June 2023

Build, back, better. Reassuring words. They land so comfortably and make believe that what was there before was flawed and what is to come will surpass imagination. Build. Back. Better. The power of these three words captivated me when I first heard them. The man who said them looked directly into the camera, his eyes alerting his listeners that he meant every syllable. It was a pledge. Bill Clinton may have been the last of the twentieth century’s great convincers. He could be relied on, even then in that heavy hour, to project well-crafted solemnity. The ease of his delivery of these three words was in my mind rattled by the dissonance of what was said before that sentence: “Bury the dead.” The insinuation of what was unsaid bothered me. There could be no time for reflection on life’s conclusion. Who was there was now gone; the people who once lived among us and through an act of nature’s violence were taken without their say to become part of the earth that emptied and forgot so that we the survivors might have that improved future. I was shaken by this most of all because I had never before experienced death on a scale so grand. When it came to people I knew—relatives, close friends—there had been long intervals. We had time to recuperate and come to terms with human absence. Yet after the great destruction the once president of that great power was telling all of us who cared about the fate of Haiti that gain could come only when we bade farewell to those who had died. For most of that year I carried this disturbance within me. I could not look at the splinters and shards in Port-au-Prince and not think of life. Not the life that struggled to go on in the miraculous feat of courage but the life not there. Better could not come without them. Their spirits deserved to be a part of our building.

Disaster and monumental loss of life are the parchment of history. Slavery took so many of our ancestors, and the trauma and shifting degrees of its outlines have taken many others. We know the stories of war. The volunteers who registered in the colonies to fight the king’s fight, never to return to their parishes. Their names are carved like serial numbers into cenotaphs just as the shapes of the lives of their kin are honored in monuments to earthquakes or archival lists—so many lists of names of people who have evaporated with the atmosphere. This fact does not make facing the reality of death any less unsettling. But there is something inherently numbing about numbers. They aggregate experience and lessen the chance of anyone being singled out and considered.

What happened in Haiti in 2010 was a travesty. As people fixed on that confused project of rescue and eventually rebuilding, a blindness to the sheer struggle for survival took hold. Concentration on the task was difficult with so much loss and suffering around. Those like me, who went to Port-au-Prince in those grim early weeks, stared at the chasm of loss but caught sight only of its fringe. In a notebook entry from one month after the earthquake, when the three days of prayer were still underway, when I had been one among thousands in meetings to discuss details on how to assist, I wrote, “Can’t get my emotions sorted. . . . It is difficult to work out everything. At least now. Trying to figure out everything is a great challenge especially when you can’t see all the explanations or experiences.”

That was the heart of it. To break apart grief we first yearn to see it whole. It is a troubled chase. The confusion of carrying on (the focus on build and better) is enclosed with guilt over what is not measured, the physical sensation of absence beyond that personal experience of pain without which the sense of loss is incomplete. Such a struggle in my case was stymied by my externalizing of grief. When I was told in Port-au-Prince that the earthquake should be seen as an extension of a history of suffering, it brought anger not relief. I was not angry at the history but at the suggestion it could be invoked to chasten the present.

It was not long after that conversation that my grief and my search for understanding of the tragedy collided. It happened on a steep backstreet that requires motorists to accelerate to crest it, producing shapeless towers of impenetrable dust. A boy of no more than ten, with one surviving leg, was learning, with the aid of his mother, to use a crutch to carry himself down the rabbled road. When the dust lay flat, I made out his wincing smile of accomplishment in the victory of mobility. Through tears I wondered which emotion to honor: my sorrow for his loss or his joy for his achievement.

Grief is unrelenting. When we approach the choice of moving past it there is a sense of failure. Going forward means coming to terms with an inability to reconcile death with a living present. Everything around us moves with the sun except that which we want. At lunch with my mother in Kingston just days after returning from Haiti, I told her about that boy. It overwhelmed her. She wept and fell silent. She refused to eat. Thirteen years later I have no idea what has come of that boy. The Covid-19 pandemic came so rapidly after the tenth anniversary of the Haitian earthquake and brought such a crushing universality to sorrow that there has been little space to reflect on the boy or the other survivors of his shared catastrophe. The number of lives lost in 2020–2021 is frightening and numbing.

My mother who grieved for the boy departed in early 2020, on the cusp of the pandemic, after years of living with dementia. This singular and shattering loss prompted a new grieving for me. Into relief came all that I thought I had learned since 2010 and then was forced to reconsider. There is a longing for time. No matter how much time I had made for my mother, searching for recognition and her physical gestures of remembrance lingering behind the parting wind of her memory, it did not feel enough. No matter how much preparation my family made for the final moment, it was not enough. We craved more.

