Roland bent down as he entered the thatched-roof hut he shared with his mother Mariette and eight younger siblings in the small village of Roseau in Haiti. Tired from planting all day, he lowered his lanky frame to the dirt-packed floor and sighed.
The five mile walk home was always a time to reflect. Tonight his bleak future invaded his thoughts. The gleaming stars in the ink-black sky could not brighten his mood. Roland needed to escape. He stared at the sky, looking for a sign. His bare feet instinctively avoided slamming into the sharp rocks that littered the trail.
Mariette sat at the rickety table, mending a pair of pants that looked like a colorful quilt. She patched holes with whatever she could find. Two-year-old Simon fell asleep tonight on one of the three bug-infested mismatched chairs. He jerked sporadically from their bites, as if he was having a seizure. Straw beddings lined the floor. Everyone vied for a spot where the roof did not leak.
When Mariette closed the door at night, the family filled in every corner where they could kneel, sit or squat. The flicker of the kerosene lamp cast their dancing shadows on the mud wall, making them look like cornered rats. Another sleepless night awaited Roland.
Roland, at twenty-two, worked a small plot of land to feed the family. His mother sold part of the harvest, for other necessities. Who could he depend on?
Lost in thought the following night, Roland found himself in front of the local coyote's house. He knew all along he wanted to make the dangerous trip to Miami. Those who made it improved their lives and the lives of those they left behind.
But two weeks ago, five people from his village perished, when their small dinghy capsized. No one knew how to swim. Neither did he.
Mariette was worried about Roland. He seemed distant and morose lately. She knew he was carrying too much on his young shoulders, and she cursed his father for walking out and leaving them to sink or swim.
"What's wrong, son?" Mariette asked Roland, when he came back that evening.
"Ma, why are you still up? You must be exhausted," he replied instead.
Mariette cooked, cleaned, hand washed all the clothes and linens, and she walked long miles daily to collect water.
"I'm keeping your food warm before I douse the charcoal with water," she said.
"I'm not hungry, Ma, but I need to talk to you." Mariette's heart sank. Is his girlfriend Lena pregnant? Mariette knew they could not afford another pair of mouths to feed. She braced herself.
"Ma, I saved some money from helping some of the older farmers with their plots. I'm going to Miami on the next boat leaving this village."
Mariette's cries echoed her hunger, pain and defeat in the middle of the night. Her nearest neighbor Nesta ran to the hut. In this village, this kind of wail usually followed a sudden death.
"Oh! Nesta, Roland wants to go to Miami. I'll just die, if something bad happens to him," Mariette wailed.
"Ma, I'll be fine. I'll leave you some money, and send more as soon as I start working. Oh, I have to sell the land to complete my fare."
Mariette looked at her son, tears running down her forty years old wrinkled face. She knelt down on the dirt floor with her hands outstretched towards heaven, and prayed -- the only recourse left to people like her.
The next boat was leaving in three weeks. The time passed in solemn silence. Neither one wanted to talk about the impending trip. Mariette washed his clothes and packed his personal effects with his worn bible on top. Everything fit in one small knapsack.
Roland walked to the wharf alone, after saying goodbye to everyone. Fifteen skinny men climbed in the dinghy. There was no room for everyone to sit. They would take turns with the seating arrangement.
The journey was long and perilous in July. They rode a vicious tropical storm in the gulf. The waves slammed into them with such force that they held on to each other and became a human anchor. They took turns scooping water out of the small boat. Their individual life stories were etched on each hopeful face, yet the plot was the same. They spent four days drifting on the vast ocean.
The stench from human waste, sweat and fear was unbearable. Tempers flared. The "captain," a scraggly old man with leathery skin, stared them down. Roland stayed quiet. He had heard stories of passengers being thrown overboard, for causing trouble, or just to balance the equilibrium. They ran out of drinking water and the baking sun was merciless. Yet their biggest fear was detection by the Coast Guard. There was no refund if you died or got captured by Immigration.
When they reached land, Roland was delirious with sleep deprivation, dehydration and starvation. He stepped off the boat on shaky legs. He shaded his eyes against the bright Miami sun, and looked through the small crowd gathered on the shore for a familiar face. He saw none. He sunk down on the hot sand; his legs could no longer hold him up.
He opened his bible to Psalm Twenty-three and prayed for a miracle. When he looked up, everyone was gone except for this lady who was staring at the small boat as it became a dot on the horizon.
"Were you expecting someone?" Roland asked, still sitting down, not trusting his legs.
"My brother Venel was supposed to be on this boat," she replied, a wistful look on her thin, pale face.
As she lowered herself to the ground, she handed him Venel's bag of snacks. Roland tore into it, chewing and drinking at the same time. When he caught his breath, he looked at her, and noticed the tears running down her sunken cheeks.
"My name's Roland," he said. "I came from Roseau. Is Venel from there?"
"I'm Miriam," she replied, shaking his hand with the callused long fingers. "We're from Mangoville, a neighboring village; he was supposed to catch the boat in Roseau."
"Maybe he'll make the next one in about six months. It takes that long to sign up enough people. The trip is brutal. Did you come here by boat as well?" Roland asked.
"No. I flew ten years ago in 2001," Miriam answered. "I came on a tourist visa. I stayed, because there was nothing to go back to. A friend helped me find work in agriculture ..."
"I'm a farmer back home," Roland cut her off.
