loss

Untitled [Flash Fiction]

This untitled work is my first attempt at writing creatively for any flash fiction audiences that may be out there.   It is a story of a father who doesn’t appreciate the things in life that he should, with dire consequences.  The word count is just over 1,210 words, but I’m sure there are some adjustments that can be made to bring it under the mark.  While it is a difficult topic for a story, I hope you, the reader, are able to take something away from the story I have written as I have done from other flash fiction writers out there.  Without further adieu!

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“Are you ready yet?” a father asked.

“Okay, daddy. I’m ready,” his little boy replied.

He reminded his son, “did you remember to grab your water bottle from the counter top?”

The sound of little feet racing back into the kitchen to grab a forgotten water bottle answered him, the little boy’s bulky Spiderman backpack wobbling back and forth from all of the commotion, almost as if it were trying to break free from the little boy. He finally came back to the front door, his water bottle — and a cookie — in his hands.

“No wonder it took you so long. Come on, we’re going to be late,” he scolded.

“Okay, daddy.” Giving him his hand, the little boy walked briskly to keep up with his father as they made their way to the daycare conveniently located down the street. He never had the time to eat his cookie.

“Come on, I have several meetings to go to today, and you’re going to be late for the morning circle,” the father said with a sense of urgency in his voice. The little boy could do nothing but struggle to keep up with his impatient father, taking two steps for every one he made.

As they drew near the daycare, car doors were slamming, as more impatient parents — some mothers, others fathers, all dressed for business — were herding their children into the day care. The buzzer at the door allowing everyone in was ringing constantly; the tone of it seemed to match the irritation the adults were having with their reluctant children.

Once they were inside, the little boy ran at a sprint into the hallway toward his classroom, his bulky Spiderman backpack wobbling crazier than ever from all of the commotion. In fact, every child’s backpack was moving this way and that in an almost hypnotic motion, the rhythm of everything happening at this one moment as everyone came into the daycare a cacophony of orderly chaos. Some mothers were helping their little girls into their slippers; some fathers were helping their little boys out of their jackets; most of the little boys and girls were rushing to keep up with their impatient parents.

“Did you brush your teeth this morning like I told you?” the father asked while he helped his little boy out of his worn-out and dusty sneakers.

“Yes, daddy,” he replied, his tone drowned out by the commotion coming from a fussy little girl having her jacket taken off by her mother.

The father placed his little boy’s sneakers under the bench in their designated spot and walked him to the door to where the daycare assistant was greeting the little boys and girls as they were coming in. Rather shyly, his little boy shook her hand like his father always instructed him to do, and walked into the room where the other little boys and girls were waiting for their day to start.

The father watched his little boy go up to the other children for a moment, a moment that seemed to stand still amidst the chaos of the other parents pushing their children into daycare. He wanted to speak out to his little boy, to call him son and to tell him that he loved him very much. That all of the eagerness to see him to the daycare was not to be rid of him, but to see him someplace where he could make friends, someplace where his son would be safe while he worked to sustain his family’s livelihood. He knew, though, his little boy wouldn’t understand at such a young age.

The moment was over as quickly as it had begun — his little boy’s attention was focused elsewhere — so he turned at a brisk pace toward the door. He walked to his house the way he and his little boy had come; he grabbed his briefcase and his satchel, both waiting patiently for him by the front door. As soon as he had come in, he was closing the door on his way out. He climbed into his parked car, put his keys into the ignition and drove off at a pace faster than he should have been driving in this part of the neighborhood. He made his way to work.

His day was finally over. It was a productive day, he thought. He had been to meetings with numerous people; he had had teleconferences with people from other parts of the world; he even had lunch with the vice-president, who told him about a promotion they were considering him for. He thought about this and what it would mean for his family. It would mean more job security; it would mean more responsibility; it would mean more hours and more traveling. But then, his mind went blank, and he drove the rest of the way home, forgetful of the important things he was supposed to remember for the next day. Finally, he pulled into his driveway, parked his car and went into the house to drop off his briefcase and satchel. He made his way at a much slower pace toward the daycare, where his little boy would be waiting for him expectantly. His shirt was hanging out of his trousers and his shoes were untied. He even had a five o’clock shadow that looked unkempt, but he didn’t care. He had worked all day. He had an excuse for his appearance.

