Tuesday, December 26, 2006

son of the wave

Two years ago one of my closest friends was vacationing on the coast of Sri Lanka with her husband and 20 month old son. She was pregnant at the time.

Her husband had just come back to their bungalow after some morning surfing. She was just finishing changing her son's diaper when the water started coming in the door.

At first they didn't know what was going on. But as the moments passed the water still kept coming. Her husband unplugged the TV as they headed towards the back of the bungalow into the attached bathroom.

The water kept filling up, to their knees, their waists, their shoulders. In those moments they stood transfixed, their son above their heads, not sure what was happening. By the grace of god the weight of the water caused the bungalow to creak and shift and finally break apart. The last thing my friend remembers saying is You hang onto me, and I'll hang onto him. Don't let go.

And they were swept under water. She doesn't know how long they were under, but she does know that as the water receded she had no idea if her son was alive. Her husband had managed to grab the end of a clothesline, and that tiny cord held tight and kept them from being pulled into the sea.

When they all came up for air, my friend didn't think her son was breathing. Immediately afterwards he coughed up ocean and started crying. Save for some bumps and bruises, he was fine. In his tiny hand was his security blanket. He held onto it the whole time - something that brings tears to my eyes even now. Everyone had a job to do, to hold on, and he did his part. Her husband was miraculously fine as well. She didn't fare as well - part of her foot was missing, and her leg had a gash running from thigh to shin.

There was little time to waste. Everyone who was still on land was running, running, running into the jungle, onto rooftops, into trees. Some local villagers were assisting my friend - she couldn't run and her husband had the baby, but somehow they managed to scramble to higher ground before the next wave hit.

They stayed up on the hill for a long time. There were many gathered there and it sounded like everyone was in a state of disbelief. My friend needed medical attention, so after the second wave receded and they made their way to the nearest hospital. She was loaded onto a stretcher with three other women. She was given injections with unknown medicines and was taken for emergency surgery. This was a horrible place - dirty, chaotic, and filled with wounded and those who had died.

My friend's husband realized staying there was a very bad idea so he got on the phone and called the US embassy. Tranport to the main hospital in Colombo was arranged. This is all a blur to them so they don't completely recall exactly how it all worked out, instead grateful that it did.
When I first heard the news about the tsunami, I broke down crying. I knew where my friend was, and her deep love of the water, so I knew she could only have been in the thick of it. We waited for hours until her parents got a call from the embassy. They are alive was all they were told.

While I was watching the news and biting my nails my friends were busy surviving. They were evacuated with other Americans to the capital and to the main hospital. My friend had two more surgeries. They determined the baby was still alive. They had no money, no I.D, no diapers or clothes. My friend's husband had to beg for change to call home. They had no place to sleep, and nothing to eat.

Embassy workers took my friend's son into their home for a couple of nights. They had no choice but to hand over their son to strangers because they had no way to care for him in those two days - my friend was in and out of surgery and her husband needed to be with her. They were given diapers and clothing. People offered food. Those small graces helped a lot but it was not lost on them that they were the lucky ones - first for surviving, and second for being Americans. Things were getting done. Hundreds of thousands of others were not as lucky, some because of their citizenship, others because of their economic status. Others never even had a chance.

It took another week to get emergency passports and the money they needed to get out of the country. I was able to reach her in her hospital room during this time. I could tell she was in shock, her voice detached and small when it is usually strong and engaged. We cried together. I offered to come and she said no, that she just wanted to get out and go home. It took several more surgeries and the better part of a year for my friend to heal.

She gave birth 5 months later to a healthy baby boy. His middle name is Dylan, which in a translation I forget means son of the wave.

This didn't happen to me. And I am doing my best not to get into the gruesome details of what my friend saw and heard and endured. Because this is a post about survival, and about love, and about facing what life hands you and doing everything you can to stay afloat.

My friend's physical scars are mostly healed now. She still can't go to the beach, and can't celebrate her son's birthday without being gripped by panic and grief. She wonders why it is taking so long for the emotional trauma to heal, but is coming to terms with the notion that some things might never go away, and that she can live with that too. She calls me in those moments; she lives on the other side of the world so her night is my day, and I am here if she needs someone to listen. Someone who can never understand but who can hold the other end of the phone while she cries and then berates herself for not being stronger and will tell her to knock it off. Nicer words, maybe, but I can't bear her not tolerating her own grief. She has a right to it, god knows she's earned it. These things take time.

I am not sure I've ever known anyone braver. I always knew she was a warrior, but I didn't know she was a hero. If I am only ever half the woman she is, it's more than enough.

She doesn't read my blog, but I will share this post with her. I want her to know I remember two years ago when the world gasped for air. I honor her for her survival and grace and as she likes to call it, her bit of good luck.

35 comments:

Joker The Lurcher said...

your friend sounds a person of such strength and courage, not just for getting through it but for allowing herself to feel her pain and vulnerability in the awfulness and enormity of it all.

QT said...

Wow, Jen, that is quite a story. I can't imagine what it would take to get over an experience like that. Kudos to you for being there for her.

KC said...

Jen, what an incredible story. My heart aches for what her family went through, for what so many families went through. I pray she will find healing, too, beyond the physical.

You are a wonderful, wonderful friend. But, I knew that already.

Thank you for sharing this.

Lucia said...

Thank you for sharing this story. Being a frequent traveler, when this tsunami happened, I realized any of us could have been there, it could have been me or my friends or anyone I know.

In the end, I didn't know anyone, but, wow, this story has an impact. You are such a good person and have amazing friends.

mamatulip said...

