It is biting cold in front of the Family Court. A year ago, if you had told me that I would be standing here today, about to petition guardianship for a seven-year old, I would have said, “You’re nuts.”
Life is difficult as it is, with my eighty-nine-year-old Mama twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. She forgets where she goes to the bathroom, forgets where she lives, even forgets who I am. Besides Mama, I have my teenagers, Edena and Jimmie, and two dogs.
At fifty-two, I yearn to be free. I yearn to be free. I yearn to return to work, to writing classes, to seminars, to poetry readings, to socials. I yearn to attend family affairs like birthday parties, weddings, and anniversaries. I yearn to return to Haiti and Senegal to work on my family tree, but my nephew Vladimir’s mother, Neslie, flew in from Haiti, went up to Harlem Hospital for follow-up treatment of her breast cancer, and died. When Neslie died, Vladimir was with me.
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I saw my nephew for the first time in 1987 when I took Mama back home for a visit. From his crib, he looked at me with big eyes and grinned like babies do when they have gas. I picked him up and held him across my shoulder for a short time.
In 1987, Namphy was President. Neslie liked him and believed that he listened to the people and made some attempts to compromise with them to get things going in the country, but the revolts continued. It was a time of general strikes and empty streets, a time of roadblocks and burning tires, a time of scheduled horn blowing, pot clinking and knocking. It was a time of nightly police activities, and a time of bodies-left-in the-street scene to be viewed in the morning. Mama, Edena, Jimmie, and I stayed indoor most of our 17-day stay.
During that time, Neslie visited and brought food to the four of us every day. Mama was happy to be home and refused to return to New York with us. Because of the stress brought in by political and social chaos in Haiti, I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, and needed to return with the children.
The day of our departure from Haiti was a general-strike-day. The streets were empty again. No taxis. No nothing, but early that morning, Neslie appeared with a friend to drive us to the airport, and she waited until our airplane took off.
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I saw Vladimir again last year when Neslie brought him to our house for a visit. She came to New York for a breast biopsy and had a mastectomy instead. Then this past summer, Neslie returned with him; he acted shy and remained next to his mother. I visited them at Neslie’s sister’s and returned home with Vladimir two weekends in a row. He became acquainted with my children and their electric game, Sega Genesis. He enjoyed himself. The third weekend, Neslie called and requested that I take Vladimir again. I did. When it was time for him to go home Sunday night, he refused to return to his aunt’s; he stayed with us.
Neslie was in and out of Harlem Hospital and on and off the respirator for at least four months. When it appeared unlikely that she would come out again, Vladimir was allowed a visit with his mother at the hospital. A few days later, she died.
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The morning of Neslie’s funeral, I helped Vladimir with his bath, brushed his hair, gave him breakfast, laid out his clothes, and told him, “As soon as you’re finished with your food, go upstairs and get dressed.”
Forty-five minutes later, I’m ready to go. I called for Vladimir, he appeared in his underwear. I pulled him upstairs, slapped his white turtleneck over his head, and put his new suit on him. He wouldn’t walk, so I yanked him all the way to Newkirk and Nostrand Avenues to St. Jerome. He cried. The funeral had begun; everyone turned around to look at us.
Throughout the service, Vladimir talked and asked questions. I tried to make him understand his mother was not coming back this time. Not ever. He will not be able to see her again. He claimed to understand, but then he asked, “Where are her machines? She needs them to breathe.” And then, “How do you know she’s in Heaven?” He said, “I want to go to see what it’s like where she is.”
When Father Guy Sansaricq walked around the coffin to waive the burning incense in the air, Vladimir looked at me with the same big eyes that looked at me from the crib in 1987 and said, “My mother is dead; you are my new mother now, Suze.”
When he said that, my arms might have hugged him, but the words shocked me. I did not foresee him as my responsibility. My children, Edena and Jimmie, are 17 and 18 years old; I have forgotten the ways of small children.
