I had never experienced such intense emotional pain and anger at the same time, as when I got the news that Nick had died. It was surreal. My mind refused to accept the fact that I would never see him, talk to him, laugh with him, teach him, nurture him and watch him grow into the man I knew he would have become.
My husband and I opened our home to host sick children. They came from foreign countries for life-saving surgeries at our local Children’s hospital. When one teen died during heart surgery the year before, I was devastated. I didn’t think I could do it again. Then, Nick moved in with us in October 2009. When I picked him up at the airport, he never stopped asking questions. I smiled. I loved to break them in and see the awe in their eyes.
Nick was a seventeen year-old Haitian who fell and shattered his right hip while playing soccer. He lived in a remote village with his mother and four siblings. Bedridden for two years, Nick could not go to school. His fractured hip eventually healed, leaving him with one leg markedly longer than the other. He needed hip replacement surgery.
What could possibly go wrong? Indeed, everything went well. The free surgery provided by local medical providers was a success. Nick was up and about very quickly. Like a fish out of water, he eagerly tried his legs. His small wiry frame belied the strength within. He wanted to run, play basketball and ride a bike, all at the same time it seemed. Nick laughed with his whole body. Holding his stomach, Nick would try to catch his breath when he laughed and his contagious howl would travel around the room. It was just a pleasure to see him enjoy life and a good joke, any joke. He just loved to laugh.
The earthquake of 2010 hit Haiti when Nick was scheduled to return home. I thought it was fate. Through Temporary Protective Status he could legally stay in the US. I immediately enrolled him in school and he soaked information like a sponge. He wanted to go to college so he could help his village. He dreamed of building roads, schools and dig wells. He learned fast. Within three months, Nick was conversing and writing in English.
With his part time job at the local supermarket, Nick took care of his family in Haiti. The youngest of five, he became the head of household. He paid tuition for his sister to attend nursing school. He helped his single mother start a small business. He bought himself a laptop and a cell phone. For a kid who grew up without electricity, he was adept at using electrical gadgets. Every day was like Christmas for Nick.
Nick wanted to do everything fast, as if he knew his time was short. He obtained his driving permit in June 2010. Shortly after, he called me to pick him up from work one day. It was raining hard and he usually walked home. I got out and handed him the keys to my car. Grinning from ear to ear he said “Mom, you want me to drive?”
It was a short distance. He beamed as if he was driving cross-country. He was saving money to buy a car.
Nick was a happy teen. He followed the rules at home, at school and at work. I had hoped to meet his mother one day to congratulate her on raising a fine young man. His boss and his teachers had nothing but praises for him. I felt such pride, as if I had something to do with his positive, respectful and mature demeanor.
That fateful day, he went to a picnic with the church youth group, like he had done twice before. I was out of town so he called to tell me he was leaving the house and that he loved me. Like a typical mom, I said “Have fun and be careful.” I had no idea that would be the last time I would hear his voice.
Nick drowned on July 30, 2011 at Fort DeSoto beach with lifeguards on duty and a sea full of people. He couldn’t swim. Did he wade in and suddenly encounter a riptide and could not get out? I prayed that it was quick. I imagined the terror he might have felt in the time it took him to lose the battle. What was his last thought while he was fighting for his life, taking his last wet breath?
He had so much to do, to learn, to experience. At nineteen, he loved girls, but was a bit shy around them. Two days before his death, he told me about a girl at school he liked. He planned to ask her out soon. He had not kissed a girl yet. So how could he be dead? Did God call the wrong kid?
I was so angry with God. I thought it was cruel to have given him a glimpse of a brighter future then snatch it away. Little did I know that Nick’s mother, Dieudonne (her name translates to: “God gives”) would be my anchor. Our mission made arrangements to bring her to Florida to attend Nick’s funeral. When I saw her among the throngs of people spilling from the airport gate, I froze. Nick looked just like her. I lost it. We embraced and she patted my back, all the while telling me it was okay. I was confused. Why wasn’t she mad at the unfairness of it all? Why was she so relatively calm and accepting?
“It gives me comfort to see that my son was loved and cared for by the missionary group,” Dieudonne said. “And as his physical custodian, I thank you very much for opening your home and heart to Nick,” she continued as she took my hands in hers. “God giveth and God taketh away,” she added, serenely.
During the period before the funeral, Dieudonne received people who knew her son and wanted to tell her what a great job she did. She was proud of Nick. When my heart got so heavy with pain, I looked at Dieudonne and immediately would feel solace. Her faith in God was strong and sustained her.
I had to reach deep to find the peace to accept what I couldn’t control. I had to face the fact that his life was never in my hands, but with his creator. Nick’s death taught me to appreciate the moment I am in, the people I love and the space I occupy.
Life is fragile and precious, always too short it seems. Death is unpredictable, inevitable and sneaky always too early it seems. Nick left his imprints on my heart forever. He had enriched it and I am grateful for having had the opportunity to be part of his short life. I miss you, Son.