“They were my brothers before we had parents,” my daughter said, leaning in for a better view of the photos on Facebook. We were looking at pictures from our first trip to France, when Bebe and I visited three families who had adopted children she had once lived with in the same orphanage in Port-au-Prince. This summer we will return to see them again for another family reunion.
Family is a tricky topic for us, one that still sometimes leaves me, a lawyer and writer, searching for the right words. Growing up with an abundance of Irish-catholic relatives in upstate New York, family was as steady and predictable as winter snow. We gathered for holidays and weddings, and every Fourth of July converged on my aunt and uncle’s house for our family reunion. I took for granted the meaning “family reunion” as much as the annual event itself. When we piled into our station wagons at the end of the weekend, it was a never a question of whether we’d see each other again, but where and when.
Bebe was born in a village in the mountains of southwestern Haiti. A malnourished infant, she was sent to live at a local infirmary where I met her in 2006. I was teaching there for a semester, and after my classes ended each day, I’d walk to the infirmary to feed and play with the kids, especially this bright baby with knowing eyes and a dimple on her left cheek. She started calling me “Mama” before I took any official steps to adopt her—looking back, it was a foregone conclusion the first time she reached her arms out for me to hold her.
The Hague convention’s regulations, however, do not give much credence to the word “Mama.” To facilitate the adoption, I first had to move Bebe to a private orphanage in Port-au-Prince, where we had access to adequate food and medicine and lawyers. So at the end of my semester teaching, on my way back home to New York for Christmas, I left Bebe at the new orphanage. For her, it was already home number three. She had just turned two. That winter, while I was back in New York undergoing background checks and home study interviews, Bebe was going through separation anxiety, crying for “Mama” and refusing to eat.
I went back to Port-au-Prince to visit her a few months later. I expected the adoption to be wrapped up by the end of the year. We spent a blissful week at a local hotel. We swam and had poolside tea parties and shared scoops of pistachio ice cream. Bebe sang songs from the moment she opened her eyes in the morning. She loved to stand at the edge of the pool on her wobbly legs as if she were going to jump in. But all she would do is stretch her arms out toward me and shriek, “Mama!” until I lifted her, smiling, into the cool water—as if all the joy in the world lay in proclaiming those two syllables, and knowing I would take her into my arms.
I didn’t realize that she thought I was back to stay until we returned to the orphanage the night before my flight home. As we sat on a couch in the living room, she stared at me, frowning, silent. I tried to coax a smile by tickling her with yarned braids of one of her dolls, but she took the doll from me and threw it across the room. Then she pinched my leg, hard. She didn’t need words to tell me that she expected more from her Mama. When the driver appeared to take me to the airport, I returned the doll to her side, but could not coax a smile from her face.
Over the next several months, as the realities of dealing with third world bureaucracies and fragile infrastructures became clear, I realized that I would not be bringing Bebe home within the year. I settled into a routine of week-long visits to see her every few months. On one of those visits, as our pick-up truck pulled through the orphanage gate, a group of kids came streaming down the front steps. It took me a moment to spot Bebe among them, her baby face slimmed, her limbs lankier. But the smile was unmistakeable, the dimple still creasing her left cheek. My bouncy clingy toddler had grown into a sweet and skeptical three-year-old. And when I took her back to the orphanage at the end of that week, she didn’t pout or pinch; she ran full speed onto the patio into a huddle of children who hugged her and shouted her name. I realized that in my absence she’d found what she needed most—what every child needs most—a family. She had a family full of brothers and sisters, dozens of them. She had Fritz to chase her and Anders to serenade with her Creole songs; she had Rose to braid her hair and Esther to curl up next to in bed every night. These five kids shared more than a caretaker. They shared a home, with the fights and fun and daily routines that make up a family.
Two years later, when I finally brought Bebe home with me to New York, her fourth home, she was almost five-years-old. For years I’d tried to explain to her in broken Creole that this day would come. That her home would be with me in New York City, that I’d painted her bedroom her favorite color, blue, and that when she got here we’d go swimming and eat loads of ice cream. But when she waved goodbye to her friends on the balcony of the orphanage, I knew she couldn’t understand the magnitude of it. As we rode in the cab from JFK over the Triborough Bridge, she stared at the New York skyline, more lights than she had ever seen. She pointed toward the Chrysler building and asked, “Calle nous, Mama?” Our home? I wondered for the first time if she would be disappointed in the home I’d spent the last three years preparing for her.
The first few days Bebe was home, we both cried many tears. Mine were tears of relief, happiness, exhaustion. Hers were the worst kind. They were homesick tears for the family she left behind. Each night she cried for hours, begging between sobs for me to take her to have breakfast with her brothers and sisters in the morning. I tried to hold her while she strained to look out the window over the bed, as if she could still see them waving to her in the distance.
It was not the way I’d pictured our reunion. I hadn’t considered that in finally bringing my daughter home, I would be taking her away from the family she’d grown to love.
We got through those first months gingerly. Ours days were filled with doctors’ appointments and English lessons and meeting her new family. At night Bebe only slept when she could feel my body next to her, bracing me in a desperate choke hold, the way she must have slept entwined with Rose or Esther. She named her teddy bear Fritz after one of her brothers. I realized she’d never been alone in a room before when she started following me through the four small rooms of our apartment, as if I might turn a corner and never return.
Bebe loved to look through old pictures and talk about her brothers and sisters. Since she’d come home, Esther had died of meningitis. Bebe often recounted a day they had a party, when they both wore white dresses and danced and all the kids stayed up late. I recalled that it was the day they’d celebrated the 40th anniversary of her orphanage, Enfant Haitien Mon Frère. Haitian Child My Brother.
A few months later, the 2010 earthquake damaged her orphanage and killed some of her caretakers. The children were all spared. After a harrowing week they were airlifted from their shattered home to be untied with their new families in France and Belgium. Bebe and I kept in touch with them, exchanging emails and photos. We hung a map of the world in our kitchen to see where they had come from, where they lived now.
But after a few years went by, we became consumed with new family and friends, and we looked at the pictures less and less. We still talked about Bebe’s home in Port-au-Prince, but I noticed her memories were fading. One night while tucking her into in bed, she held her teddy bear and said, “I forget which one was Fritz.” So that year, instead of our family reunion in upstate New York, we had a different family reunion: four families from three countries whose children had once shared a home in Haiti. We met at the Atlantic Ocean in St. Gilles Croix-de-Vie, France. The cross of life. Their reconnection was instant—for three days they never stopped holding hands, hugging, and chasing each other as they had for years at the orphanage. And they never stopped singing, eliminating the language barrier with their Creole childhood songs, songs they hadn’t sung in years.
On our last day at the beach they built a sandcastle. As the sun began to set and the tide inched closer, one roaring wave toppled it, washing it away in chunks out to sea. But they just laughed and clasped hands, squealing as the water splashed at their legs and sprayed their shining faces. These children who had come from the other side of that sea, who had lost families and homes, already knew that walls and roofs, bricks and mortar, were fragile fleeting things. They knew that home was simply wherever they stood, hand in hand, as a family.
Sara Murphy is a single mother, lawyer, and graduate student in New York City. She has had personal essays published in the New York Times and Busted Halo.