It was mid-afternoon, the air humid and hot, but the sun cast a somber shadow on the white front porch of the hospital room when I finally summoned the courage to walk up to the bed. The man lay motionless on his back with his eyes closed. Tubes ran from his nose and mouth like intermingled spaghetti. White liquid in a plastic bag hung from a sad-looking pole nearby, and the room was white too: white walls, white linens, even a bland, blank smell, a mix of medicine and adhesive.
I did not think this man was my dad. How could he be? My father was muscular, tough, a man who walked with self-assured steps, knowing that he belonged on this earth: “I am invincible,” his body seemed to say.
But this man did not move. He did not look strong. In fact, the only part that resembled my dad was the protruding Adam’s apple, though that too was rigid, like the pregnant tip of a volcano that is about to explode.
I burst into tears.
They had to take me out of the room then, but I did not want to come back. I stayed just outside the front door until we left.
That was the last time I saw my father. I was eight years old.
What force could have done this? What power could have changed our family’s future in this way?
After the funeral, some people whispered it was voodoo that had taken down my father. The place where he was from, La Riviere des Nègres, is steeped in the voodoo religion and is one of the most sacred voodoo places not only in Haiti but worldwide. Everyone assumes that death does not occur naturally—all deaths, even illnesses, are of supernatural origin. Of course they never answered the questions I had: how and why they thought someone might have cast a voodoo spell to cause the injury that led to my father’s death. But voodoo was outside my experience anyway.
As a child I clung to the narrative that felt comfortable to me, which maybe did not tell the whole story either but gave context to my dad’s illness and death. It provided a framework to understand what happened to my family economically after his death.
“I warned him not to take risks,” my mother would tell people over and over after the funeral. “I told him to be careful when he was working late.” She would go on and on about his stubbornness, so much that I still see the accident in my mind’s eye, though I know very few details other than what Aunt Sissie came running to tell us one afternoon.
It is pitch dark and cold, with a torrential rain that blurs the vision to only a few feet before the eyes. My dad is working late at his farms, as he does most of the year except on weekends, when he joins us in the city, where we are attending school.
In the Haitian countryside, small farmers must work hard to protect their crops from the thieves who descend on the plantains, yams, or avocados just as they are ready to be harvested. But the farmers can’t afford guards, so they resort to simple technological means—like planting wooden or metal spikes in the ground to persuade intruders not to return.
That night, my dad sees someone sneaking about his lands, and of course he gives chase to the intruder. Unfortunately, in his haste, my dad steps onto one of the spikes that he set up himself. His wound festers. By the time he goes to the doctor’s, he is experiencing the more serious symptoms of tetanus and cannot be saved.
It seems such a simple explanation, one that feels small compared to the magnitude of what it meant for my family’s livelihood after his death. No wonder family and friends whispered that my dad was really killed with voodoo magic.
All cultures try to give meaning to their lives by explaining phenomena that they cannot understand or know intuitively. As a physician and neuroscientist, I now turn to brain science to explain behavioral patterns or life events, which feels right to me. The people from my dad’s area lived close to the land. Perhaps they were more connected to the traditional beliefs passed down by their ancestors of African descent, who came to Haiti with their own animistic religions. Undoubtedly the voodoo religion gave meaning to their lives and helped them cope with anxiety and crises in the same way I use my own understanding of reality to make sense of life.
And in the end, whether voodoo killed my father didn’t matter; what mattered was how our lives changed after. We all approached this turbulent event in a way that seemed right to us.
What beliefs or practices give you security and understanding? In what way do they provide meaning for your life in times of crisis? Respond in the comments!