeding program but it had been discontinued. There were reasons for this. I remember them so incompletely there seems little point in repeating them. It was very hard to remember, even then, why we weren’t feeding hungry children, even if the reasons really did make a lot of sense.
It was hard to remember, and hard to understand why our being there made things so much better. Hard to understand why we slept in the villa with the courtyard’s gates bolted and an armed guard patrolling the perimeter all night long while on the mountain the children slept in tent cities on dirt floors. Where would Jesus have slept? They explained to me, they explained that all missions trip leaders had to carry insurance, which complicated things if something bad happened to someone in the group. Or maybe it was that the leader had to be able to more or less guarantee the group’s safety, and it wasn’t safe outside the villa. Maybe both. I’m not sure. It was a long time ago, and I was much younger than I am now, and the explanations seemed to have greater dexterity then, better and cleverer ways of hooking together to form a justifiable chain of logic.
I don’t know what you thought of this. I never asked you. Maybe you’d been on so many mission trips, this seemed right to you. Or maybe you’d seen so much injustice, you were better at plodding through its trappings and just doing what needed to be done than I was. I don’t know. You were always very quiet.
The women worked with the children and the men dug the site for the school out of the mountain alongside the other workers, the local people Dave had hired. They were being paid seven dollars a day. I asked why we didn’t pay them more and they (the other leaders) explained that seven dollars a day was the average wage here for a day laborer. I was confused because the average wage obviously wasn’t enough to enable the average worker to emerge from the tent cities, and they explained to me that if they paid much more than that, they wouldn’t have enough money to hire people to build the school. I was confused about this, too, because the other volunteers and I had paid to be there and were working for free, believing that the school would help these people escape economic and spiritual poverty, which might also be accomplished by offering higher wages. But I knew I didn’t understand much about budgets and foreign wages and economics and digging schools out of mountains. I knew I would never have the organizational or executorial skill set to organize the educational empowering of a foreign people group. I knew no one did things perfectly. I was lucky to be here, lucky to be helping. Lucky to be living in the villa.
When we arrived that first day, I had hurt my foot. A sprain of some kind. We were Pentecostal, evangelical Christians and my fellow team members agreed to pray for my foot. In fact, they jumped at the chance. We were all about miracles, the supernatural, God’s intervening in our lives. We were His children and we had a right to expect great things. God loves impossible requests. God loves doing the impossible for His children.
They prayed for my foot. Even then, things were beginning to come loose for me. Like shingles from a roof. They prayed for my foot and cold water dripped into my spirit from the places where I struggled with everything inside me to hold my faith firm, to calk it with will and love and desperation. I agreed, I did my best, I pressed my creased faith in with theirs: O God. O God. Heal my foot. It doesn’t hurt so bad, it’s not the most important thing in the world — but Lord, I know You know it’s the most important thing in my world because it will mean that You see me. It will be proof that You see me — healing my stupid foot. O God O God O God I am going to crack into raw unsalvageable pieces if I do not sink my teeth into some evidence that You see me.
And so my random foot pain became cosmic, existential. The ache ran right up into my heart and dug in, like a porcupine’s quill.
They prayed for my foot, that first night. I remember. The kind eyes, the fervency, the hope, the belief. Stand up, they said. Walk. See if it’s better now.
I stood up. I walked. Was it better now? It did feel a little better. I felt better, yes. Praise the Lord, I was healed. A miracle!
By the time I walked back to my room, the pain was returning. It tended to lessen while I was sitting, as I had been while they prayed for me. My heart slumped against its quill. I scrambled inside myself, I rallied, I clenched myself in brittle fists and believed with all my might, all my might, all my might.
The next day my foot still hurt, and I told them, guiltily. As though I let them down.
No, they said. That’s the devil. You have to hold onto your healing; you really were healed last night, and Satan wants to steal your victory.
They were good people. I believe that, I believe it now. But I looked into their sincere faithful eyes and inside me proud structures rumbled, shingles flew loose. With my hands I held the sky up over my head. Trying to rescue the horizon.
Can You please just heal my foot? A miracle. You’re God. I love you. Please.
All day we worked with the children. They pressed against us, touching our hair and our skin. So many, so close — once I reached out to block a crowd of them so they didn’t overwhelm our face-painting table, and they pressed themselves into my arms my chest my fingers, and in the palms of my hands I could feel their bright hearts beating.
We visited orphanages. Children hitched rides on the bumper of our vehicle and our driver yelled and chased them off. Don’t give them water, they told us. The children ran alongside the bus, tapping the windows, meeting my eyes, gesturing at my water bottle. You want to help, but you’ll just make it worse. They’ll fight each other for the water bottle.
I was raised to follow The Rules. Another girl gave them her water bottle and they fell back, guzzling. I couldn’t tell if they were fighting. Should I have given them my water bottle? The Rules twisted like razors in my gut. Was there anything I could do here that did not shriek of moral dissonance? Was I doing something good here? Or something… else? I came to help. But my water bottle sat chilled in the van. My foot hurt.
One day I insisted on going to dig with the men. It was hard. It was hot. I was very thirsty very fast. When I went back to get a drink, that bottle of water was the ultimate physical experience, liquid enlightenment. Should I take some back for the other workers? We don’t have enough for everyone.
Around that time, I started having trouble sleeping. Or, more accurately, I had no trouble falling asleep, but I would wake up very early, while it was still dark, and lie awake in a strange bed with strange roommates and a bathroom without a door in a villa on a mountain in a foreign country where some people owned mountains and some people chased cars for a cup of water. And my name was Blanc, and the dirt clung to me all day long, and my foot, my ridiculous unimportant foot went on being just that while the stars came unstuck inside me.
