October 7, 2016

I. We have to fix this

Every morning, Carl Pierre would sit inside the orphanage, his tiny legs in casts and his face slick with tears, watching the other children march out to the bus and head off to school.

He wished he could join them. If only he was more mobile.  

There are no sidewalks in Haiti, much less wheelchair ramps for school buses. So if you’re unable to walk, like Carl, you aren’t going to get far.

When Mary O’Neill-Dee learned of this state of affairs, she had a gut reaction:

We have to fix this.

Mary and her family live in Ottawa, but have visited Haiti regularly since the devastating 7.0 earthquake in 2010, which killed around 200,000 people and left thousands of others homeless.

Watch the National documentary of this story

Her husband, Duncan, was chief operating officer for Air Canada at the time, and was in charge of the company’s relief missions to the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. Mary often went with him.

She and her family first met Carl in late 2010, when he was still an infant.

Carl’s history is a little murky. The best guess is that he was around a month old when he was found, in a box, at the gate of the Zanmi Beni orphanage in Croix-des-Bouquets, a small town northeast of Port-au-Prince.

No one knows who left him, who his parents are or whether he has siblings. What’s clear is that his mother was pregnant during the 2010 quake and gave birth about two months after. It’s impossible to know her circumstances at the time, or whether any of it affected Carl’s health.

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Carl at Zanmi Beni orphanage in 2011. (Courtesy Dee family)

The boy did not arrive with a name. The orphanage chose “Carl” because they thought it suited him.

It is also the custom in Haiti to give unnamed orphans the surname of the mayor of the town in which they were abandoned. The mayor of Croix-des-Bouquets at the time was Jean Sony Pierre — thus, the boy become Carl Pierre.

In 2014, three years after first meeting Carl, the Dees saw him again and were moved by his obvious physical impairment. His feet were curved inward, suggesting he had club feet. His ankle, knee and hip joints were rigid, he had no muscle in his calves and very little in his quads.

Mary and Duncan couldn’t bear the thought of his future, limited by mobility.

Plus, Carl was a natural charmer, with a beautiful face and a killer smile.

“It was really his incredible cuteness that stuck with us,” Duncan said. “We felt an immediate connection.”

Mary and Duncan are fairly well-to-do, and the sight of an orphan with a fixable problem spurred them to want to help. Their immediate impulse was to bring him back to Canada and have doctors try to correct what seemed like a bad case of club feet.

Their goal was simply to get Carl walking. Mary said that at the time, they thought it would be a short-term commitment.

“We’re thinking, OK, three to six months, and this will be a nice family adventure,” Mary said, adding that they had “an opportunity to help improve the quality of his life.”

Carl seemed to realize that he was leaving everything he knew behind.

It was a reaction born of simple human compassion. But there would be complications.

For one thing, after the Dees returned to Ottawa, it took over five months to secure the visa to take Carl out of Haiti.

His legal guardian was Loune Viaud, the manager at the Zanmi Beni orphanage, and his passport was authorized by his namesake, Jean Sony Pierre.

Mary’s first application was rejected without explanation. Duncan contacted the offices of the ministers of immigration and multiculturalism to seek help and advice, which paid off on the second attempt.

After all the paperwork was finally secured, Mary flew back down to Haiti to retrieve Carl while Duncan and their teen kids, Connor and Maggie, got the house ready for their new visitor.

It was in the process of physically bringing Carl to Canada that Mary realized just how difficult and unpredictable this act of altruism was going to be.

According to staff at the orphanage, Carl was a strong-willed child who sometimes threw temper tantrums. Mary and Carl were flying out of Port-au-Prince on May 11, 2014 — Mother’s Day — and she said he was quite well-behaved until the moment the flight attendant closed the airplane door.

Carl seemed to realize that he was leaving everything he knew behind.

During a two-hour departure delay (the result of mechanical trouble), Carl threw himself on the floor of the plane and started kicking and screaming.

He seemed inconsolable, said Mary.

“The only thing that saved me was when the flight attendant started the safety demonstration. He was enamoured with her and ‘charming’ Carl came back and stayed for the rest of the trip home,” Mary said.

