Some nights Luke and Terry Martin still dream about their mother. They dream that the retired nurse and grandmother of 10 is alive and well in Haiti, continuing the work that she loved – helping those who needed it the most and offering them a kind smile and gentle hands of comfort. Those ghost-like dreams always end the same way for the two brothers, however: waking up to the reality that their mother, Yvonne, is gone and is never coming back. In January, two years to the day of her death, Luke and Terry finally visited the spot where their mother’s body was found following the Haitian earthquake. They went to understand why she returned to the impoverished nation time and time again, and where her love for the Haitian people was born.
“We were all a little surprised when she said she was going to Haiti for the first time, but once she came back it all made sense,” said Terry, whose mother first travelled to Haiti in 2007.
“It wasn’t her entire life, but over those four years it was an important part of who she was.”
Two years after their mother Yvonne was killed in the devastating Haitian earthquake, Terry and Luke Martin travelled to the impoverished Caribbean nation to understand what brought her there
On Jan. 12, 2010 the small Caribbean nation was struck by the island’s worst earthquake in more than 200 years. The epicentre was about 15 kilometres southwest of the capital city of Port-au-Prince along the fault line that divides the Caribbean and North American tectonic plates – enormous slabs of rock that fit together like a giant jigsaw puzzle over the entire surface of the Earth. Yvonne, an Elmira resident, had landed in Haiti earlier that day as part of a church mission group. It was her fourth time in the country, but at 4:53 p.m. local time the earth trembled beneath her feet and the guesthouse where she and the other missionaries were staying collapsed on top of her.
The magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck just 90 minutes after the seven women from Waterloo Region had landed in the capital. Three of those team members – Marilyn McIlroy, Deb Paton and Lois McLaughlin – were standing on the third-floor balcony of the Wall’s International Guesthouse when the earthquake struck, while three others – Marilyn Raymer, Alice Soeder and Laura Steckley – were tossed back and forth in their deck chairs as water slopped out of the pool and soaked their legs. Unsure of what was happening around them, but realizing that they were in danger, the women moved away from the building and met outside, only to find that the seventh member of their team was not with them. It was then that they realized that Yvonne, who had gone inside to get changed just moments earlier, was buried in the rubble.
Terry got a phone call later that night while he and his wife Melanie were about to head out to a basketball game. It was Melanie’s mother on the phone asking if they had heard about the earthquake. “At the time we hadn’t, but we didn’t think too much about it,” said Terry. “We went to the basketball game and then I got a call from my dad, and he had a brief message saying, basically, that mom was missing.” Across the continent in San Diego, Terry’s brother Luke was at work when the first scattered reports of the quake began filtering out of Haiti. California was three hours behind Haiti, and at first Luke was relieved, thinking that his mother hadn’t yet arrived.
“I was aware that she was travelling but I wasn’t keeping in mind the time change, so as soon as I heard that the earthquake had hit I thought ‘thank goodness, she hasn’t arrived yet.’” About an hour later Luke’s father, Ron, called to tell him that he had received a text message from Raymer saying that Yvonne was missing. After getting the news, Terry and Luke started scouring the Internet for flights to Haiti so that they could go search for her.
Information coming out of the disaster zone was sparse at best, as local television and radio stations were left without power in the aftermath. Raymer was the family’s only source of information in those early hours through her text messages, but with no means of recharging the device she tried to conserve power, meaning her messages were few and far between.
It was on his way back from the passport office the next day that Luke got the call from his dad saying that Yvonne had been killed. “I was utterly stunned and couldn’t believe the words when they came out of my dad’s mouth. I was in shock.”He boarded a Toronto-bound flight an hour later and joined the rest of the family at their farm near Elmira that evening, and what followed were an agonizing couple of weeks in which the family tried desperately to communicate with the Canadian embassy in Haiti, and to get their mother’s body back to Canada.
“There were lots of doubts about where mom’s body was, and then lots of frustration as far as trying to confirm it from here and trying to get it home. We just didn’t realize how overwhelmed the city was,” explained Luke.
A funeral was held on Jan. 20 and mourners packed the Waterloo Mennonite Brethren Church to pay tribute to Yvonne. Yet without a body the service lacked a sense of closure for the family, and it would take weeks for Yvonne to be returned to Canada and arrive at her final resting place in a cemetery just west of Elmira.
Gradually time passed and life began to take on a new form of normalcy as family members adjusted to the death of Yvonne, yet Terry and Luke always had the sense that they needed to go to Haiti to see where she died and where she had worked.
To that end, Terry and Luke finally boarded that long-awaited flight to Haiti, two years after they first began scouring the web in a desperate bid to join the search for their mother. The brothers planned to meet in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 11, where they also met McIlroy, who would act as their guide for the trip. Their other brother, Dean, decided that he did not want to join them. They traversed the congested streets of the still-recovering capital city amidst the crumbling walls and leaning buildings. Tent cities and ramshackle shacks still dominate the landscape, and the entire city was coated in a thick layer of dust.
