my dearest Johanne

by Kayla Raymond

Johanne, along with Rosie’s mama, and five other women were the first group of artisans I worked with when I moved to Haiti in 2012. These women taught me so much back then. I can remember an afternoon laughing on the balcony where we worked, as they taught me how to wash the towels by hand. There’s this distinct squeak if you wash the fabrics just right; it’s something in the wrists. We were going back and forth, joking that I wouldn’t be a real Haitian until I could get the squeak. I can remember Johanne sitting next to me on the wooden bench, with the aluminum tub of water in between the both us, as we all laughed together.

These women had so much grace for me as I learned their culture, their language and their ways. I can remember how we all held each other tight on the day we lost Rosie and the days that followed. For some crazy reason, they took me under their wings and have loved me like one of their own for what seems like forever now.

There were many dynamics in the group and Johanne was like the little sister to us all. She was a strong-willed mama to two beautiful little girls. Her situation was probably the most dire of everyone. She lived in a small little tent way back then and was one of the first people I helped build a home. We had made an arrangement that I would find the funds to build the house and she would save up money to pay for the labor. She was so proud when the house was finally finished and eventually built a little add-on room that she operated a side business selling little snacks and drinks out of.

She was so small in stature. She was also the quietest of the bunch, but she held her ground and was such a determined worker. When her girls came to work with her, they would sit there all proper and clean. She’d come with little lunch boxes all packed with goodies. She was such a good mama. Just by the way she’d tidy them up and dust off their shoes at the end of the day, showed how proud she was of them.

Towards the end she just kept getting sick all the time. She had a really bad spell and I can remember the whole group of us going to her house to pray over her. I was knelt beside her as she lay in bed and she held onto my hands like she was holding on for dear life. And now I look back and I think she really was; there was a look of fear in her eyes and there was nothing I could do to make it go away.

There was another spell after that one and I remember the day I had to carry her on my back to get her into the car so I could take her to a nearby clinic for testing. Her diagnosis was pretty grim that day, but it was at least something that could be treated. We got her the proper medicine and she seemed to have taken a turn for the better.

It was sometime close to Christmas as I can remember us being together for some type of holiday event at the orphanage. She had pulled me aside to thank me for taking her to the clinic and all I could do was hug her. I was just so relieved we had finally gotten a diagnosis and could move forward with treatment. I was also just so glad to see her doing better.

Unfortunately, that was one of my last interactions with her. I will never know what was the ultimate cause of her death, but whatever it was, it robbed her life way too quickly.

It was a Sunday afternoon (January 2018) and I was playing cards with my mom and a friend when I got the call. It hit me like a big punch in the gut as her sister told me the news over the phone. I just couldn’t believe it. I went and rounded up some of the women we worked with and together we headed to her mom’s home.

We walked into the front room of her mom’s home and everything had been removed except her body. There she lay underneath a white sheet. I fell to my knees beside her body, reaching for her hand, thinking maybe, just maybe, she’d reach back and hold on tight.

But, she was gone.

I had so many questions, first and foremost being, why the hell had no one called me earlier!? I could have taken her to the hospital; I could have done something! I wanted to know what had happened, among a million other things! I wanted to scream. I wanted to know how she took her last breath. But, I knew asking wouldn’t make me feel any better and culturally it would have probably been really rude to ask. It was one of those intense moments where I knew when I walked away from this I was never going to be the same.

It just seems like I can’t get any closure when it comes to Johanne. Everything about her death still feels so heavy. I feel like I somehow failed her. Surely, there could have been something more we could have done to save her.

And that’s the funny thing when you get yourself wrapped up and invested in their lives; you think you have the ability to save them. You’ll fight that good ole white savior complex every day. You try and try to trust that God is at work. You try and try to believe in the promise that He is a God who sees; a God who sees all the needs. The life or death needs. Never in a million years, would you have thought you’d be responsible for such needs, but there you are, making decisions that decide who literally gets to eat some days. No one should make those decisions alone. And most days I don’t; that’s where Webert and the other people I serve with are around for. Accountability is such a must. But, God? He seems a bit too far away some days.

There are these moments when I surely think the world is going to collapse on in, because how can it actually sustain such suffering? Doesn’t it feel the pressure; when will it just be too much? How is it possible mamas are unable to feed their sweet, sweet babies and they come to me looking for answers? How can they possibly look to me for hope, when I can barely sort through the clouded mess and remain hopeful in a God who promises good things?

Life is hard, isn’t it? Dealing with death? Even harder. But, that’s why I can’t lose hope, because there is this promise I get to see all these people again. Even though, quite frankly, I’m still pretty pissed about not being able to say good-bye the way I wish I could have, I can’t imagine how sweet our homecoming will be. And the fact that one day all the suffering and pain goes away? Hallelujah. Amen. Thank you baby Jesus for coming to save us all and promising us such redemption.