She and Duncan badly wanted to help Carl learn to walk, with the understanding that they were bringing him to Canada for a short period of time, and that he would return to Haiti — at some point.

But the boy’s physical issues turned out to be more complex than they first thought, and this well-meaning family couldn’t help but wonder, as so many of us do: When it comes to charity, where do you draw the line?

The longer Carl stayed in Canada, the more attached to him the Dees became.

And the harder it was going to be to take him back.

II. Everything is new

Carl’s adjustment to Ottawa was understandably hard.

There are vast differences in climate and culture between Port-au-Prince and Canada’s capital, to say nothing of the differences for a four-year-old boy between living in a group home full of boisterous kids and the large, echoey house of a small, unassuming family in suburban Ottawa.

For the first few weeks, Mary said Carl would scream and cry every night.

“He was a broken soul,” said Mary. “The worst was when tears would roll down his cheeks without him making a sound.”

At first, Carl was scared to sleep on his own, perhaps because in his short life he had never been alone. Mary and Duncan would read to him and lay with him until he fell asleep. If he woke up screaming in the middle of the night, Duncan would sit with him until the boy tired himself out.

During the day, Carl would sit on the couch with his arms crossed and not say anything, according to Connor, who was at home with him a lot before moving away to university late in the summer of 2014.

“He was really shy and culture-shocked because he only knew [the orphanage],” said Connor, who was 19 at the time. “I introduced myself and Carl just pushed me away. He was really sad.”

Connor’s sister, Maggie, was 15 then, and recalls how close she felt to Carl when she had visited him at the orphanage. “But once he got to Canada, he was very detached and cold,” she said. “It took a month and then it was just like we were at Zanmi Beni.”

Part of the problem was the language barrier. Carl couldn’t speak any English, and what vocabulary he had was in Haitian creole, which is a form of French. In the first week, Duncan tried to converse with Carl using his rudimentary creole — to little effect.

The breakthrough came when the Dees discovered that Google’s Translate tool included Haitian creole and that it could “talk,” which enabled them to start conversing with Carl.

After that, English came surprisingly quickly to him. Duncan said that after a few months of exposure to English shows on CBC and TVOntario, it became his language of communication.

“He does not call me ‘Dad.’ I don’t think I could emotionally handle that.”

“It further progressed after we bought him a tablet and he was surfing on Netflix and basically learned the English language through osmosis,” Duncan said.

Connor also made a connection with Carl through their common love of soccer. Back in Haiti, Carl always watched the bigger kids play foutbòl; he even managed to play a bit himself by pulling his body along the ground and sweeping his legs around to make contact with the ball.

Carl ended up going to Connor’s games, becoming a one-man cheering squad and unofficial “assistant coach,” complete with a little uniform.

“During his transition period, I really got through to him and we really formed a close bond,” said Connor.

Carl also became very close with Mary; within a few months, he began calling her “mommy blanc,” which is how Haitian orphans are taught to refer to white women caregivers. He soon progressed to just “Mom,” perhaps mimicking what Mary‘s own kids called her.

Indeed, Mary started referring to herself as Carl’s “mom.”

Duncan, on the other hand, imposed a limit on his relationship with Carl from the start.

“Mary didn’t, but I did,” said Duncan. “He does not call me ‘Dad.’ I don’t think I could emotionally handle that.” 

With the Dees’ own children at or near university age, Carl became a focal point of attention and care. Soon after he arrived, the Dees had him baptized, took him on a summer vacation to their second home in Shediac, N.B., and enrolled him in an Ottawa kindergarten.

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Carl on vacation at the family cottage in New Brunswick. (Courtesy Dee family)

When I first met Carl in late 2014, it was clear he could communicate effectively with Mary and Duncan. But when I posed questions, he only responded with one-word answers.

When I inquired about what he was going to have for lunch, he’d say “hot dogs,” and it was clear his favourite colour was “blue.” But if I asked him anything more complicated — such as what he liked about his new home, or Canada — my questions were generally met with silence.

Even so, Carl seemed at home in his new surroundings. He had his own bedroom, a kid-size bed, his own Hot Rod set and plenty of other toys.

