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“Why’s this so good?” No. 63: Michael Paterniti and the earthquake

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After a 7.0 earthquake destroyed Haiti on Jan. 23, 2010, I spent weeks reading news reports about a tragedy so massive and devastating the numbers alone overwhelmed me: more than 316,000 dead, 300,000 injured, a million homeless. But I didn’t cry until almost a year later, when I read “City of Dust,” Michael Paterniti’s New York Times magazine eulogy for Talitha and Emmanuella Termilus, the young daughters of a Port-au-Prince police chief, Frantz Termilus.

Kakissis

This eulogy goes beyond Talitha and Emmanuella, who were just 12 and 11, respectively, when they died. It’s also a eulogy for Frantz, a father who walked for miles through an apocalyptic city to find them. And it’s a eulogy for Haiti, for everyone who took that long walk of grief to an ending they already knew.

Paterniti begins his story with sound:

… the thunder of hoofbeats, thousands of them…the strange, grinding gears of some monstrous runaway truck.

That’s what the earthquake sounds like to Frantz as he’s sitting in police headquarters talking to his boss about the capital’s kidnapping problem. The police chief is focused and indefatigable, qualities that have earned him several medals, but that monstrous sound stops him midsentence. He’s thrown to the corner of the spasming building, white dust coating his uniform. When he realizes he’s alive, he praises God, then crawls out. And then, by instinct, he starts to walk home. Where else would he go?

Paterniti’s description of Frantz’s walk home is visceral. You can see a sky gone dark, sunlight blocked by enormous clouds of dust. You can smell fire and feel the rising heat. You can hear a collective wailing so awful it doesn’t sound human. You see arms and legs dangling from fallen buildings, dead people staring, and frantic, dust-caked survivors digging through rubble for loved ones with their bare hands.

The language is so livid with horror that it’s almost painful. You feel like you should look away, but you don’t, for a couple of reasons.

On a purely writerly level, it’s hard to stop reading such beautiful writing, even when it’s about something as horrible as the aftermath of a catastrophic earthquake. Consider this unforgettable sentence, which uses a powerful metaphor, vivid details and a poetic cadence to describe how the world in Port-au-Prince changed in just under 60 seconds:

Nearby the cathedral had split like a ship on the shoals, the facade collapsing first, stained glass shattering, then the roof, falling on a dozen members of the choir as they sang inside.

Then, of course, there’s Frantz Termilus. You can’t leave him. When Paterniti introduces us to him, he’s a hard-working guy in a meeting. By the fifth paragraph, he’s the survivor of an apocalypse that spared and killed without reason:

The wandering survivors, too, were caked and stunned. To pass one was to see your own reflection, some strange mix of horror and elation. Two houses in a row might have been leveled while a third might have remained untouched, the line between life and death a couple of feet.

Through Frantz, Paterniti chronicles the day’s horror, each sentence building a grimmer picture. Nothing seems real, especially set against the ordinary details of what we learn about Frantz’s life. He has a wife, a 3-year-old son named Benedict, and, of course, Talitha and Emmanuella, his intelligent daughters, “pigtailed and smiling and outgoing,” who both had skipped a grade in school:

In his house, the daily routine was always the same: the family woke – or he woke the girls, who loved to sleep. They ate breakfast, and Frantz went to work. His wife ferried the children to school, the day unfolded and when school was out in the late afternoon, his wife picked everyone up. Then Frantz returned, and they were a family again.

He walks more than four miles. He is buoyed to find his house still standing, but inside, there’s only his wife, looking haunted. She says Benedict’s okay. But the girls? “You picked them up, right?” she asks him.

He left her then, wordlessly – and started walking again, with new purpose, another eight miles across town to the girls’ schools. Talitha and Emmanuella: it would be enough to see them – alive, injured, even dead – just one last time.

Here, a father’s grief begins to unspool. Though I’ve read this story dozens of times, and know it’s essentially an obituary, this is the point where Paterniti’s careful calibrations grip me with the irrational hope that Talitha and Emmanuella are alive. Even though I see a city crushed, I want to believe that it has spared these two bright little girls who like ice cream and beach vacations.

The two narratives collide as Frantz begins to search for his daughters. As night falls, he passes downtown Port-au-Prince, now in ruins. Paterniti notes a few of the lives erased here: a popular politician dying slowly in a trap of pillars and stone; a shy archbishop thrown from his balcony; a Brazilian humanitarian worker crushed by falling debris and later identified by her sandal. Paterniti:

And the vicar general, a natural joker, had been trapped beneath the same building, sending a cellphone message saying he was alive, but was later found dead, sitting in a chair, a eucharist in one hand, a cross clutched in another.

You know Frantz is not walking to salvation, and yet he keeps walking because he loves his daughters and does not want to forfeit them to reality. As grief overwhelms him, he wants to hold someone he knows and tell them he loves them.

The climax of the story comes in the 12th paragraph, which contains one of the truest depictions of grief I’ve ever read:

When he came to the school, there was no school. All four stories had come down. And everything all at once left his body – all the hope and energy he’d mustered to match the horror – and even now he couldn’t say how long he stood there, gazing upon the gravestone of that school. In his mind, he still stands there.

That last sentence – “In his mind, he still stands there” – always cuts into my heart. I feel the father’s loss, and the nation’s loss, in this spare, enduring scene. The numbers in the news stories come alive through this devastating description of a helpless father staring at the crumbled school where his daughters’ bodies would be recovered more than seven months later. Later, Frantz will straighten his uniform, gather his composure and help his city’s survivors – his job, his duty – but his soul will never leave that school.

Paterniti’s storytelling here is forensic in detail but lyrical in spirit. Read “City of Dust” aloud and you can hear a mourning song in the poetry of its sentences. This  is one of a handful of stories I keep in my nightstand drawer. Every couple of months, I re-read it and send it out to friends. I’ve even called a few of them to read that 12th paragraph aloud. I’ve read it so many times, but it still chokes me up.

Joanna Kakissis (@joannakakissis) reports for NPR and Time magazine from her base in Athens, Greece. Her stories have also appeared in the New York Times, Foreign Policy, the Financial Times magazine and The Caravan, and on PRI’s The World and Marketplace.

For more “Why’s this so good?” see our archives. And check back each Tuesday for a new shot of inspiration and insight. 




One trackback

  1. by Can it be deep but not somber? « Ruth Nasrullah on October 16, 2012 at 9:43 am

    [...] I read this installment of the “Why’s this so good?” series on the Nieman Storyboard site.  This post, [...]

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