Xander Miller could never figure out why his wife Naomie Brinvilus always wanted to buy so many pillows.
Their bed already had at least a dozen pillows. It wasn’t until they started writing a joint memoir on their love story that he discovered the reason and got to know so much more about her.
In a section about her life that Brinvilus wrote one evening and that Miller read early the next morning, she described how her family used to make their beds on the floor of their home in Petit-Goâve, Haiti, with carpeting and a foam mat. “We never had any pillows,” she had written.
“And, I realized that that’s why she likes pillows so much,” Miller said, as Brinvilus laughed during a Zoom interview from their home in Lancaster. “It’s been an interesting experience to learn more about her life from her stories. It’s been a way to enrich our lives a little bit after all these years.”
Brinvilus and Miller, who have been married for seven years, found love thanks to a voodoo priest and a rooster, the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010, and a cholera epidemic that followed. Brinvilus, a Haitian who was working for the nonprofit Oxfam, and Miller, a volunteer from the United States, were serving in a cholera treatment tent. After their unlikely meeting, Brinvilus knew that Miller was the rooster that a priest had foreseen for her during a consultation.
“We made eye contact; that was all. When I got home, I told my sister I had seen my rooster and was afraid I would never see him again,” Brinvilus wrote in a “Modern Love” essay entitled, “A Glance (and a Rooster) That Changed Everything,” published this past August in the New York Times.
“Ever since the pandemic started, Xander and I have been spending time writing and revisiting our love, since we met in a pandemic and an epidemic and now we live again in a pandemic,” Brinvilus said. “It follows back to the time when we first met, so that’s why I wrote the [New York Times] column.”
Their meeting came on Miller’s second trip to Haiti after the devastating earthquake in January 2010. He first went for three months to help as an EMT volunteering with the Jatukik Providence Foundation.
Miller discovered that small communities outside the capital of Port-au-Prince had no means of moving critical patients to city hospitals. He returned to Sante Fe, N.M., where he had worked as an EMT, and started a nonprofit called “Ambulance for Haiti” to raise money to buy and ship an ambulance back to that community. He succeeded and returned along with it in September 2010, when Haiti was now on the verge of a cholera epidemic.
Early on at a cholera treatment center, he and Brinvilus locked eyes. They dated until he left again in January 2011. Her friends and family predicted that would be it, but long-distance phone calls and Miller’s trip back with a ring proved them wrong. After Miller spent nearly a year trying to get a fiancée’s visa, Brinvilus was finally able to join him in Cleveland in March 2012.
The couple landed in Hershey in 2018, when Miller started the physician’s assistant program at Penn State Hershey. Two years later, he graduated in the middle of another pandemic and landed a job as a physician’s assistant in one of Lancaster General Health’s primary care practices. The couple recently moved to Lancaster, where they live together there with their 2-year-old Emerson (Emmy) and Brinvilus’ sister and her two children.
Fell in Love
Days before Brinvilus’ “Modern Love” essay appeared, the New York Times reviewed her husband’s first fiction novel, “ZO,” which was published last summer by Alfred A. Knopf. Miller wasn’t sure he would be the best person to write about Haiti, but the earthquake and the lack of literature written about it spoke to him.
“First of all, I fell in love in Haiti after the earthquake, after cholera,” he said. “I couldn’t write about falling in love anywhere else with anyone else except a Haitian woman in Haiti.”
“ZO” is a socioeconomic class story of forbidden love—an orphan falls in love with a doctor’s daughter. The earthquake and its devastating effects figure prominently in the story. Miller’s descriptions of sailing, boxing and pulling a cart filled with injured people feel brutally real.
He felt compelled to write the novel after listening to a radio show that interviewed an earthquake survivor who described waking up in a dump truck bound for the burial ground. Many experiences in the novel were those that Brinvilus had lived firsthand.
Brinvilus had moved to live with her uncle in Port-au-Prince for college. After the earthquake destroyed their home, she and her sister lived in a tent on the grounds of the Mormon Church.
She had no way of reaching her mother and family after the earthquake. She didn’t know if they were even alive, just as they also didn’t know her fate. She used the last of her money for bus fare to get to their hometown five days after the quake hit. Although her mother’s house suffered destruction, she was OK, and she broke down crying to see her daughters alive.
Soon after that, Miller spied her in the cholera treatment clinic, and the rest is history that will form the foundation for their memoir—a study of love at first sight—that they hope to finish writing in the next six to nine months.
“It’s going to be about us falling in love, “Brinvilus said. “It’s changed me—I will say for the best.”
Miller spoke further of their special connection.
“Naomie and I—we should be very different, right?” he said. “Naomie grew up in the poorest country in the western hemisphere, and I grew up here in the richest country in the western hemisphere. I’m white; she’s black. I speak English; she speaks Creole. I’m a Jew; she’s a Catholic and a voodooist, depending on what day of the week it is. In America, we make such a big deal over differences. But, for Naomie and I, we knew there should be differences, but they kind of all faded away, and we wanted to write about how that works and explore why, when we saw each other, all the things that should have been barriers just melted away. We just want to explore that story.”
It’s a story of pillows, roosters, disaster and love at first sight.
“A Glance (and a Rooster) that Changed Everything” appeared in the New York Times on Aug. 14, 2020.
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