He’d also figured out how to get around the Dees’ large, two-storey house despite having both legs in casts. He would use his arms to pull himself along the hardwood floors and could even make his way up the wide spiral staircase to his bedroom by hoisting himself up one step at a time, his casts clanking against every stair on the way up.

Carl scaling the stairs at the Dee residence

(Christian Patry/CBC)

As the boy became more integrated into life in Ottawa, Carl and his surrogate parents also got into a routine of constant trips to the Shriners hospital in Montreal, which was providing his free medical care as part of the organization’s global mission to help children in need.

The hospital focuses on orthopedic care, and its foreign patient program accounts for up to 12 per cent of its clients. Shriners says it treats 25 to 55 foreign kids a year, and that there are typically only one or two Haitians among them. The program takes on all the costs of care and rehab, requiring only that the child is living with a host family in Canada.

The Dees soon got some disconcerting news.

Less than a month after Carl’s arrival in Canada, doctors at the Shriners examined his legs and discovered that he didn’t have club feet at all. Their diagnosis was arthrogryposis, a serious neuromuscular disorder characterized by stiffness and limited range of motion in multiple joints. It can occur when a baby doesn’t move around enough during development in the womb.

The diagnosis was a serious neuromuscular disorder.

This meant a whole new plan for the Dees. If he was to have a chance of walking, he’d have to stay in Canada much longer than they first anticipated — not just a matter of months, but more likely a year.

The Dees were surprised, although Duncan said, “We just basically rolled with the punches,” adding that they understood it would only be about six months more than they initially expected.

“The timing wasn't a big deal,” Mary insists. “I was actually more taken aback by what it meant for Carl,” believing a fixable birth defect had suddenly morphed into a lifelong disability.

The doctors told Mary and Duncan that Carl would need approximately six operations to get him anywhere near being able to walk. And that would entail dozens of more trips to the Shriners in Montreal — mainly for Mary, as she became the primary caregiver.

They were now thinking about a longer time horizon for Carl’s stay in Canada — and the implications that would go along with that.

III. ‘A life well-lived’

There’s a story behind Duncan’s support for orphans in Haiti.

After the 2010 earthquake, he was moved by a CBC report about a makeshift medical clinic desperate for help in treating survivors.

“I just remember hearing more than seeing the scream of somebody in agony who was being sewn up with no anesthetic,” said Duncan.

Because he was leading Air Canada’s relief missions to Port-au-Prince airport, which was close to the medical facility, Duncan was able to organize a flight to transport supplies to the clinic mentioned in the CBC report, as well as bring children up for adoption back to Canada.

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Mary and Duncan in Haiti with Carlos, another orphan at Zanmi Beni, in 2010. (Courtesy Dee family)

Helping the clinic led to eight more relief flights and then to Duncan’s family’s involvement, which included funding the Zanmi Beni orphanage, along with Partners in Health and the One by One Foundation. (Zanmi Beni means “blessed friends” in Haitian creole.)

The kids there were a combination of “earthquake orphans” and disabled children who had been living in a hospital before it was destroyed by the quake.

Natural disasters are an ongoing concern in the region, as evidenced recently by Hurricane Matthew, which killed more than 500 people in Haiti and caused extensive damage. 

Duncan said charity has been an abiding theme in his life. For example, when he was a kid growing up in Vancouver, his family sponsored Vietnamese boat people. His grandparents, on the other hand, donated money to Catholic seminarians. Mary said her parents also sponsored boat people and were involved in other forms of charity.

“We’ve always joked that we are Catholic do-gooders and so it’s just part of our faith and living our faith,” Duncan said.

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Connor, Duncan and Maggie holding orphans at Zanmi Beni. Carl is on Maggie's lap. (Courtesy Dee family)

While he had been involved in a number of relief missions, there was something different about Haiti. “Whether it was [Hurricane] Katrina or the tsunami in southeast Asia or the landslides in Guatemala… the mission ended as soon as you dropped off the supplies. You turned around the plane and you left.

“With Haiti, because of its links to Canada but also because of the report we saw about this particular clinic, we actually got involved,” said Duncan.

