Gabrielle Berthelot welcomed the caring, cooking and nursing that came with the frail, limping teenager with a broad smile. She has become a second mother to Nikenson Cenatus, coaxing him to eat heaping spoonfuls of rice and beans, slices of fried ripe plantains and delicious helpings of Haitian stew. Pure and simple, this unlikely pair needed each other.
Berthelot, 86, had just lost her beloved sister and long-distance phone companion when Nikenson, 17, came into her life. It was like the answer to an unsaid prayer.
"I am glad to help Nikenson," she said. "That boy, he had lots of pain. He suffer. He suffer."
Before he arrived at Berthelot's St. Petersburg home, Nikenson was bedridden in his mountaintop home on the remote Haitian island of La Gonave. The teenager broke his hip more than a year ago during a soccer game, but the hospital he visited didn't have the resources to treat him. Back home, the village women tried to relieve his pain with home remedies.
Hope came in the form of a St. Petersburg group, Partners With Haiti, a ministry of St. Paul's Catholic Church that began with the twinning of the congregation and St. Isidore's in Haiti. The ministry includes a yearly medical mission to La Gonave.
That's how Micki Morency, Berthelot's daughter, met the teenager. A member of Partners With Haiti, she remembers the day Nikenson and his mother came to the clinic.
"You could see the hope on her face, on his face as well," said Morency, a business consultant.
There was little the medical team could do.
"It was the hardest thing to tell Nikenson that there's nothing we could do right now. It took a few months. It took a lot of work on the part of a lot of people and primarily Dr. Mark Morris,'' Morency said.
Morris, a pediatrician who has gone on four of the group's five medical missions, made arrangements with friend and colleague Dr. Robert Hamilton to donate Hamilton's services for Nikenson's surgery at St. Anthony's Hospital.
St. Anthony's president William Ulbricht, other doctors, nurses and many more people united to help Nikenson, who arrived in St. Petersburg on Oct. 28, months after Partners With Haiti's March visit.
"There was a long process of getting a medical visa,'' Morris said. "Half of (the wait) consisted of getting a birth certificate and a Haitian passport. Rep. Kathy Castor helped us get the medical visa for him.''
But things did not go as planned once Nikenson arrived.
Hamilton, an orthopedist who regularly travels on medical missions to Guatemala, discovered a serious infection in Nikenson's other leg. With both legs impaired, the teenager could no longer navigate the stairs at Morency's two-story house, where he was staying.
So Morency called her mother, who had recently returned from her sister's funeral in Boston.
"I was kind of, do I want to put this burden on her now? It happened to be the best thing. I said we'll all come and help,'' Morency said, referring to family members and nurses from Partners With Haiti.
Even with everyone's help, she said, it was her mother who took on the main responsibility for Nikenson's everyday care.
"My mom was there 24/7. We'd put him to bed and he would wake up in the night and she would be there. She sleeps with her bedroom door open,'' Morency said. "She's so protective of him, refusing to leave him for long periods.''
In the beginning, when Nikenson could do little for himself and had no appetite, Berthelot fed him.
"She would cook him three different breakfasts to see what he can tolerate,'' her daughter said.
Nikenson is being treated with antibiotics for the infection, which has delayed the surgery that brought him to St. Petersburg. Berthelot doesn't mind the delay. Neither does Nikenson. He misses his mother, but he feels at home with the woman he calls his second mother and her 14-year-old dog, Peppy.
The youngest of five children, he talks regularly with his sister in Port-au-Prince and his mother on La Gonave. He is rapidly learning English and about American life.
Berthelot can relate to the newness he feels. She arrived in the United States from Haiti in 1970, worked as a cook at a Boston convent and soon arranged for her husband and seven children to join her. Her husband died in 1993.
Now she is the proud matriarch of a family of college graduates who have gone into law, medicine, teaching, engineering and business. Her son Richard is a resource officer at St. Petersburg High School and owns the Badcock furniture store on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street S with his wife, Angela.
A granddaughter's wedding is today. As she had hoped, Nikenson will be able to attend.
Morency laughed as she recalled her mother's request. "She said, 'Can you ask the doctors not to operate on him before the wedding?' ''
Morency is proud of her mother.
"Mama's always doing God's work,'' she said.
"I used to go to Mass every morning,'' said her mother, a parishioner and lay Eucharistic minister at St. Joseph's Catholic Church.
Nikenson has changed that.
"With him, I don't go because I don't like to leave him alone,'' she said.
She believes God understands. After all, he put the teenager in her life.
"I feel the young man coming — that was God's way of saying, 'I'm going to help take care of your pain,' '' she said.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at (727) 892-2283 or email@example.com.