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Vladimir did not speak English, but St. Teresa of Avila, the catholic school on Sterling Place and Classon Avenue, mainstreamed him from day one. I speak English, but I don’t understand the basics of long i’s and short i’s that he must learn in first grade. His homework consumed every evening; then I had to make his lunch and prepare his uniforms for the next day. These new chores robbed me of my free time, and I went to bed exhausted on a regular basis.
In addition to all that, Mama is up at night. She eats, drinks water, and tries to leave the house. I must keep an eye on her, get her back into bed, change her when she wets, and be up by 6:00 to get Vladimir ready for his 6:40am school bus.
Life has not been easy for Vladimir either. His mother died, and his father lives elsewhere. Relatives in Haiti emptied the only home he knew and returned the keys. They turned his two dogs loose into the streets of Port-au-Prince. He misses his nanny Velaine and wonders what happened to his bed, his desk, and his toys.
He says, “My two dogs went everywhere by themselves and returned home, they never got lost. Here, people must walk their dogs.”
He says, “If Velaine was here, you wouldn’t have to cook, clean, and do laundry Suze. She would do everything for you, and you could go to work. She knows how to do grocery shopping, and she can cook rice and beans and fish.”
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The situation with Neslie and Vladimir reminds me of 1976. I thought I was going to die when I was sick with polyneuritis after I delivered Edena. My right leg was paralyzed, then my left. As the paralysis traveled upward, I waited for it to overtake my diaphragm; I waited to die. I prayed God my daughter would find a good home with a kind person. God should make her well behaved so she would be easy to love. I imagined Neslie praying these same prayers of a dying mother for her child.
Neslie called me whenever she was able to talk. And when she could no longer talk, she wrote. It was always the same message: “I am comfortable with you, Suze. I know that you are very busy, but please take Vladimir; he’s good company.”
The boy is big-boned, tall and could easily pass for eleven instead of seven. He loves karate and spends time everyday to watch the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, the Super Human Samurai, and VR Troopers.
In Haiti, his mother sent him to karate camp every summer. Now, he jumps, kicks, throws punches at my son, at the dogs, and at the furniture. Vladimir performs these movements with such grace that I’d love to have the time and money to take him to karate classes. And although I love to watch him swing, jump, and punch, his movements do interfere with my mother’s rest periods. She’s deaf; she doesn’t hear his loud cries of AYEE AYE HAH HAH, but she feels the vibration. She walks all night long and therefore enjoys her frequent rest periods during the day. Since Vladimir came, there has been no rest for Mama.
It is difficult for me to manage them both. Vladimir is young and needs a mother to teach him how to wipe himself properly after a bowel movement, and how to clean his ears, his underarms, and his private parts when he takes his bubble bath. It’s time consuming, and Mama needs just as much time.
Vladimir cannot understand that Mama does not always know what she is doing. He cried a whole hour one Monday morning because Mama got up during the night and ate the sandwich from his lunchbox. Nevertheless, he is good to her. He walks next to Mama and offers his shoulder for her to rest a hand when she walks, squeezes himself under the bed to push out the bedpan and places it within her reach. He watches out for her and runs ahead to lock the screen door when she heads toward the front. Just the same, Vladimir can be troublesome. At home, he loves to chase the two dogs through the living and dining rooms, the kitchen, then up and down the stairs. At night, he pees in the humidifier that I put in his room to prevent his nosebleeds. In the backyard, he stomps and breaks my young peach and apple trees. Outside, he goes running around the block after he promises to stay next door and throws his ham and cheese sandwich out of the school bus window because he does not like ham and cheese. Yesterday, he called 911 and had the police at our house. When he behaves like this, I become overwhelmed and convinced that his father should take him.
Despite these problems, I have gotten to love Vladimir. I petitioned and won guardianship for him. Neslie’s brothers and sisters (six or seven of them) never visit. Not once. It looks like it’s him and me and this world.
Brooklyn, July 18, 2011
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Suze Baron is Haitian-American. She lives in Brooklyn with her family.