“When my family and I and my wife discussed what we wanted to do, what we could do [to help], our focus went from a pretty broad focus down to 60 lives,” he said, referring to the orphans at Zanmi Beni. “I don’t think anyone who has experienced something like this, where they have met these kids, could turn their back on them.”

By the numbers: Orphans in Haiti

In Haiti,

1 in 0

under the age of 18 are considered orphans or "vulnerable."

As a result, roughly


are separated from their families.

They are housed in


across Haiti.

But it was Carl who was actually living with them, and by the end of 2014, he had a special place in the Dees’ home and in their hearts.

For Duncan, caring for Carl was not so different from caring for the 60 or so other kids at the orphanage. “Carl is very special to us, but Carlos is very special to us and you know, we’ve got a lot of kids in Haiti who are.”

Here, Mary joined in: “Giselle is very special to us and Ogeline is special...”

Duncan: “And Betty is special and, you know, we know 64 names and faces and lives and stories and we’ve made a commitment collectively and individually to all of them.”

He said it’s all about a desire to make a difference.

“Every time you hear stories about... Haiti or somewhere else, it’s always the big, big picture. But our focus is on this small picture. That for us will be a life well-lived.”

Mary and Duncan had agreed from the beginning that Carl was not going to live with them forever. They were going to help him to walk, and then take him back to Haiti.

“We went into it eyes wide open,” said Mary at the end of 2014. “We know what the hardest part is — it’s when it’s going to be time for Carl to go home.”

IV. Complications

The new year brought more surprises for everyone. Unpleasant ones.

In January 2015, Mary and Duncan planned a trip back to Zanmi Beni to visit the other orphans. They thought it would be good to bring Carl with them, so he could become reacquainted with his “real” home.

Unfortunately, they couldn’t get the paperwork for him, so they went without him. (Carl stayed back with Maggie.)

When Mary and Duncan drove into the orphanage compound, the kids swarmed them. Many of them were earthquake orphans — Carl’s age or a few years older. Duncan pulled out his BlackBerry and showed a photo of Carl to the kids. They shrieked and laughed and grabbed at the phone, wanting to get a better look at their old friend.

As for Carl, he was psychologically quite removed from his old existence. Now five, he had started playing sledge hockey, cheered for the Ottawa Senators and had become quite accustomed to life in the Dee household.

What’s more, a deep bond had developed between Mary and Carl. If you spent any time at all with them, it was obvious.

When Carl came home from school, he’d head straight for the big blue armchair in the family room and reflexively rest his hand on Mary’s arm while watching TVO Kids. At the dinner table, he draped his arms around Mary’s neck and whispered secrets to her that the rest of the family couldn’t hear. Carl barely acknowledged Duncan’s presence.

Mary was the one who gave the boy his nightly pills. She was the one who would bathe him, carry him to bed, turn off the lights and say, “I love you.”

Carl’s reply: “I love you, too.”

Adoption was never part of the original plan for the Dees — but doubt did creep in.

Some of Mary and Duncan’s friends started asking uncomfortable questions.

Why all of this effort for one child?

And to what end?

Why are you doing this?

“‘What were you thinking with Haiti?’ was the big headline question,” said Duncan.

And then there was the other big question:

Why aren’t you adopting him?

From “a selfish perspective,” Duncan answered, they already had a “family dynamic that works really well.”

Canada’s international adoption rates are in fact declining. According to the Hague Conference on Private International Law, in 2010, Canadians adopted 1,660 children from around the world. In 2014, it was only 905.

Adoption was never part of the original plan for the Dees — but doubt did creep in.

The treatments were time-consuming and meant constantly driving back and forth to Montreal. Carl was undergoing surgeries to unfuse and help straighten out his feet, and he was put in casts to realign his hips and ankles.

During one leg operation, Carl had a grand mal seizure. After some exploration and tests, Carl was diagnosed with epilepsy.

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Carl in hospital in 2015 on the same day he had a grand mal seizure. (Courtesy Dee family)

The doctor treating him for that said he also had ADHD. The boy had to undergo a trial period with various medications to bring both conditions under control, which ended up taking some of the focus away from his legs — and walking.

Mary estimated that in 2015, she and Carl travelled to Montreal 35 times.