They spent that first evening talking with the six men who had dug their mother out of the rubble with their bare hands, took the time to carefully wrap her body in a sheet, and drove through the chaotic streets of Port-au-Prince to deliver her to the Canadian embassy.
Yvonne was one of 58 Canadians killed in the earthquake, and hers was the only body recovered from the guesthouse that night. It was through the efforts of Nicholson, Veniel, Samuel, Jean, Lucien and Jean Jonel that her body even made it back to Canada rather than ending up in the mass graves that were dug to dispose of the more than 300,000 people estimated to have died.
“They were working with whatever they could to move the stones and debris. I wanted to get pictures of their hands and their faces, and to hear their stories of how overwhelmed they were,” said Terry.
“If they hadn’t done it that night I’m sure mom’s body wouldn’t have got home.”
“What surprised me was that I don’t think I really believed that people knew her,” added Luke of his discussions with the drivers and vendors who had worked with his mother before she died.
“She was just one nurse out of however many NGOs and development organizations and medical missionaries pass through, but they remembered her clearly and had a relationship with her.”
The next day, Jan. 12, Terry, Luke and Marilyn participated in memorial services across the city, and stood at the same spot where Yvonne had been found. The section of the guesthouse that collapsed still has not been rebuilt, and all that remains is the brown tile floor.
“How do I come up with a word for that?” Luke asked. He paused for a moment before adding, “It was very meaningful. Where my feet were was exactly where her feet were when they found her. It was like visiting a grave.”
Yvonne may have died in Port-au-Prince, but she was very rarely ever in the capital. It was where she and the other missionaries would arrive and depart, but little more.
The heart of her work was located in the mountainous region east of the city, in the plateau region near the border with the Dominican Republic, and that was where Terry and Luke headed next.
On Jan. 13 the brothers climbed aboard a small plane and took a 20-minute flight to the village of Henche. It was there and the outlying villages of Malary, Savane Cajou and others where the brothers were able to see and hear the true impact that their mother had on the Haitian people.
After touching down at an airport which was little more than a dirt landing strip, the group had to travel through the forest and along the rocky terrain, often riding in the back of a pickup truck or even on foot on roads that were barely passable. The thought of their 67-year-old mother making those same trips filled them with admiration.
“She always said she would keep going until her body couldn’t do it anymore,” Terry said.
They were surprised to learn that the villagers remembered her so vividly, and the Haitians cried as they recounted their annual visits with Yvonne. The memories of her were still as fresh in the minds of the Haitian people as they were in the minds of her own family.
The men heard countless tales of how their mother had helped distribute food and medical aid, and cared for the sick and the injured – particularly the children.
“That made total sense to us, because that’s what mom was always fixated on – children,” said Terry with a smile.
At the end of their six-week mission trips each year, Yvonne and the other women enjoyed travelling north to the 19th century citadel that was about 17 km south of the coastal town of Cap-Haitian. After climbing to the top of the fortress, the group would unwind by spending a few days at the beach on the coast.
Luke and Terry had seen photos that their mother had taken during her trips to the citadel and the beach, and they knew the site had a special place in her heart so they travelled there as well.
“Mom always described it as what she imagined Haiti used to look like. It was beautiful, with lots of trees,” said Terry of the beach.
Luke and Terry left Haiti on Jan. 19, and have spent the past several weeks trying to sort out their feelings for the nation, the people, and the stories about their mother – as well as the horrors of the day she died and the impact it had on their Christian faith.
“The earthquake hit and my first thought was ‘how could this happen?’ and I think that’s a pretty normal response for people who go through something like this,” said Luke. “I’m not one of those people who think that everything happens for a reason. No, this was the wrong time and the wrong person.”
“The earthquake happens and you think ‘what better place for my mom to be, she’s a nurse and she can help,’” echoed Terry.
“Ever since coming back from Haiti, though, I have a better understanding of life and what things are important. We don’t understand everything – it is way bigger than us here and on the island of Haiti.”
In an effort to keep her legacy alive, the family established the Yvonne Martin Memorial Fund through the Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada, which helps offset some of the costs associated with training medical personnel in Haiti. There are currently three students receiving funding, and for every year they are supported they must spend one year working in the same plateau region where their mother worked.
The family continues to cope with Yvonne’s absence, and their personal experiences with their mother before her death continue to shape the complexity of their grief. She used to visit Terry and his family almost every day, and her death has left a void that still remains.
For Luke, living in San Diego for nearly a decade meant the visits with his mother were always much rarer, but he still misses the letters and the phone calls, and those feelings will likely never wane.
They also believe that there is still a lot of work to be done in Haiti to rebuild, and their journey there has helped them understand why that work needs to be done.
“This trip wasn’t so much a goodbye for me, it was just to gain a better understanding of what she did,” said Terry.
“But, you know, I still dream about mom all the time.”