Two years into his unplanned career as a missionary agronomist, my father wrote to Grandma Lois: You said not to wear ourselves out taking care of Ti Marcel. I think in a way it’s therapy for me.
At nine months old, Ti Marcel had neither hair nor teeth and could not sit up. She weighed under eleven pounds. My father brought her home from the pediatric ward so that my sisters and I could shout some life into her, but she didn’t smile or giggle like other babies. Her skeletal arms jutted out from her distended abdomen, and she had wide, unblinking eyes and a rib cage like a shuddering kite frame, ready to catch in the slightest breeze and lift her out of our hands, drifting beyond the horizon, lost to the world.
My little sister Rosie, who was four years old and eager for a younger sibling, leaned in close and tickled Ti Marcel’s feet. I was eight and aware of all the attention I had already lost. I turned away. Her papery skin reeked of scabies medicine and urine.
She had no name. The Haitian nurses at the hospital called her Ti Marcel, little Marcel, and this name — the name of the father who had apparently abandoned her — was one of the few things we knew about her. The fragments of backstory, which we acquired piecemeal from uncertain sources, were as follows: Her mother was said to have died soon after giving birth; unnamed relatives fed her watered-down tea instead of milk, then left her at the missionary hospital. They had not been in contact since that time. Her father, Marcel, was rumored to have fled the country only to be thrown into detention once he arrived in Florida.
It was an old, tired story — yet another survivor with a strong body and shrinking options who had risked everything for a chance at Peyi Bondye, God’s Country: where coins could be found on the street, free for the taking; where all the children had enough food to eat and all the fathers had three-car garages; distant realm from whence the missionaries hailed; mythical land of the minimum wage.
My father brought Ti Marcel home from the pediatric ward every chance he could find, and took her out in the rain to feel the sharp sting of raindrops on her bare arms. Cradled against his chest, her ungainly head listed awkwardly on a thin neck. In the waning and humid dusk, my sisters and I raced in breathless circles around their two-headed silhouette under the zanmann tree, playing freeze tag in the dust.
As the months whirled by, my father’s letters radiated pleasure. Ti Marcel had learned to sit up. She grew hair. She developed a taste for my mother’s home-cooked dinners, mashed into gruel by my doting father. Baby Marcel is everyone’s example of a miracle, he boasted to Grandma Lois. Yesterday she held a bottle all by herself.
Even I couldn’t deny the transformation. My father had always insisted that she was a smart kid — he could tell by the way her eyes followed us around the room — and within a few short months, she had blossomed into a determined, curious child. She could follow all the prompts in the Pat the Bunny book when she sat on his lap: Lift the handkerchief to play peekaboo, pat the man’s scratchy beard, put her finger through the gold wedding ring.
My father adored Ti Marcel. I considered her a menace. I hated how gently he spoon-fed her gulping hunger, as if he would do anything to rescue her. He never seemed exasperated when she soaked the bed with diarrhea, but if I sassed back instead of setting the table like Mom asked, he’d slam open the drawers in the kitchen and yank my arm while paddling mightily with a wooden spoon. Ti Marcel didn’t have the strength to defy him, and no matter how little attention he gave, she turned to him like a sunflower.