Hazel McHaffie

Indian ocean tsunami

Let Not the Waves of the Sea

I confess I’ve been haunted by the horrors in the Philippines following Hurricane Haiyan. Somehow it feels indecent and somehow disrespectful to carry on eating meals, arranging flowers, thinking about Christmas, selling books. Luxuries all.

So it seemed a good time to read a book l’ve had in my tbr pile about one man’s experience of loss in such a calamity, and at the same time celebrate Book Week Scotland by sharing one of my best reads of this year. Let not the Waves of the Sea is Simon Stephenson‘s memoir about the death of his brother, Dominic, in the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004, a disaster that claimed the lives and futures of 230,000 people – it’s a number too big to get your head around, isn’t it?

Crashing seasDominic, an architect, lived and worked in Edinburgh. He was born in the hospital where my children were born. He and his brother grew up not far from where I Iive. He went to the school where my brother-in-law taught. He played in the same park around which my grandchildren cycle today. So it feels very real and close to home.

The book begins with Simon making a pilgrimage to the Thai island, Ko Phi Phi, scene of the tragedy, and instantly we know we’re in the hands of a master story teller. He climbs up a vertiginous path until he reaches a high viewpoint where people below resemble matchstick men and women going about their everyday lives. There he stands in silence for a long time thinking, imagining, grieving. Then he walks back down again, still in silence. ‘You put one foot in front of another, all the way down, but this day is broken before it has ever begun.‘ Symbolic of his life after Dominic.

That fateful day – Boxing Day 2004 – when news of the massive underwater earthquake and tsunami poured out of our televisions is surely indelibly etched on all our minds. But somehow Let not the Waves of the Sea has joined the dots and coloured in the outlines for me.  Simon explains in careful detail that it wasn’t a wave as many people say. At the point where Dominic was, the first wall of water roared in at 20 feet high and kept coming for 30 minutes. It was followed by another one bigger than the first. The third one was bigger still. No, not a wave, more like a river, moreover a river ‘boiling with bricks and metal, with glass and timber.’ And this displacement of so many cubic miles of water was caused by the second strongest earthquake ever recorded. It ‘occurred deep below the Indian Ocean. For over a thousand miles, the Indian Plate has moved beneath the Burma Plate, elevating the seabed above by as much as twenty feet‘. He excuses the scientific detail by saying it’s for all those people whose physics teachers were no better than the one who taught him and his brother at school.

There follows the terrible wait. The not knowing. Simon poignantly captures the sheer unbelievability of losing his brother: 27, fit and healthy, with a ‘thousand-watt smile‘, a strong swimmer, having a holiday of a lifetime on an island paradise with his girlfriend. It’s Christmas time – only hours before they’d exchanged greetings over the phone. Dominic and Eileen have just bought their first Edinburgh flat together, and face a lean time starting to pay off the mortgage. The possibility of his death ‘remained unthinkable.’ And yet, in the midst of the denial, the TV ‘spilled its foreign tragedy into our lives’.

Simon hopes against hope, against his mother’s quiet conviction. But during all the uncertainty, there’s the unimaginable horror of desperately seeking to identify – or not – his beloved brother amidst the bodies ‘battered in the chaos, bloated by the water then scorched black by the sun.’ To find something, anything, that belonged to him. And even once a body with Dominic’s surgical scar is found, there’s the agonising wait for DNA confirmation.

Then comes the finality of knowing for certain Dominic is not holed up somewhere waiting for rescue, that the longed-for call or email will never arrive, that they will never again see or hold each other. ‘On what should be Dominic’s twenty-eighth birthday, I am sitting in a small room near the centre of Edinburgh, my head rested upon his coffin‘ and whispering ‘some of the things I wish I had told him in the restaurant three doors down the street whilst I still had the chance.‘ No one is allowed to see the body, sealed in metal within the wooden coffin, and Simon realises he doesn’t want to. As a doctor, he has certified many deaths, but he wants his beloved brother to remain undisturbed.Calm seaIt’s a beautifully written memoir. Simon has had some success professionally as a screenwriter, and he captures mood and sentiment with as much skill as fact. His familiarity with the people and places, his identification with all things Thai, make his natural use of local phrases like ‘when the waters came‘ entirely right. And through his warmly intimate memories we feel the closeness of these two young men, the special love and shared life, the shattering loss.

Even the title is perfectly chosen. It comes from the mystic fable, The Prophet, by Khalil Gibran, an extract of which Simon read at the funeral. ‘Let not the waves of the sea separate us now, and the years you have spent in our midst become a memory.’ Stories of those years are alive with mischief and energy, sibling secrets and teenage pranks, making the present loss at once more raw and yet somehow softer.

Perhaps his simple account of the first anniversary, as the bereaved stand in the memorial garden on Ko Phi Phi, best captures the feel of this tribute to a lost brother:

Last year the water arrived at half past ten in the morning and so this is the time our ceremony begins. Twelve months ago there would have been noise, so much terrible noise, and we remember it now with silence, our collective gaze drawn to the names on the wall and the still sea beyond. Our silence lasts only a minute, but carries for an eternity that will echo down through all the quiet moments of a lifetime.’

For me the book should end at page 253; the remaining 50 pages would be better as an appendix, but that quibble aside, I’d recommend this book wholeheartedly. A poignant and brave memoir; a deeply moving picture of the life and death of a beloved brother; an analysis of family bonds forged and broken; what it means to be left behind. And a salutary insight into the ongoing devastation of major catastrophes.Sunset over the sea

 

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Shaking the Foundations

There’s nothing like a major disaster for putting things into perspective, is there?

Events in Haiti this past week have shown a tragedy on a scale beyond imagining. And they totally eclipse some of my current concerns – final editing of my forthcoming book; safety on the icy roads; wallpapering our staircase. When thousands of people are without homes or loved ones, water or medicines, why would anyone worry about a displaced comma or the style of an acronym? When whole communities lie in ruins, who cares if wallpaper is spirit-level straight? When people lie crushed beneath collapsed buildings, broken wrists and ankles seem like small fry. Yes, Haiti has had a profound impact.

It was the same with the Boxing Day tsunami, the collapse of the twin towers, the Lockerbie disaster, the Dunblane massacre … Overwhelming reactions. A compulsion to do something. Yes, we pledge money; prayers have a new earnestness; a few dedicated people may actually go to the danger zone to give their all; we set ourselves new priorities. But then … we move on, we return to our complacent lives, dwell on our own concerns, pursue our own trivial ambitions and dreams. Our species just can’t live their lives at such a peak of intensity. So I want to reflect before the spotlight fades.

Haiti has flicked the switch, but other things have happened during this past few days which have helped to focus the glare, and reminded me of important truths.

I’ve just made the very last correction to the final draft of Remember, Remember. The last vestiges of the snow are melting. And the staircase is finished. But the devastation of Haiti will reverberate for years. I hope its impact on me will last too.

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