During our lifetime, there are certain dates that cause us to remember where we were when disaster struck. For my parents generation, there was November 22, 1963 and for me, there is September 11, 2001 and December 26, 2004.
The day after Christmas in 2004, I was in Guayaquil, Ecuador waiting for a flight to Madrid, Spain. I had just spent the holiday with my family exploring the Galapagos Islands and was planning to continue on with them to Machu Pichu, Peru but I developed a tooth problem and decided instead to return home to Madrid. At the airport, everyone was glued to the televisions with CNN reporting that a horrific tsunami struck Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and the coasts of the Indian Ocean. At the bottom of the television screen was a counter with the estimated number of deaths increasing by the thousands every few minutes. It seemed unreal.
Passengers tore their eyes from the television, boarded the plane, and we took off but as the plane ascended, the whole fuselage convulsed. Kids screamed and we all looked at each other and the flight attendants for reassurance but everyone knew there was a serious problem. The pilot leveled the plane and tried to climb only to have the plane start to shake again. After several unsuccessful attempts to gain altitude, the pilot announced there was a mechanical problem with the plane and that we would be returning to the airport in Guayaquil but first we would circle for about thirty minutes. The plane was heavy with fuel for the 11 hour flight to Madrid and since we were on the coast, I knew the pilot was dumping fuel.
An hour later, the pilot announced we would be landing and to prepare for a fast landing but he didn’t say what was wrong with the plane (later, I learned there was a problem with the flaps). Kids were crying, people were praying but most of us sat there in a daze making silent deals with God (my daughter was 8 years old at the time and I just kept repeating to myself that I wanted to see her grow up).
The night was clear with the sky full of stars and as I looked out the window, I could see the runway lit up which made me feel we were so close to safety. But, as we approached the very long runway I could see the tarmac lined with fire trucks and this filled me with fear. I tightened my seat belt, closed my eyes and focused on breathing because my heart was racing with adrenaline. The plane touched down at the very beginning of the runway and the pilot needed every foot of that runway to slow the aircraft and prevent the plane from going into the bay (which was at the end of the runway). That the fire trucks raced after us didn’t give me a good feeling.
I remember using my right foot instinctively pushing down as if I could brake the plane like a car. When the plane finally stopped, I was grateful; I wouldn’t die that night and I would live to see my daughter and husband again. After the plane was emptied, we were transported to a hotel where I immediately turned on the television to watch CNN for more information on the tsunami and the more I watched, the more shocking the news because by this time, there were hundreds of thousands of deaths reported. As lucky as I was on December 26, 2004, I knew there were other mothers that wouldn’t see their children grow up. Sonali Deraniyagala, the author of Wave was one of these mothers.
On the morning of December 26, 2004, Sonali was with her family – two young sons, Vik (age 7) and Mal (age 5), her husband, Steve and parents – at a hotel in Yala, a national park on the southeast coast of Sri Lanka. They had just celebrated Christmas the day before and planned to enjoy the morning at the beach side park before driving the 200 miles west to her parent’s home in Colombo. Sonali and her husband, Steve were doctoral economists who met at Cambridge and although they lived in London, they often returned to Sri Lanka to visit Sonali’s family and to take their boys to the national park where they could see elephants, birds, wild boar and other animals.
The sky was blue, the sun was shining and there was no hint that a 30 foot tsunami wave was about to hit the southeastern shores of Sri Lanka. Sonali was watching her two boys play in the hotel room while Steve was in the bathroom when she noticed a white foamy wave and within minutes realized the sea was coming in desperately fast. Sonali and Steve grabbed the children and ran hopping into a jeep to escape but the water quickly overtook them and in an instant they were gone. Sonali was found alive clinging to a branch later that morning but her husband, children, and parents were killed.
Wave is a touching memoir of those last moments and Sonali’s long journey through crippling grief and unimaginable loss. In the first few months afterwards, Sonali slides into darkness using alcohol and drugs, with plans to kill herself that are thwarted by family members who hide knives, count pills, and refuse to leave her alone. After four years, she returns to London and the home that has been left virtually untouched since the night they left in December, 2004. Sonali finds her boys shoes with dried mud on the bottoms and her husband’s eyelash on the pillow in their bed and she vacillates between utter despair and the comfort in knowing they were once real. Unable to reconcile her old life with her new life, Sonali moves to New York City where she meets a therapist who allowed her to “grasp the unfathomable and to dare to remember” because, in her words:
I can only recover myself when I keep them near. If I distance myself from them, and their absence, I am fractured. I am left feeling I’ve blundered into a stranger’s life.
And, so in Wave, Sonali recalls both the tragic and the joyful as she remembers how she met her husband, the births of her children, their brief childhood, and the life they made for themselves before “the wave came for them.” She allows herself to imagine what her boys would be like now as teenagers and in doing that, she keeps them alive in her broken heart. Wave is a haunting story of unimaginable loss and one woman’s powerful journey to survive and find meaning in a life that feels meaningless.