The lesson from Haiti had been that time pushes on without us. I had gone backward in time to make sense for myself of the massive human loss and collective mourning and the pause that it brings by studying the Kingston earthquake of 1907. But even after close and involved research I could not find my grasp of it. I could not claim it as my own nor find the words to express it. It was a historical grief I was holding. It would take me several years to be able to do something with the material and to write about it in a way that approximated what I felt about Haiti.1

That effort to control grief was agitated by my mother’s passing. The grief came quickly but not all at once. It was apportioned so that I had the chance to continue living. Two weeks after she died, the Covid-19 pandemic arrived close to me. I was still in Jamaica, at her side with family, when the first cases were reported in the United States. Officials, like Clinton ten years prior, gave reassuring words. It seemed containable. Better was not far off once we buried the dead. My personal grief yielded guilt for not thinking about the victims in China. And as the weeks splintered into months, the stresses of quarantining in the remote part of the United States where I was living overcame the process of grieving. Then the numbers started to circulate. When the mortality figures for the United States reached two thousand in April I was shaken. The personal grief felt almost selfish, considering this number. It focused me on something else. I started reading obsessively of end-stage Covid suffering. I tried to put my witnessing of my mother’s breaths—a haunting experience that competed in my memory with the privilege of being with her to the last—in perspective of another story of colossal loss.

Each new year is meant to be a moment of erasure. Like building back better it is sold to the optimists, the survivors, that carrying on will produce just rewards. Grief spawned in the old year is time-stamped and cannot be posted in the new. This way of thinking, consciously or not, is a surrender to the power of time. It rolls on. It is, as my mother always reminded me, the dealer. The rush toward an imminent better in itself obscures the reality that it is an ephemeral change. On the eve of 2020 there had been popular novelty glasses with the year spread out across each eye insinuating perfect vision ahead. An achievement of clarity and ordered path. Retrospect can produce a sharper vision. Those who carry pain of loss endure the hope that they will see their suffering with the clarity of further distance.

On my trip to Haiti three weeks after the earthquake, I visited the State University of Haiti’s Faculty of Agriculture in the town of Damien, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, for another university meeting. I was struck by bunting that still hung from the railings on the upper floor overlooking the main entrance. It promised a good and better 2010. It hit me, like the sight of the one-legged boy, how small we are to the tempest of time. And as I reflect on the past dozen years since Haiti’s calamity and at the changing lives of the survivors, and with yet another flickering beam of a new year waiting to rise and blast out the shadow of the old one, I am even more humbled by grief’s portability. It will come again. It will go down but never really go. The best we can do for those who are gone is live.

Humans with 20/10 vision see more perceptively than others. From farther away they pick up on details missed by those unaided by proximity. Bereavement can bring its own uncommon sharpness. It allows us to look down the corridor of our past to feel the sensations of our beloved. For me I sense my mother strongly in flashes. Some are tangible. Her voice, her curled lip on the right side of her mouth to punctuate disdain. Every contour appears in technicolor even as the memories twinkle. There are sharp sensory triggers as well. The smell of her banana bread, the sight of Garamond script (her favorite typeface) or the deep yellow of her ortanique juice. They come so precisely in my vision that I must arrest them quickly to prevent my slide into an emptiness that lays on the other side of grief.

Memories so stark can place faraway suffering at even greater distance. Grief for the many in Haiti—including the legless boy in Port-au-Prince and several people I knew who died in the 2010 earthquake and others there who have died of Covid over the past few years—is ordered in my index of loss and fall behind this singular hurt of missing my mother. But all the memories of those I once knew, the sharp senses, all the 20/10 vision, live with my greatest hurt and I rely on time to help me make sense of it.

We accept when soldiers die in battle because death is what the battlefield is for. We are told that their deaths were for something else. When someone we love dies, we search for a reason for their death. It is a search that can last the rest of our lives and from which we might learn many things. If we are lucky, in the process of learning to live without them, we come to know more about who they were and see more clearly how they made our lives.

Matthew J. Smith is a writer, professor of Caribbean history, and director of the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery at University College London.

[1] See Matthew J. Smith, “A Tale of Two Tragedies: Forgetting and Remembering Kingston (1907) and Port-au-Prince (2010),” Karib 4, no. 1 (2018): article 11, online 1 November 2019; https://karib.no/articles/10.16993/karib.50.