My heart was in my throat the entire time I read this.

It always amazes me, when I hear stories of survival like this one, at how much the human spirit can endure, and how much it can grow and evolve as a result of events such as this.

acumamakiki said...

Wow Jen. I can't imagine being strong enough to endure what your friend went through. She truly is a hero. Thank you for sharing her story ~ you have a gift with words my friend.

bubandpie said...

Oh.

The blanket clutched in that little boy's hand.

(My son was 20 months old when my daughter was born. I remember that age so well.)

Thailand Gal said...

What a good reminder of the tsunami and the recovery that continues to this day. I also know people who experienced it (in Phuket) and still hear survival stories. It is amazing, just as the Katrina survivors are amazing.


Peace,

~Chani

Blog Antagonist said...

What an incredible story! Frightening and horrifying, but also wonderful and uplifting for it's message of courage and survival. She sounds like a truly amazing woman.

s@bd said...

oh dear woman - i am BAWLING.

(as I did two years ago)

thank you for sharing this - it's so easy to forget.

metro mama said...

Oh, my goodness. What a story.

What a strong woman.

something blue said...

I couldn't imagine having that experience. The tsunami was devastingly haunting even for those that were not there.

I am happy that your friends are incredibly strong, brave survivors.

carrie said...

I am in awe and admiration of your brave friend. I am so happy that her story had a happy ending (grief and all). I can't imagine...

Events like these, and the stories that unfold in their aftermaths are lessons in bravery, courage and humanity for all of us.

It gives me hope when I hear stories of the kindness and help that we, as humans, offer each other in a tragedy. And it enrages me and encourages me to make a difference when I hear of how others were treated, it is not a fair world and the senselessness that dying people were left to fend for themselves is something I will never understand.

When my husband came home from volunteering after Katrina, I couldn't believe the stories he told, the things he saw, here in America...it can happen anywhere.

Thank you for sharing. Sorry for rambling.

Carrie

ECR said...

The goosebumps just keep coming. When the water recedes and only stories remain, you really know how to share them.

J Fife said...

Injured while pregnant in a foreign hospital and away from your child - unimaginable. Hope she and others affected by this tragedy are closer to recovery.

wordgirl said...

I wish peace and strength for your friend. I can't imagine having to live with those memories.

scribbit said...

You always have such interesting stories to tell. Thanks for another good read.

Jenny said...

Again you've moved me to tears. Our heartbeats are so fragile but our stories echo forever.

Thank you for sharing hers.

I'm glad she was one of the lucky ones.

mrs. incredible said...

these stories from the Tsunami were heartbreaking, and for me, thousands of miles & half a world away. You & your friend made it personal. Though my heart was ripped to pieces watching this going on, I of course, was removed. But this post is still echoing in my mind. Sometimes your stories are too much for me on the first pass. I have to 'leave' and come back to post a comment.....
Your friend & her family are amazing. And it is no wonder to me that you & her are friends.

flutter said...

That darling little baby boy....oof, my heart.

dmmgmfm said...

That he held on to his security blanket through that ordeal, shows the little guys strength too. What an amazing story.

kittenpie said...

Wow, that's an amazing story. It'll take her years to get to feelingnormal again and not noticing little signs of it living in her still. But what a great gift to have kept her family and been able to add to it not long after. That is indeed something to cling to.

Deezee said...

This story so startles me. While I have a friend who survived the tsunami, the idea of facing it with a child in hand leaves me trembling. You've marked the memory powerfully...

Em said...

Being Australian I knew several people who were in Asia at the time of the tsunami - amazingly no-one I knew perished, but their stories are harrowing nonetheless. Your friend's survival (and that of her baby son and unborn child and husband) is a miracle... I expect it takes a life time to recover from such an experience, if ever... sort of like being in the midst of 9/11 - it lives on inside long after the physical scars are healed.

Julie Pippert said...

Wow. Incredible. I'm glad and sad in so many ways.

Jo said...

My God. One's will to survive can be a wonderous thing. I cannot imagine the trauma your friend and her family endured. It's inspiring. What an amazing post, Jen.

nancy bea said...

What an incredible post! Thank you for sharing your friend's story. I am moved by their naming their son in that way: what courage, humor and resilience! A creative way to acknowledge that this event will be forever part of their life history. I am sure it is not something that can just be "gotten over". All the best to your friends and to you.

Mommy off the Record said...

What a story. Your friend endured such a horrible event. I cannot even imagine being pregnant with a toddler and injured in the middle of such a catastrophe. She must have been so scared. Your post really honors her bravery. Beautiful.

Mrs. Chicky said...

That was an amazing story. The part about the security blanket also brought a tear to my eye. I hope your friend allows herself to heal, but I can't imagine the courage and strength that must take.

ecm said...

What a story! You write with such a clear voice. It was so good to read this at the anniversary of this event. Beautiful, beautiful.

Oh, The Joys said...

I can't even begin to imagine what that would have been like for her...

Wacky Mommy said...

Tell your friend she's awesome, and her family is, too.

ewe are here said...

I was married two years ago on Boxing Day. We didn't hear about the tsunami until we were at dinner celebrating, and I didn't appreciate the true size and horror of the event until we saw the news the next day.

Survival, grace and luck. Yes. Your friend and her family were truly blessed to come through it all as they did. I hope she enjoys your lovely lovely post.

urban-urchin said...

Oh Jen, the image of the baby clutching his blanket (or bung-gee as my 20 month old calls his) is heart wrenching.

Thank you for the reminder.

kim said...

wow, I'm just in awe. I wish your friend peace.