At a much slower pace, he walked up to the daycare and tried to open the door, but a sudden wave of exhaustion overcame him. He staggered as if he had been hit by an unseen force, an invisible barrier that was keeping him from advancing any further. He supported himself on his knees, slouching and breathing heavily as he did, the world spinning as he watched the door open in slow-motion, the director and her secretary coming out to assist him.

“It’s him again. Should I call the police, ma’am?” the secretary asked, her voice filled with annoyance and a mild touch of concern.

“No,” the director said, directing her attention toward the father, “but you need to understand, sir, that we are very sorry for your loss, but there is nothing we can do here to help you. Maybe you should speak to someone, you know, professionally — to help you through your problems, sir,” she recommended, a hint of nervousness in her voice.

“I… I don’t under… understand?” His question and his delirious state only made him look pathetic and weak in front of these two young women. He didn’t know what else to say or do but slouch there in front of the daycare door and look pathetic and weak. In fact, there was nothing else he could do. His helplessness was so overbearing, that he did the only thing he could do; he started to sob — uncontrollably.

“Sir, you’re in denial. You need to get help. You lost your wife and your son in a car accident three months ago. We’re truly sorry.  Is there anyone we could call?” but, the two women could only watch solemnly as the man, stripped of his purpose and his future, collapsed to the ground and cried, and there was nothing he could do to help himself.

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Review of “Wave” by Sonali Deraniyagala [Audio]

WaveI don’t know what compelled me to download this book to read it.  I remember how shocking it was to learn about Sri Lanka and many of the other islands devastated by a tsunami caused by the Sumatra-Andaman earthquake on 26 December, 2004.  I remember the shock and awe from watching  the news that Christmas holiday, as footage revealed beach-front homes being washed away in a matter of minutes.  One video that I remember was taken from the vantage point of a two-story building in the center of some town, where survivors of the rapidly advancing flood waters took cover in elevated places, watching and filming the street below as it channeled this massive and forceful current of muddy, oceanic water — cars and felled trees floating through the street with the slightest of resistance.  The vehement water took no notice to obstacles, destroying virtually everything in its path.  Those people caught in the aftermath, who weren’t drowned or killed by the suddenness of the tsunami, were displaced from their homes, traumatized by the experience of the Indian ocean assaulting the beachfront like an angry god, a conqueror, laying claim to the island for itself.

I think this is what intrigued me, lured me even, to Sonali Deraniyagala’s memoir of those events.  I remember watching in disbelief as that force of nature devastated most of the coastal regions throughout that part of the Indian ocean and Indonesia.   Knowing this, and finding this book available at the library for download only set my curiosity in motion.  I had to read this book.  I wanted to know about this survivor, about what she endured, what she went through.  Reading the plot synopsis could have never prepared me for the vivid imagery of her experiences there in that beachfront hotel as the tsunami struck.  Nothing could have prepared me for the overwhelming account she tells of the ocean yanking her free of the jeep she rode to escape in with her family.  No — nothing could have warned me of the deep and awful pain of her loss, as she realizes that both of her parents, her two sons, and her husband — all of whom she was on vacation with for the holidays — would be lost to her forever.  This book, this memoir, has revealed something to me that no Gothic story could ever do:  ghosts do exist. They haunt through the memories of those who have suffered terrible and tragic loss from sudden and traumatic experiences.

