Image by David Cleverley on Unsplash
I don’t know how to begin this piece. I don’t know what will be in the middle. And I don’t know how it will end.
In truth, I usually don’t know the middle or end of a piece before I start writing. This will horrify any good teacher of literature, language, indeed anyone helping students write essays. I can hear my mum’s voice, still, saying to me as a teenager struggling with an essay for school, “What’s your conclusion? You need to know your conclusion before you begin”. But I rarely did.
With decades of adulting on me, and knowing quite a bit about individual differences, learning styles and ways of processing information, I suspect that if I knew the end before I began, I’d lose all interest. The fun was – and still is – figuring out my thinking process and point of view along the way. I am an extrovert – I figure out what I think and feel by talking out loud – whether with others around me or not – and that holds true for writing too. And most of the time, I feel that I get to a conclusion that coheres, even if I don’t know what it will be as I begin.
But today, I don’t know where to start. I don’t know how to start. I know what I want to write about. But I have no idea how to begin.
Other than that I feel sick. Truly sick.
For last night I finished reading Sonali Deraniyagala’s memoir “Wave”, written about the minutes, hours, days, weeks and years following the Tsunami in the Indian Ocean on Boxing Day 2004. I vividly remember learning about it, from the safety of my house. I read avidly about it in the days that followed. And occasionally I have heard of a person – typically a “westerner” on holiday in Thailand or Indonesia – who survived it, perhaps with our without some of their loved ones.
But only recently did I come across Sonali’s story – a Sri Lankan woman, married to Steve from East London, with deep roots in Sri Lanka, and whose entire family – husband, two young boys, and her parents – along with some dear friends – were literally wiped out. Washed away.
The book is brutal. Of course. How could it not be?
It’s far from sentimental, which is somehow worse.
No varnish here. No gloss. No happy ending.
Sonali’s mental games and strategies in the immediate aftermath for avoiding even hoping that anyone had survived – for to hope, then have that hope dashed would be worse than convincing herself from the outset that she had lost everyone. I get that. Hope can be such a sneaky traitor, even if I gratefully pull on hope every hour of each day myself.
Her determination not to take sleeping pills or anti-depressants precisely so that she would not forget. So that she would not be dulled or numbed. So that she would not slip out of the life she was so desperate to cling on to, even if she knew that it was already just in her memory. Or emerge from sleep and dreams oblivious, momentarily, to what had happened, only to discover againagainagain that it had. That her life was indeed her life.
The questioning, the wondering, “Did I ever have this? All of this? Was I ever a mum? Was I ever a wife? Was I ever a daughter?” such is the contrast of her new life, without all of the proof, the validation, of her former self.
The wanting to be dead. The strategising about how to kill herself while under her friends’ 24 hour/day vigil. I would have wanted to kill the friends, I think. But how could I even begin to know?
The dabbling in things bad for her. Alcohol in particular. Mixed with anti-depressants she hoards.
The bad behaviour.
The appalling language.
The wishing ill and misfortune on anyone and everyone around her who still have what she has lost.
The triggers – songs, smells, sounds, places, people, calendar reminders, notes on the fridge, cheques for school dinners, key dates, other people’s children, friends, films, foods. Etc. etc.
The new experiences she has that she knows would be so much more important to her family –turtles laying eggs, blue whales, living in New York – experiences she has precisely because she is alone. Devoid of her former identity. Totally bereft.
The crappy and curtailed conversations with strangers with whom she cannot even answer the most banal questions because they would not be able to hold the truth of her answers. Knowing they would not be able to comprehend the tsunamic proportions of her Grief and Losses. Avoiding conversation as a result. Getting the hell out of there. Or intimating that she is travelling alone on purpose. Or mentioning the loss of her husband, but no-one else, then feeling fraudulent.
I get all of that. I have done most, if not all, of the above. I often don’t mention Julia’s death when I can see in someone’s eyes that learning that I am widowed is more than they comprehend. That they cannot hold it. I have a wish to tell the unadorned truth, but sometimes, often, people cannot hear it. And so I censor myself. And I hate any time when I cannot speak out loud that she too lived. It’s a worse loss to imply she never was.
It’s foul. And it sucks.
I digress. Back to the memoir.
But what felt truest of all is the expansion of Sonali’s Grief over time. No diminishing of anything. No reduction of the pain. No acceptance that things happen for a reason. No magical transformation into a better, wiser self. Just painful grief and loss stretching out into the future. Into the days and weeks and years and decades.
The extent, the impact, the pervasiveness of the losses getting bigger and bigger over time. As her life with her family would have. Their absence now bigger because what they would have created and built together would also have grown. Expanded grief, not diminished grief.
The book is written about seven years after the deaths.
And still she is in shock.
Still she cannot absorb what has happened.
Still she feels that she is on the outside of her life looking in.
Still she feels like her life is too far-fetched to be anything other than a myth.
Still there is no resolution.
Still there is no happy ending.
For there cannot be one.
But somehow understanding that living, breathing, facing into, leaning into the gaping hole, keeping them all close in their absence is what keeps them close to her.
Feeling more whole when she is in her pain, and more fractured, more fraudulent, when she pulls away from it.
And always, a stranger in her own life.