I still remember the first time we met. Her hair was pulled back into a puff. Her tattered clothing hanging off her very thin frame. She was barefoot. Her caramel complexion was stained with mud or dust. She seemed like she’d been working very hard.
Our eyes met, and her mouth opened into a giant smile, showing all of her teeth. She was an unfamiliar face in the house I grew up in. The house that I left ten years before to come live in the cold land of opportunities. I wondered who she was and what she was doing there. I asked her to come to me, and she approached me without hesitation, without losing her smile, her hands pulling at the side of her dress. I asked her for her name.
“Islande,” she said, with her big smile. Her eyes were glaring at me, and she addressed me as if we were the longest of friends. I fell in love with her right away. She was my new friend, she smiled every time I saw her. My third night back in Haiti, we were sitting in the living room, after I painted her nails, I sat back and watched her. I asked her why she smiled so much, she said she didn’t know how to do anything else with her face. She told me smiling is one of the best things she knew how to do. I gave her a hug because she was Islande, my angel.
After becoming friends with Islande, I wanted to change her lifestyle. I wanted for her to go to school in the morning like regular nine-year olds. I wanted her to experience fun, and I didn’t want her work all the time. I thought to myself, “if she smiles like this even in her situation, I wonder how much more she would smile if she got the basic necessities most kids take for granted.”
I left Haiti with tears in my eyes. I sobbed so much on the airplane on the way back to New York City. I thought about the house I lived in that hadn’t changed one bit. I thought about the beautiful people who lived there. And I thought about Islande, my angel.
I slowly got back into my New York routine after my trip. I kept thinking about the next time I would go back, and what I would bring Islande. I kept thinking about her smile, and each time I would smile to myself. Then one day, just one month after my return, I heard about the earthquake that hit Haiti. I read about the thousands of people who lost their lives. I cried so hard for all of those strangers and loved ones. When my mom called me at work to tell me that Islande also passed during the earthquake, that’s when I broke down the most.
I never knew someone I met just briefly for just under two weeks would affect me that much. I didn’t even know her last name, and I still don’t. I was so angry, but I didn’t know what I was angry at. I felt ashamed for not calling her after I left Haiti.
Islande’s smile is still tattooed in my head. It’s not something you can ever forget. I still remember hugging her almost frail body. I think about her mostly everyday, but it’s always hard to explain the strong connection I had with her.
Islande is my inspiration. She is the true essence of Haiti. She will remain in my heart until my last days on earth. She will be the soul behind all of my future projects. Her name will be remembered, and she will always be recognized for the angel that she is. That is my goal.
Smile for Islande, don’t cry.