Going Through the Motions in the Aftermath
We were lucky enough to find a place to rest our heads for the next few nights, many were not and slept on the hill. With rumors flying of more waves coming, we were evacuated to the island’s highest point one more time but otherwise our days were calm as we arranged travel back home and lived on rice and fruit. The Thai Navy sent several boats a day to the area to take people out and asked that everyone allow the injured, elderly, and children to go first.
Since we were all physically well minus a few scrapes and bruises, we decided to take the last boat. Apparently, we waited too long and missed it altogether leaving our only option as taking a long-tail boat out. After declaring a day earlier that I would never in my life – never ever – get back on a long-tail, I found myself clinging to the sides for dear life with eyes fixed on the horizon as we made our way back to the main town. It was so absurd, we couldn’t help but laugh.
We arrived back to Krabi town and with the help of the Thai tourist board, arranged flights the next day for Bangkok.Still shaky but relived to be off the beach, we stumbled into a bar seeking a much needed drink. I’ll never forget that night. Here we were in this foreign place, still numb from the week’s events, and it was Beatles night in this pub. We drank pints of beer and sang along to every song. The euphoria was surreal.
There were still a series of challenges ahead including a less than helpful U.S. Embassy in Bangkok. We watched as other countries helped their citizens get lodging, contact family, and schedule flights only to realize our own country would provide little to no help. It was an eye opener to say the least (as was the disorganization of the State Department who called my mother days later with a report that her daughter was still missing. She responded by telling them I had just landed in Chicago after being processed by the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok and flying into the U.S.) With no help from our country, we turned to the Thai tourism board once again for assistance. They put us up in a hotel until we could fly home and generally did everything possible to help us along the way.
Through it all, the kindness and humbleness of the Thai people was amazing. Their country was devastated, many of their loved ones dead or missing, and yet they were concerned with the health and safety of visitors every step along the way. Witnessing their selflessness was one of the most profound parts of the experience.
On the 36-hour journey from Bangkok to our home in Birmingham, AL nothing seemed real and the overriding feeling was numbness. Arriving home, we were certainly relieved but everything felt off and would for a while.
A few days after arriving home, a friend invited us to a small dinner party. Matt refused to go saying he wasn’t ready to see people. I was dying to see people and get back to normal, so I went alone. Within a few minutes, I realized I had made a mistake and felt out of place all night. This feeling of being off and out of place would last for both of us for many months ahead.
To add to the feeling of “otherness,” well-intentioned friends, family, and acquaintances kept saying things like, “You were spared for a reason,” or “This must mean you will do great things.” We knew they meant well, but these comments irritated us to no end. Every social occasion left us mad and sad at the same time.
Initially our answer to these questions about what we were meant to do began to focus on starting a family. It’s something we had talked about but never with any urgency. We began to think surely now must be the time and started planning and trying. I look back on it now and know it was the unhappiest time of our lives and marriage.
When we began to talk about what was making us unhappy, we discovered that neither of us really wanted kids, we just thought it was what we “should” do. This realization and our ultimate decision not to start a family became a major turning point for us. It was freeing.
From here, we began to explore what we really wanted out of this life and it became clear that the experience of going through the tsunami had only served to feed our fire for exploration and adventure. We wanted to travel, that would become our way of life.
We began arranging everything around this focus. I slowly transitioned professionally to jobs with more flexibility. We made financial decisions based on saving money all for one reason: to see and experience the world.
Ten years later, we are always plotting the next trip and devising ways to dig deeper and stay longer. When it comes to what we experienced, I think I’ve processed it well and keep it all in perspective for the most part. But today, on this anniversary, I can find no peace.
What is it about anniversaries that make us ask big questions? I’m not alone in this, I know. I’ve talked with our companions from the trip and know they are experiencing the same emotions.
Have we done enough with our lives in the past decade? Overall, will we do enough with our lives? What is enough? Why did we survive when so many others didn’t?
These are probably questions anyone who has lived through a traumatic experience asks. Writing about the experience is certainly cathartic, and I take solace in knowing that, since that time a decade ago, Matt and I have each tried to live each day to its fullest. We make it a practice to treasure our friends and family and be grateful for the little things in life.
We’ve learned the importance of leaving nothing left unsaid and of following dreams – not the dreams others think you should have – but yours alone.
No matter where we are in the world, when Christmas comes, we can’t help but look back and think about the event that forever changed our lives. We always raise a toast to our four companions with whom we share this everlasting bond and to those around us who supply an overabundance of love and support every day. We are blessed.
So today, I give thanks for these last ten years and those many blessings.Thank you for being part of our journey. We are excited to see where it leads next. (We are already plotting a return visit to Thailand next year, so stay tuned.)
Many happy wishes to you for a healthy, happy, and adventure-filled 2015!
To read more on this topic, here’s a story I wrote for Paste magazine:
10 Years After the Indian Ocean Tsunami
When Crisis Hits: Lessons Learned Surviving a Natural Disaster