“We’ve had probably 16 cast changes, three surgeries, two hospitalizations in addition to the surgeries, two weeks of physio, five or six neurologist visits, hematology visits, pediatricians,” said Mary at the time.

Given all these commitments, she decided to quit her job as director general at Service Canada to become Carl’s full-time caregiver.

In addition to the medical visits, Carl was having behavioural issues. He punched one of the family dogs in the face and showed some violent tendencies with other children his age. Carl’s school also discovered he had a learning disability — he had trouble even spelling his name — and had him see a specialist for intensive one-on-one comprehension lessons.

By January 2016, Mary seemed worn down by the twists and turns of the previous year, and the reality that they were nearing the two-year mark of caring for Carl.

She had resolved to take him back to Haiti once he was able to walk, but the ethical implications weighed on her.

“You think, Oh, I should be a better person and he should stay with me and I should raise him,” said Mary during what she figured was her 30th visit to the Shriners hospital.

Carl at a Montreal rehab clinic

(André Perron/CBC)

“In 10 years’ time, I’m going to be 58 and Carl’s a teenager and he’s going to be bigger than me. And he continues to have behavioural problems. And if he can hurt me as a five-year-old, how am I going to keep him under control [then]? How is that realistic?”

Mary said she loves Carl and realized that with his complicated medical needs, it might be advisable for him to stay somewhere in the First World.

“The best-case scenario for me,” said Mary, “is that a family falls out of the sky somewhere between now and when he has to go back to Zanmi Beni and they will take him.”

To an outsider, this seems like wishful thinking. Besides, there was no deadline for him to go back. If a woman of Mary’s means couldn’t adopt Carl, why would someone else?

When asked directly what was ideal for Carl, Mary maintained it was the orphanage in Haiti. “For now, that is where he is going.”

V. ‘This whole thing was completely worth it’

By the spring of 2016, Carl was six and still in Canada. He had been here for two full years, and the Dees had blown through the $20,000 budget they had set aside for his care.

But his medical prospects were clearly improving. For one thing, his medications had balanced out his ADHD and violence issues.

He had also had the final casts and braces taken off his legs, and he was learning how to walk.

Carl’s legs were thin and spindly and his feet had grown at unnatural angles, but he was able to put one foot in front of the other with the help of a physiotherapist and a child-size walker. He was also helped by his strong will and the sheer joy over his new mobility.

Carl outside the Dee residence

(Ousama Farag/CBC)

Carl still had fused knees, which will require another operation sometime in late 2017. He was wearing knee braces so that when he walked with crutches, his knees remained rigid and locked and wouldn’t give out on him.

Duncan found Carl some mini-crutches that fit well. Despite his progress, it seemed impossible that Carl would ever be able to walk unassisted.

Acceptance set in for Mary. “He’s never going to be able to walk the way we thought he was going to walk,” she said. “But we could get him to a certain point.”

Duncan was more upbeat about it.

“Through two years, you sometimes wake up and think, have we bit off more than we can chew?” he said. “But I have got to tell you, three or four weeks ago, when this boy who arrived here crawling — you know, a four-year-old child incapable of walking — was, you know, standing up on his own, with crutches, your head sort of said, ‘Oh yeah, this whole thing was completely worth it.’”

Having reached a milestone, of sorts, in Carl’s progress, the Dees finally set a date for his return to Haiti: early July.

“He’s a child in our home and we love him like he’s our own. But he belongs to Haiti.”

The physical transition looked to be under control, but the emotional one was anything but.

Connor acknowledged it had been a long time since he had had a smaller sibling around, and “it was something that was really nice to have back in our lives again. I am going to miss him. A lot.”

With that admission, Connor broke down, becoming silent as he wiped away the tears. His sister, sitting beside him, stepped in.

“I feel like it is harder for Connor, because I am here all the time,” Maggie said, looking more composed. “Connor gets the really exciting parts of him. I get the exciting parts, but I also get the difficult parts.”

Their biggest worry was how their mother would handle the separation, especially since Maggie would be moving out to go to university in the fall.

“I am really worried for my mom and Carl just because I know they have a really strong bond,” said Maggie. “She’s a mother for him, so it is definitely going to be difficult for him to go back, and not have that constant thing to keep her busy.”

