QUEBEC CITY, Canada — Sometimes, the difference between life and death is almost too absurd for words. Just ask Martine Garneau.
Garneau lives with her black Labrador in a modest bungalow, in a suburb of historic Quebec City near the Montmorency Falls, which are higher than the famous ones in Niagara. It’s the house she grew up in.
She retired last September, at the age of 60, from a human resources job at a local school board. Still full of energy, she volunteered with Mission Corail-Haiti, a Christian missionary group, to administer a project of education and health services in a town west of Port-au-Prince.
Her four daughters were supportive; her seven grandchildren asked about her safety. Before leaving, she signed a document stating her body was to be left in Haiti if the worst came to pass.
Canada has strong links with Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Governor General Michaelle Jean, Canada’s acting head of state, is of Haitian origin. And an estimated 100,000 people of Haitian origin live in Canada, most in the largely French-speaking province of Quebec.
On Jan. 12, Garneau boarded an Air Canada flight in Montreal with three other volunteers on her development project, including Camil Perron, a 60-year-old truck driver, and his wife, Suzanne. It was the last direct commercial flight from Canada to Haiti before millions of lives were changed irrevocably.
“Everyone was so happy,” she says, “Everyone was so confident.”
The flight landed a little more than two hours before the Earth’s crust convulsed. Many of the 195 passengers on board barely had time to check into their hotels.
Below everyone’s feet, two slabs of the Earth’s crust, the North American and Caribbean plates, were pressing against each other along the colorfully named Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault system.
At 4:53 p.m. on Jan. 12, the plates suddenly “slipped,” unleashing a magnitude-7 earthquake. It was physics and geology on a grand scale. Yet scientists could not have predicted its timing.
What science also can’t explain are the chance circumstances — some would say acts of destiny — that sometimes leave survivors more troubled than death itself.
From the Port-au-Prince airport Garneau’s group traveled to a Canadian-owned guesthouse in the capital. They decided to take a dip in the pool before supper.
“We were all in the pool, drinking a beer,” Garneau says. “It’s so banal you won’t believe it, but a fly fell into my beer. Camil [Perron] did me a favor and went to get me another one in the kitchen.”
At that moment, the earthquake hit. Part of the guesthouse collapsed. The shake was so violent it emptied the water from the pool.
People in the kitchen died, including Perron. Those in the pool survived.
“If he hadn’t offered, I would have gone myself,” Garneau says, referring to Perron’s beer run. “I guess my time hadn’t come, and his had. Sometimes you wonder about how things happen.”
Garneau suffers from nightmares since her return, but is happy to talk of her experience. She considers it a form of therapy. She’s got a lot to work out.
“I’m left with a sense of guilt because I say to myself, 'If there had not been a fly in the beer…' His wife tells me, ‘Don’t feel guilty; that’s how it happened, period.’ But I say to myself, ‘If that didn’t happen, he’d still be alive,’" she says.
“I realized that our lives hang by a thread, on one decision, on being at the right place or the wrong place. For Camil, in any event, it was all about that.”
The Haitian earthquake is full of stories of what some call destiny and others, luck. When the ground is no longer dependable, all bets are off. Someone runs right and survives, another runs left and dies.
Likewise, that last direct Canadian flight to Haiti was full of passengers whose lives were ended or spared by chance events, or seemingly trivial decisions.
Boucif Belhachemi, a consultant engineer with the World Bank, was booked at the Hotel Karibe. But when his chauffeur took him there it turned out to be fully booked. He then brought him to the 5-star Hotel Montana, which killed him and many others when it collapsed during the quake. The Karibe, meanwhile, stayed standing.
A businessman survived because a strong desire for a beer forced him into a bar and out of his hotel room, which was flattened. One doctor wanted to snap a picture from a terrace but a palm tree obstructed the view. She moved, snapped the picture, and then watched the terrace crumble. Several Canadians lived because they fought off an urge to shower, which would have kept them in rooms that were destroyed.
This has long been the stuff of literature and philosophy. Milan Kundera called it the unbearable lightness of being. Albert Camus, “the Descartes of the absurd,” as Jean-Paul Sartre called him, saw in it the fundamental tension between our demand for an absolute meaning to life and the obstinate silence of the heavens.
(Camus died in 1960, at the age of 46, when the car in which he was a passenger slammed into a tree. In his pocket was a train ticket indicating he had changed his mind at the last minute and had decided to make the journey by car instead.)
For Camus, the absurd defined our common human dignity. It taught solidarity, resilience and moderation. These often seem in short supply in the developed world, where arrogance, voracious consumption and the myth of limitless progress reign, even as pollution kills the planet.
It’s a safe bet that in their collective tragedy, Haitians are not so blind.