Altide “Sylvie” Bertil loved to cook for family, friends and...

Altide “Sylvie” Bertil loved to cook for family, friends and church events. Bertil took care of daughter Darline after she was critically injured in the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Credit: Darline Bertil

For her entire life, Altide “Sylvie” Bertil was seen as a caregiver. But on Jan. 12, 2010, that role took on a new meaning when a catastrophic magnitude 7 earthquake hit her home country of Haiti and severely injured her daughter.

Darline Bertil lost both of her hands in the chaos, but her mother stepped in to help her readjust to life. Altide Bertil would help her daughter shower, do her hair, cook her meals and eventually get her dressed for work.

“She was my hands,” Darline Bertil, 37, said.

Altide Bertil died April 16 of heart failure and other health complications. She was 70.

Bertil was born Dec. 27, 1952, in Limbe, a commune in Haiti’s Nord Department.

At age 10, her mother died and her father moved the family to the country’s capital, Port-au-Prince. Bertil didn’t get a chance to finish a formal education, dropping out of school around the second grade.

“She had to [take] care of her nieces or brothers, because that's who she [was].” Darline Bertil said. “She was a caretaker.”

Altide Bertil was skilled in the kitchen, specializing in Haitian cuisine. She worked as a private cook for a family in Haiti for about 24 years. After that, she cooked at a residence for students training to become abbès, the French title given to clergy members.

Even when she was off the clock, Bertil was more than happy to make meals for family and friends.

“If [you’re] around her, she will make sure that she feeds you,” Darline Bertil said.

Some of her favorite dishes to cook included chicken cashew stew, conch, and black mushroom rice. Norvell Rolling, Darline Bertil’s husband, was particularly fond of her beet salad.

“Every chance she'd get she would make it for me,” Rolling said.

Altide Bertil’s life was radically shifted by the earthquake. When it hit, her daughter was working a bartending shift at Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince. She was trapped for five days under the rubble before being rescued and taken to a U.S. Navy ship where her hands had to be amputated. Her daughter is one of the approximately 300,000 people who were injured   in the natural disaster, according to the United Nations. 

It took weeks for Bertil to reunite with her daughter due to the earthquake’s impact on communication lines. Darline Bertil was not able to sleep, but that changed when her mother came on board and started caring for her.

“That night I slept like a baby,” she said.

A few months later, the mother-daughter duo was given a visa to come to New York so Darline Bertil could get special surgery and prosthetic limbs.

Darline Bertil adjusted to a new way of life and learned to live independently, but her mother continued to support her in any way she could.

“Even though Darline can do a lot without her hands, her mother was always there,” Rolling said.

Their first two years in the United States were spent at Darline’s godparents’ residence in Uniondale. The family then moved to Queens once she enrolled in Hunter College, before settling in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

Despite living in the city, Altide Bertil continued to spend weekends in Uniondale, which has a growing Haitian community. St. Martha’s Catholic Church was one of the first places that she found connection after relocating to the states.

“Every Sunday I get to pick her up to go to church,” Bertil’s friend, Yolande Augustin, said. “She never miss her church. Even if it's raining, if it's snowing — she loved the church.”

She was quick to volunteer for any events, often bringing a tray of mac and cheese or chicken with her.

Bertil also frequented Maranatha Grace Church, a nondenominational church in Uniondale that her daughter liked to attend.

Right up until her last days, Bertil wanted loved ones to know she was always here for them.

Even after being discharged from the hospital,  "she always come [in the kitchen] in the morning,” her daughter said.

Darline Bertil will always remember her mother lingering behind her as she cooked, rubbing her back, and saying, "I’m still here."

Besides her daughter, Altide Bertil is survived by her sons, Freedlin Bertil and James Edmond, and her granddaughter Anaïse Cataliya Bertil.

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