Indeed, by the spring of 2016, Mary could only describe the idea of returning Carl to Haiti with one word: “Terrifying.”

One might ask why an affluent couple in their 40s who were on the cusp of becoming empty-nesters felt they could not adopt this young boy — and would want to put themselves through what was likely to be an excruciating separation.

“As much as I would love to be the mom who could do it, I know that I can’t do it, I can’t be the mom he needs,” Mary said. “He’s a child in our home and we love him like he’s our own. But he belongs to Haiti.”

VI. ‘Are you going to miss it?’

Once the family had made their difficult decision, the challenge for Mary was figuring out how to return Carl to Haiti without breaking him.

A few months before their planned departure, Mary and Duncan began to tell Carl he was going back. They started to Skype with the kids at Zanmi Beni more frequently, so that Carl could get familiar with them again.

He told Mary and Duncan straight up that he didn’t want to go back. And if he was forced to return, Carl certainly hadn’t accepted the idea that Mary wouldn’t be there with him.

“Right now his head is at Mom is moving to Haiti with him and I am going to be driving the school bus that will be taking him to his school,” said Mary back in May.

For Mary, this brought up a new set of questions: Are we doing more harm than good? Will we break his heart? And is he going to be able to make bonds again?

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On his last day of school in Ottawa in June 2016, Carl decided to dress as a Power Ranger. (Courtesy Dee family)

In the hopes of finding some answers and strategies for reintroducing Carl to the orphanage, Mary and Duncan turned to Dr. Susan Rich, an Ottawa-based child psychologist who specializes in foster care.

Rich assessed Carl during two play sessions in her office. I was invited to sit in on one of them.

Duncan described how every morning, Carl wakes up saying, “Mom, Mom, Mom.”

“What an enjoyable way to wake up,” Rich said. She turned to Mary. “Are you going to miss it?”

Mary replied “Yes,” and looked down, her hands gripping the sides of her chair.  

At one point, Rich handed Mary one end of an elastic and held the other end herself. She stretched it out and then let it go back in closer.

Rich said the bond Mary and Carl have was like the elastic: It can stretch out and they can be separated by a great distance, but there was still that connection and they would be closer in the future, when Mary visits.

She suggested this simile could be helpful to both Carl and Mary.

The psychologist also suggested that Mary give Carl a bracelet, necklace or another object and keep an identical one for herself and explain to him that it’s something for them both to keep as a reminder of their relationship.

Rich suggested that another way to couch it for Carl would be for Duncan to talk to the boy about how he still loves his son, Connor, even though he is away at Denison University in Ohio. Duncan liked this approach.

Speaking to me after the session, Rich said the Dees are not Carl’s “forever family.”

“Does this [separation] have the potential to cause internal wounds? Yeah, it does. He will have to grapple with that: ‘How do I belong? Where do I belong? Whom do I belong to?’”

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Carl in the Dee family home in Ottawa. (Courtesy Dee family)

She talked about a child’s primal need to be “owned” by someone. Carl “is not owned by anybody. He is owned by an institution. He is not owned by a person and that is what we all want — to be owned by somebody, right? That is the sad part.”

That said, she suggested Carl may not be “broken” by the return to Haiti because he appeared to have “disorganized attachment” — that is, his connection to Mary and the rest of his Ottawa family was of more of a functional nature, a means to have his needs met.

“It has to do with his early experiences, his biology,” said Rich. “He never had a primary attachment figure, so his capacity to attach is then limited.”

Rich did say, however, that the transition could be very difficult for Mary - in the short term, at least.

The psychologist remarked that Duncan seemed to have guarded his emotions from day one.

“Mary did open up her heart to [Carl]. He is inside,” Rich said. “Mary has the potential to really feel this emptiness. I think many of us who are mothers understand that.”

VII. The break-up

For the return to Haiti, Rich advised trying to reintegrate Carl quickly.

In other words, accompany him to Haiti, but stay with him for only a week and decrease the amount of contact each day — a technique Rich called “fading.”

