We are all shaped by joy and sadness. We all experience tragedy at some point in our life. Sometimes events echo down generations. Sometimes healing takes many years to accomplish. How we deal with tragedy makes a difference to its effect on us. If we can accept it, we can find healing. It’s a different matter if we rail against it, and curse…
A long shadow
The ocean at Khao Lak was pellucid aquamarine, and it glittered with a million shards of reflected light. Throughout the rehearsal for his son’s betrothal, Narong seemed uneasy, glancing repeatedly at the water, swallowing, clenching his fists. Rehearsal over, the other participants drifted away, laughing and chattering; Narong began to weep.
Seeing a grown man cry was horrible. Narong had always shown iron self-control and yet suddenly he was broken. He no longer seemed to care what other people would think of him. The tears flooded, the nose streamed, the mouth drooled, the body heaved in great sobs. It was disgusting. No son should ever feel disgusted by his father.
“Dad! Wipe your face. Duangkamol will see you. She’ll think you’re mad!”
I urged my father across the hotel lobby towards the lift. Please let it come soon, and be empty!
In the lift, I handed my father my handkerchief.
“Here, clean yourself up. This is my betrothal, for goodness sake.”
I kept my finger on the button to keep the doors closed until he was presentable, then I pushed him onwards until he was safely out of sight in our suite.
“Now, pull yourself together. You must be over this by eight o’clock, ready for the banquet.” He nodded, then his eyes filled again and he curled into a ball on the bed, sobbing as though his heart was broken.
I headed for the bar. I needed a whisky.
“Aunt Lamai! It’s good to see you.”
“It’s good to see you, too!” She gave me a beaming smile, and held out her arms for a hug. I embraced her heartily, engulfed by the brightly patterned silk of her clothing.
“I’m sorry, I need a drink, Auntie. Would you like to join me? I’m going to the bar.”
After a glance at me, she said, “I would love a glass of iced tea, Somchair. Is the bar the best place for that? I’m not used to luxury like this hotel.”
“I don’t know about the best place, Auntie, but they’ll certainly serve it, and I’m afraid I need something stronger.”
I made her comfortable in a corner, and ordered the iced tea and a double scotch.
I shook my head.
“Well you don’t have to tell me, of course.”
Aunt Lamai looked disappointed. I loved my aunt. After my mum died, she’d given me the same love she’d given her own children. I felt like her child.
“It’s Dad. We’d just finished a rehearsal for tomorrow’s ceremony when he broke down. I mean, totally broke down. I had to rush him back to the suite.”
Aunt Lamai thought for a moment. “Could you see the sea?” she asked.
I was surprised by her question.
“Yes, we could. Why do you ask?”
“Well, this is where it happened, isn’t it, Somchair? Have you forgotten the wave?”
It had all been so quick. One moment I had been happily playing at the water’s edge, the next Dad had seized me, picked me up. He was yelling, “Achara! Run! Run!”
I remembered my mother’s face, stiff with shock, staring out to sea. With a last despairing shout of “Run, Achara!” my father had started to race shorewards.
The wave struck.
My memory thereafter is of a wild, brown confusion, of being now under the water, now on my father’s chest as he held me above him; of pain, as the water scrubbed me against obstacles; and, finally, of darkness that ended with agonising retching as I coughed brine and mud out of my lungs and came back into the light.
And then the blankness of learning that Achara, my beloved mama, was dead.
“Why do you think your Dad never remarried, Somchair?” asked Lamai, softly.
“I should never have come here again. I should have guessed.”
Lamai shook her head.
“No. You were right to come. These are your roots, yours and Duangkamol’s too. You were born here, and you were reborn here when your father saved you.”
“What do I do, Lamai? How can I help him? What a burden he must have carried!”
“I always wished he’d married again. Achara and I were very close. After she had died, I could feel her longing for him to find someone else. But Narong is a strong man. He once said to me, ‘I saved my dear son, but I should have been able to save them both. I left her to die.’”
“Go and talk to him, Somchair. No, go and listen to him. Make him tell you what it has been like. Help him to feel he hasn’t failed. Help him to lay her to rest.”
She patted my hand. “I must join my family. Thank you for the drink.”
Her smile was as soft as goosedown, her eyes filled with a wistful hope.
My father rarely drank, but when he did it was cognac that he chose. I bought a large one, and went up to our suite. Narong was lying on the bed, rigid, eyes staring at the ceiling.
Slowly he turned his face to me.
“I’ve brought you a cognac. Would you like to sit up?”
I thought he wasn’t going to answer. He looked at me, wooden-faced. At last he cleared his throat.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “You are a good son, and I shamed you.”
“Here, let me help you up.”
He glared at me and sat up, then rose to his feet and moved towards the balcony. I followed, shaking with agitation. My father opened the door and stepped out onto the balcony overlooking the sea. He walked to the rail. I stood beside him. Together we gazed at the ilne where sky and water met. I saw beauty; but what nightmares was my father confronting?
“I couldn’t save you both,” he said at last. “I don’t really know if I saved you. It was sheer dumb luck that we weren’t washed against concrete, or…” He stopped, swallowed. “Or a tree. I never told you. That was how your mother…” he paused again, “how Achara, my beloved Achara, died. She had escaped drowning, only to be broken against a tree.”
There was a depth of sorrow in his eyes that I had never noticed before; I had seen only the fierceness of the thin, straight mouth in his domineering face; and yet, now that I had perceived the sorrow, I knew it had always been there.
I put my arm around him. He stiffened, but then relaxed.
“I cursed that tree, Somchair. I cursed the sea. I cursed this town. They took my beloved from me, and I hated them all. But here they are; and I have been the one living under a curse.
Achara is at peace now, Somchair. I am at peace. Will you come with me to her grave? We will take flowers, lotus, her favourite.”
For a few minutes longer we gazed into the infinite. I poured out the cognac as an offering; to whom I could not say, but it seemed right; and my father and I left arm in arm to find flowers.
Thai names, and their meanings
Lamai – a woman of soft skin, a caring person
Narong – one who creates war, or is always ready for war
Somchair – one who is macho or manly
Duangkamol – right from the heart
Achara – an angel, who is very pretty or beautiful
Khao Lak – a small town devastated by the tsunami in 2004. Somchair is 21, nearly 22, so he was 9 at the time.