Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Death and Denial

(originally published in Flagpole Magazine and The Link Magazine)

by AJ/Skald

Her left eye looked bruised and was swollen shut. Her mouth hung open - her head tilted to the right. The face seemed distorted, perhaps bloated. "I don't know, I just don't know," I muttered to myself. "It does look kind of like her, but I don't know."

The photo was black and white. I just couldn't be sure and so I returned the papers. The title page closed. It read, "Unidentified Bodies. Do Not Show To Children. Graphic Images." I glanced left at the makeshift message board erected by police at the corner of Khao San and Samsen Roads - a long line of photographs placed by frantic loved ones.

Next to the photos, pages of names - the confirmed dead. Susanna's name wasn't on the list. But the photo: my stomach churned. I raced to an Internet cafe and opened a Thailand missing persons site, filled out a form with Susanna's physical characteristics: black hair, white skin, female, adult. Location: Krabi. After a long sigh I clicked "enter." The same photo popped up - a picture taken in the morgue of a hospital. Doubt. Should I give her name to the police and the website? Was it she? What if I identified the body wrong? How terrible for Susanna's family and friends and those of the dead person. I decided to wait while my girlfriend, Tip, called friends to gather more information. "If there's no word by tomorrow," I thought aloud, "I will submit her name as possible identification."

I remembered Susanna's Christmas party. About 12 of us gathered in her apartment in mid-December: a mix of Thais, Americans, Filipinos, Swedes and other Europeans. Most were students or teachers at the AUA Language School whom I'd met while studying Thai. Susanna cruised the room buoyantly, laughing and chatting as she went. She is a Swede with chilled-out charm, a mischievous grin, and an elfin laugh. We feasted on Glog (Swedish spiced wine) and imported cheese - a rare feast for Thailand.

I remember talking to Chris and Nudaeng. Chris is half Danish, half Thai, a talkative and amiable guy. He speaks fluent Danish, English and Thai. Nudaeng is a former Thai teacher at AUA, who had just enrolled in Chinese medical school. She's bouncy, a natural ham and class clown. The two had recently gotten engaged. They discussed their wedding plans and also the upcoming New Year vacation. "We're thinking of going to Koh Chang," Chris said. Susanna overheard. "You should come down and join me in Krabi. I'm going to be in a beachside bungalow." "Lucky you," I said, "I'll probably be stuck in Bangkok on Christmas."

Since December 26, there has been no word from Susanna, Chris or Nudaeng. Calls to Susanna's cell phone initially yielded a "This voicemail box is full" message. But yesterday Tip called and this time received the following message: "This phone number is no longer in service." Tip called other friends, but no one has heard from Susanna. A teacher at AUA, P'Lek, thinks she saw Susanna's body on TV - perhaps the same photo I saw. But no one is sure. We do know that Krabi was hit by a massive, full-strength tsunami, and she was planning to stay on the edge of the beach. Calls to Chris and Nudaeng over the last week have produced nothing but "no signal" messages.

They were last seen at a wedding on Christmas Day, so there is hope. "Surely they are fine," I tell myself. "They were in Bangkok the day before the tsunami." But then my mind starts working. Might they have accepted Susanna's invitation? Did they decide to take a night bus to Krabi after the wedding party - to arrive early in the morning on the 26th, just before the tsunami hit? No one knows. We keep calling.

For several days following the disaster I managed to live in a cloud of denial. Initial news reports were sketchy and gave no hint of the magnitude of the devastation. Friends and I had decided to spend New Year's on an isolated island in the Andaman Sea called "Little Koh Chang." Concerned about the tsunami, we called a friend with connections there. "It's Okay. There's not much damageƖ no one was hurt there," he said. This seemed to confirm that things weren't too horrible. And after all, the earthquake occurred far away in Indonesia.

Tip and I boarded a bus on the 27th and headed south. We arrived at Ranong, a city on the coast, and spent the next day at the Siam Spa. We relaxed in a hot tub, sweated in the sauna, and got a traditional Thai massage. I saw no newspapers that day. When we returned to the guesthouse we asked about damage in Ranong. It wasn't too bad, we were told.

We caught a boat to Little Koh Chang island, which has no electricity, no TVs, and no media. Kristin and Wat, two friends still in Bangkok, called on the 29th. The damage in Phuket, Krabi, and the south was terrible they said. Thousands were dead. But on our island everything seemed peaceful and fine. As it turns out, Ranong and the island were partially sheltered from the wave.

Further south, the death toll was rapidly climbing. I began to worry but pushed it out of my mind: Denial. "Everything is fine," I thought,. "Mai pen rai" (Thai for "no worries"), I muttered to myself.

For the next five days we were cut off from the media frenzy. Kristin and Wat relayed some of the news, but it didn't really sink in. We talked to Thai residents on the island: "Mai pen rai," they said... don't worry. But Tip was already worrying. She tried to call Susanna every day. "Maybe her phone was lost or damaged," I said to calm her, "I'm sure she's fine."

At midnight on New Year's Eve, we gathered on the beach and stared at the flat black pane of the sea. We stood with candles, bowed our heads, and then planted the lights on the beach - yet still none of this seemed real. Only when we returned to Bangkok did I begin to grasp the full force of the calamity: when I read the paper, scanned the Internet, and noticed the missing persons signs. My email account was full of frantic messages from friends and relatives, checking on my safety.

"How odd that they've heard about this," was my initial thought, still unaware of the scope of the destruction. Tip continued to call but there was no word from Susanna. I suggested that we call Chris and Nudaeng to see if they'd heard from her, but there was no answer from them either. I thought of how happy they seemed, talking about their engagement. Later that day, I scanned the names of the dead and looked at the pictures of bodies.

Last night the wall of denial broke. I couldn't sleep. The bloated face, was it Susanna? Yes or no? I could not get the image out of my head. I paced in my apartment. The suddenness, the unexpectedness, the complete unpredictability of these deaths. I thought of how carefree and sure we all seemed at the Christmas party - confidently discussing our plans for the future. I picked up the phone and called Chris again and heard "Welcome to callback service." No signal.

I remembered other sudden deaths - friends or relatives killed in car crashes. I remembered the initial phone calls. My life transformed in an instant. Their lives ended in an instant. And there lies the big denial: the denial of death, the denial of the precariousness of life.

I thought of the goals and problems that had plagued me recently: a masters degree to complete, the usual money problems, a host of grandiose schemes. I asked myself, "In the face of this, what really matters"? Can I be sure that it won't all end tomorrow? No one will remember any of it once I'm gone. And if somehow I had an early warning, what would I do? What would be important in those final hours?

All I could think of was an overwhelming desire to say good-bye and set things right with the people I love - something the tsunami victims never had a chance to do.

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