Very early in the morning on July 5, Duncan and Mary packed up Carl’s stuff as well as new shoes and other gifts for the orphans at Zanmi Beni and headed to Ottawa airport, where they would catch a connecting flight to Montreal and then continue to Port-au-Prince.

Duncan drove the car while Mary and Carl sat side by side in the back seat. Every now and then she would lean over and kiss the top of his head, but mostly they drove in silence as the sun came up.

Mary and Carl on the way to Ottawa airport

(Michel Aspirot/CBC)

In Carl’s luggage was a gift Mary’s father gave him in New Brunswick, a place that held such fond memories for the boy. It was a photo album for Carl to take back to Haiti so he wouldn’t forget his Canadian family.

The first page had a photo of Carl, smiling, with a red star stuck to the top of the page.

When they arrived at the airport, Carl took the lead, walking out in front of Mary and Duncan, who were pushing the carts loaded up with luggage. Carl didn’t seem like a child who dreaded returning to his homeland.

Carl, Mary and Duncan at Ottawa airport

(Michel Aspirot/CBC)

It turns out there was a reason for Carl’s upbeat mood that morning. Given his apprehension at the mention of Haiti, Mary told him they were flying to New Brunswick to go back to the beach they had recently visited on holiday.

It was a purely tactical move, to calm him down. But at a certain point, Mary had to explain where they were actually going. 

“Three quarters of the way to Port-au-Prince, I told him the airport in New Brunswick was broken and we would have to go somewhere else,” said Mary.

Carl didn’t want anything to do with this new plan. So Mary told him that one of the other orphans at Zanmi Beni didn’t have any shoes or proper clothes and needed the things they were bringing in their suitcases.

Carl agreed — but only to see the orphan who needed new clothes. 


Once they landed in Port-au-Prince, it took some coaxing to get Carl into the rental car with Loune Viaud, the orphanage director. But when they arrived at the gates of Zanmi Beni, the other kids were happy to see him and celebrated his return with a welcome cake.

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Hug Xl
Upon his return to the orphanage in Haiti, Carl was presented with a cake. Mary stayed for a week to help with the transition. (Courtesy Dee family)

The Dees slept over at the orphanage with Carl that first night, and then stayed in a separate room the next. On the third night, Mary and Duncan moved to a hotel and began fading their presence until they flew home a week later.

Carl asked for Mary for the first few days after she left. But when the other orphanage kids teased him about it later, he denied it. Overall, he seemed to integrate back into life at Zanmi Beni without tears.

The Dees were forewarned Carl may act this way, but it still took them by surprise.

“I expected something different since we had him for over two years,” said Duncan.

Rich advised limiting contact after the separation — in other words, making a hard break. That would mean no direct daily or even weekly contact via email or Skype. They could communicate with him when they made trips back to Haiti, which was only likely to be a few times a year.

(Duncan and Mary were in contact with the orphanage after the destruction of Hurricane Matthew. Duncan reported that everyone was safe and that "the buildings sustained no damage at all.")

“The first few weeks I couldn't let myself think about him when I was alone, because I couldn't breathe.”

There’s no denying the experience has been transformative for everyone involved. Carl’s mobility is greatly improved, for one thing. Connor said that through getting to know Carl, he had become interested in practising medicine in the developing world. Maggie said that later in life, she would like to take an orphan or refugee into her family.

Mary is arguably the most affected by it — maybe even more so than Carl — and she admits that it has upset her greatly.

After returning from the emotional trip to Haiti in July, she flew to New Brunswick to spend time with her family and three dogs. “I’ve also borrowed my sisters’ three kids for a few weeks to keep me company,” she said in an email in late July. “This was Carl’s favourite place to be and the kids and I talk about him all the time.”

Mary felt his absence even more when she got back to Ottawa, especially on mornings like the one in August, when she went to the front closet looking for a sweater and found Carl’s little coats still hanging there.

“The first few weeks I couldn't let myself think about him when I was alone, because I couldn't breathe,” she admitted.

When I recently spoke with her, she said she was focused on getting Connor and Maggie adjusted in university, but Carl is still in her heart.

“I am so proud of him; he is one tough customer. I love him and I want him to be happy, healthy and able to live a fulfilling life,” she said.

“I will do everything I can to help make that happen.”