Miriam stood up and reached for Roland's hand and pulled him up. At 6'2" he was one foot taller than her. His light brown eyes crinkled, and all the misery he endured did not rob them of their youthfulness.
"Do you know anybody here?" Miriam asked.
"No. I was hoping to see one of the people from my village," he replied.
"This isn't Roseau, you know. Even though they call it 'Little Haiti,' it's a big city. You can stay with me, until you locate someone you know."
She couldn't leave him there on the shore for the police to pick up. He would be shipped right back to Haiti. They walked in silence to the bus stop, even though Roland had a thousand questions burning holes in his head. He was enchanted by the paved streets, the painted houses, and everyone had shoes on their feet. But he could tell Miriam was lost in her thoughts.
At thirty-five, Miriam was a crew supervisor for the past ten years at Caufield Farms. She worked long hours. When she started to feel tired and sick all the time, she ignored the symptoms. People like her could not afford to get sick. She had no time for that. She thought she'd slow down one day, once she brought her family to America.
She sent money home every month to her family. Then, one morning, she passed out in the bathroom while getting ready for work. When she came to, she called a cab and went to the local emergency room. She was diagnosed with diabetes.
She had been sick for a long time, with a silent killer. Her blood glucose was six hundred. The disease wreaked havoc on her body. The doctor advised her to go on disability, but she couldn't afford to. Her disability check would not meet her monthly financial responsibility. Too many lives depended on her. She worked more.
Four years later, she was in renal failure. She needed a new kidney to get off dialysis. Miriam was on a waiting list, but a doctor told her that a sibling could more likely be a match for her. The process of sponsoring someone legally would take years, so she paid for an illegal boat ride for Venel.
When they arrived at the one-bedroom apartment in Little Haiti, Miriam showed Roland where to store his belongings. He would sleep on the pull-out sofa. He was confused by the sheer size of the space occupied by one person. His pupils had to adjust to the abundance of lights. He sat on her queen size bed and bounced like a kid. He got down on his knees to look under the bed. He was amazed by the contraption.
The bedroom was bigger than the hut his family called home in Haiti. He stood in the shower for the longest time, until Miriam knocked on the door to announce dinner. When he saw the spread on the table, he burst into tears, thinking about his folks. Miriam cooked pork chops, mashed potato and gravy, biscuits, string beans and she baked an apple pie.
Roland ate until Miriam thought he was going to be sick. She didn't eat much, she just watched him with a smile on her face. She was happy for the company. Her job unfortunately didn't leave her much time to socialize. She didn't have many friends.
They stayed up late talking about life in Haiti, life in America and life in general. Roland started work the following week on Miriam's crew. He could tell Miriam was in physical pain, but when he pried, she dismissed his concern.
Nine months later, Roland cooked and cleaned the apartment. Miriam had no energy left when she came home late in the evening, after finishing her paperwork.
Roland sent money home monthly and planned to move to his own place in another six months. One night, he asked God how he could help Miriam in return for her generosity. He didn't know that God was listening. Two weeks later, Roland would be faced with the biggest decision of his life.
"Roland, I won't be coming home tonight, so don't wait up for me," Miriam said weakly, when he answered the phone.
"Where are you? I have dinner ready. Today's payday, I'm taking you to the movies," he said excitedly.
"Umm ... I'm in the hospital."
"Hospital?" he repeated. "What you doing there?"
"Oh! I passed out in the office this afternoon. The ambulance brought me here. I'll be home soon though."
"I'll be right over."
Roland ran to the bus that took him to Miriam. He didn't know what was wrong with her, but he knew she needed him. The tubes snaking in and around made her look small in the hospital bed.
A Haitian nurse walked in the room and stopped when he saw Roland.
"Miriam, your brother did come from Haiti. You didn't tell me. We can run the tests today," the nurse said.
"This is Roland, my roommate," Miriam said, barely hiding the annoyance in her voice.
"Oh! I'm sorry," the nurse stammered.
"What test? What is he talking about, Miriam?" Roland asked.
"Miriam needs a kidney. She will die without one. Her brother was supposed to come to give her one, if he matches," the nurse replied, defiance in his voice.
"I'll get her a kidney. Where do I get it from?" Roland asked.
"Roland I don't ..." Miriam started.
The nurse smiled and took Roland to another room for a physiology lesson. He told him he had a couple of weeks to think about the decision.
Roland skipped the bus ride home and walked. He needed time to think. He looked up and could not see stars. Too much light. He had never thought he would miss the darkness that always helped him with all big decisions.
Friday afternoons in Little Haiti brought Haitians out to the sidewalks to celebrate the end of another hard week of work. Local stores stayed open late. Men crowded around tables outside playing dominoes and drinking Haitian rum. Haitian music blasting from sidewalk speakers thudded in rhythm with his heart.
Roland was afraid to go back to the apartment and be alone with his thoughts. How could he let them take his kidney and be left with one? Why did he have two in the first place? What if he needed it later? But how could he not offer it to Miriam on a silver platter with a red bow? He needed to pray.
Miriam needed to be on the machine all the time. She was too weak to fight him, when he told her he wanted to be tested. Now Roland prayed that he would be a match.
Miriam went home two weeks after the surgery and Roland nursed her back to health. She never wanted his kidney, but was grateful for it. Roland believed that God gave him two kidneys, so he could save Miriam. They were angels put on each other's path, on that deserted shore. They had a lasting physical and emotional bond that time, distance, and even death will not break.