Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.
Where we are: We’re wrapping up our time in Raleigh, running the last few errands, making sure we’ve crammed in as much in-person visiting with our people as we can. I’m eating my body weight in grits and biscuits—you can take the girl out of the south, yada yada. And I am mentally preparing myself for the pain of a 6 am flight, which will be complicated by Derek and my cast.
Do you have a plan?
We were on a beach in Sri Lanka for Christmas one year. I mention that it was Christmas, because that meant we were there for Boxing Day, the anniversary of the terrible tsunami that sloshed around the edges of the Indian Ocean in 2004.
There weren’t anniversary commemorations or anything, of course. As a matter of fact, the owner of our hotel asked us not to mention it to anyone. The people who lived through it don’t like to talk about it, she said. Everyone lost someone.
What we saw instead—the omnipresent reminder—was the grave markers. All along the side of the road, everywhere we went with Nihal, our trusty tuktuk driver, we saw headstones. One or two, or three or four. Little clusters in every available patch of land. Apparently there were so many bodies, the government temporarily lifted zoning restrictions, allowing the dead to be buried in any available space.
I’m a southerner; I come from a place where it’s not unusual for great-grand-daddy to be buried in the family plot out on the back forty. Even so, those Sri Lankan graves all along the side of the road were shocking. I can’t imagine the sheer scale of death that would force people to bury their loved ones wherever they could find a patch of unoccupied ground.
While we were there, I read a book (Wave, by Sonali Deraniyagala) about one woman’s experience in the tsunami. Like me, she was visiting for the holidays. Unlike me, in a matter of seconds, her husband, children, and parents were ripped away from her and killed. Just like that—gone.
The book was harrowing, and I couldn’t stop talking about it as we wandered around Unawatuna Beach, lolling in the sun, eating mangoes, watching sea turtles surf in the aquamarine water. It was an idyllic setting, which made the book all that much more difficult to absorb.
Perhaps the only way we can look at something so horrific is to glance at it from the side. We (I, at least), focus on a small detail in a much larger portrait of horror. The piece of Wave that I latched onto was the moment when the author tumbled out of the wave and returned to consciousness, alone, bruised and battered, and without her things. I’m not very thing-oriented (duh—I live out of a suitcase), but the things I choose to keep are important to me. I’m no longer sure how to function without a phone. My battery got dangerously low one day while I was on a long Metro ride from our Paris apartment, and I got mildly panicky, worried I wouldn’t be able to retrace my route home without Siri’s friendly voice in my ear.
In Sri Lanka, I kept telling Lee about the tsunami. About how Sonali ran around looking for her husband and her sons. How she needed to call her siblings, her cousins—someone, anyone—but couldn’t, because the wave had taken her phone.
What would we do, I asked, as we lay in bed, listening to high tide splashing against our deck. How would we call our children, let them know we were safe?
Thus began a big project that took Lee several months to complete. He worked out and implemented a system that would enable either one of us to access all of our information remotely, if we ever found ourselves with nothing but the shirts on our backs. We have a back-up plan, and a back-up to the back-up. Plans A, B, and C. Once a month he drills me on the major elements. Eventually, I intend to remember how it all works.
In the meantime, every now and again, I look around at where I am, and think: you know, if there were a tsunami right now, none of that would matter, because I would have no idea which way to run.
Three weeks ago, on the day of my surgery, the nurse asked if I had a living will or a durable power of attorney. I don’t. Confession: I’m not even entirely clear on what those things actually are. I guess I’m not as well-organized and on top of my business as I thought I was.
That question I asked in Sri Lanka—how would we call our children, let them know we were safe—makes one glaring assumption: that we just keep walking away, as if the end never comes. If there’s one lesson that has sunk in over the intervening years, it’s that the end does come, for all of us.
There’s something about being in my mid-fifties that has made the fragile, finite nature of life much clearer. My days are sweeter because I finally realize in my soul that they’re not infinite. I don’t know if I’ll die in the turmoil of a tsunami, or the indignity of falling in a sewer, or surrounded by the quiet peace of a hospice room, but as Lee likes to say, no one gets out alive.
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