On the second night I got up and crept outside. It was four in the morning. Insects pumped the night full of treble and timpany.
I walked along the balcony to the stairs and came down to the courtyard with the massive locked gates, damming the villa’s plenty so it didn’t go sliding down the mountain. Keeping me safe. I turned away.
The east side of the house featured stone pillars and a patio that faced the sea. I came out and stood there quietly, and then I saw you.
There were two chairs, and you were sitting in one of them, quiet as a hibernating bear. You were always out there, I learned. I don’t think you rested an hour in your room. You were as sleepless as God.
Around the patio went the guard with the gun, patrolling all night long. The rifle stuck out of the night, a sharper shadow. He smiled at us and waved as he made his rounds.
I remember we talked. But I don’t know what we talked about, because now, so many years later, the seeds of kindness you planted in me have grown out of control, have taken over the landscape. The narrative sags toward them like a hammock around a body. I know we talked, and maybe we talked about important things, but what I think about when I think of you is how we sat in the dark. I remember we sat in the dark together and waited for the sunrise, night after night.
It makes all the difference in the world to sit together in the dark. And I was in such darkness. The darkness came stabbing out of my foot; it came up out of my skull into my eyes like interior ink; it exploded like an octopus from a reef, all cold tentacles, sucking, strangling. It lurked in my leaders’ impoverished explanations. It hummed in the spaces between the children’s heartbeats. I was beginning a long slow dissolution into questions, into shadowy psalmic valleys.
And you were with me, in that baptism. You stood watch over my soul — that is how I remember it. You never tried to help because you knew you could do nothing, could not cross the great gulf fixed between us. But by God, you sat with me, you officiated my baptism into that interminable dark night. And your voice was so low and old and steady there, in the depths, under the spinning sky, amid the questions that burst and expanded like universes. You were older than me, and you sat quietly while we looked over the city, all black and white lights curling away from the uninterrupted ocean.
And you reminded me of my grandfather, who had died only a few months ago. He used to hold me on the nights my parents went out and I cried disconsolately. He held me up with my legs weightless and dangling, tight but not too tight, and he sang: I’ll be loving you always, with a love that’s true always.
My grandfather, my Poppy. Days may not be fair, always. That’s when I’ll be there, always, always… He held onto me in a world that spun, a world that was not okay and that he had no power to resolved, lifted me beyond it on cables of love to a place where, in defiance of it all, I could fall asleep on his shoulder.
My God, I loved him. My God, I loved you.
The hours heaved and drifted over us like humpback whales, the kind that sing strange songs to guide each other, to keep connected as they travel the pathless sea. Hours like currents, pulling us forward. There was always an irrational moment when, in a panic of doubt, I wondered if the sun would rise at all. We sat so long in the night, staring at the horizon that was no horizon until suddenly — impossible to say when, even if you were paying attention — it was.
I remember that — how I would realize as I stared that all at once there was a smudge of rainbow in the east. Red at the bottom. Shifting up toward blue. Barely perceptible. But it would ripen and swell, and the night would thaw like a glacier. I would suddenly be able to see colors in the city and your face. And all that time before the sun appeared, I was looking around, thinking, How much more light can the world contain? I could not have imagined this much light five minutes ago. How much more light can there possibly be?
And then, after there was so much light I felt glutted with it, the sun would rise. Over the water. Coming up with authority and triumph, promises unbroken, joy on fire, like a single note from an angel’s trumpet. Over the horizon, mighty, invincible, shouting down the darkness with its radiant round syllable: now and ever and unto ages of ages, amen.
On some mornings, other people would come and sit with us to watch the sunrise. They took photos and chatted with us; the couple who owned the villa brought us coffee and orange juice. Everything, everyone came alive in the light.
But you sat with me in the dark. You were there when the questions examined me with the spears of their tails, when they coiled around me like eels. You sat and talked about whatever trivialities I latched onto, or you sat with me in silence, while the inquisitors beat the stars out of my faith’s sky like summer fruit. You sat with me, sat with me, sat with me while the planet slid us toward the roaring inexorable sun. Until the water shone and the world filled with light — fathoms and fathoms of light it could only contain because the night had gouged gorges and canyons into the fabric of reality — great horrors of darkness — and now every scar welled with incandescence as deep as the sea.
Sometimes I’m driving to work or I wake up at two in the morning or I’m washing dishes and all at once the memory of those Cap Hatien sunrises will flash through me like lightning. And I try again to tell myself (and you, as though you were here) everything this meant to me, as though I were trying to lance a wound. As though the current of love and joy and gratitude shining through me might split my seams open as violently as grief, or rage, if I don’t treat it.
At the airport, on the last day, I didn’t know how to say goodbye to you. You looked at me with your quiet eyes, patient as dawn, and you said, You take care now, baby. Your eyes pooled then like mine do now.
I have not seen you since.
I want you to know. I want to tell you: God saw me. He saw me, and He sent me you. And for that, I’ll be loving you always.
You take care now, Danny.
Christianna Soumakis is an artist and writer living and working on Long Island, New York. She has an MFA in Fine Art and writes as part of her artistic practice. When she isn’t painting, drawing, or having existential crises, she’s fueling her ADHD with inordinate amounts of coffee.
Photo taken from Haititechnews.com.