I can understand why this heart-wrenching book was disliked by some readers, as this book is not for the faint of heart.  It is emotionally draining to think about her loss, and I feel this has a lot to do with the way the book has been seen by some readers.  To date, the social media website, Goodreads, reveals that this book was rated with 3-stars or less by 26 percent of readers within its community, from a pool totaling 4,917 people.  When singling out a few of those negative reviews, one reader saw it difficult to relate to the author, in saying that, “Wave is compelling, and extremely well written, but is just page after page of pain” (Greg).   Another reader confessed that “it’s hard to make a negative comment about this book without coming across as hard hearted…but I found it really hard to empathise with the author as she came across as cold, selfish and spoilt [sic]… I would hope that most people wouldn’t be as callous as she” (Avidreader).  Another commenter agreed with this reader, stating how, “I kept wondering throughout this admittedly well-written memoir how the thousands of others who lost families with less means made it through their grief…. I really liked and enjoyed the writing, but didn’t have much sympathy for the author because of this” (Lisa).  Some even go so far as to attribute Deraniyagala’s lack of empathy for those around her in the earlier parts of her memoir, when she was clearly in shock from her experiences, as a sign of her stature and wealthy status, what with her being a learned economics scholar from Cambridge and Oxford universities.  While I cannot attest to how this book will affect you, good reader, should you decide to pick it up and read it for yourself, I can say that the brutal honesty Deraniyagala writes in this book is not to appeal to you, as readers, in some way, but it is more for herself.   This memoir is about healing; it is about coming to terms with grief and living with those ghosts that haunt her.

Compound the loss of her entire family to that fateful Sunday morning with the traumatic experience of facing near death, herself, and you find this book is about expressing that which she cannot bring herself to express.  Throughout much of the memoir, she is reluctant to tell anyone of her experience, of her loss, for fear of letting too much reveal itself.  She doesn’t want to recall those painful memories, doesn’t want people to get too close to her, to pity her.  As Deraniyagala writes, “I am in the unthinkable situation that people cannot bear to contemplate.”  And she is right.  How can anyone imagine such a surreal tragedy?  How could anyone possibly endure such  terrible loss and still remain a sane person?  How can we as readers relate to her experience and say we truly understand her situation?  Unless you have personally suffered too, there is no way to do this.  If you read this book, you are merely along for the ride.  This is her struggle with grief and the trauma of her survival when all others failed to do so; you might even add a dash of survivor’s guilt because of this, as a few points in the book tend to reveal.

The imagery she weaves all throughout the memoir is haunting; the memories of her boys, of her husband, resonate all throughout the book, intermingling with her attempts to reminisce the life she once had.  Yet, she can never return to those moments before the tsunami.  As one critic for the New Yorker wrote: “‘Wave’ is really two stories in one.  The second story is about remembering the life of a family when they were happy.  The first is about the stunned horror of a woman who lost, in one moment, her past, present, and future” (Cole).  We get both experiences running parallel throughout the story as Deraniyagala asks herself questions like “Was I their mother?”  She tells us about other moments — intensely, emotionally rich moments, where she reveals insights into her previous life and what it was like to return to it:

I’ve pushed away thoughts of my children’s everyday hurts and fears, suggestions of their frailty and tenderness.  It’s easier to remember my boys with humor or to recall their cheek.  But now as I dare to peer more closely at them, they emerge more whole.

For years I’ve told myself it’s pointless to cherish my children’s personalities and their passions, for they are now dead.  But here in our home I am surrounded by proof of it all.  I unlock my mind a little and allow myself to know the wonder of them.

Deraniyagala repeatedly confides in her memorial to her family such revealing moments, where she seeks to come to terms with herself and the past she once had with her family.  The details she includes, ranging from the mud still on the doormat that would have been from her husband’s boots to the sounds of distant laughter resonating throughout a room, sounds from a time before the wave changed everything, seems to suggest what Cathy Caruth reveal as the enigmatic and confounding nature of trauma, in that we have not only confronted death, but we “hav[e] survived, precisely, without knowing it” (original emphasis, 64). Flashbacks from moments in the past return to haunt a survivor, often repeatedly, making it incomprehensible, she argues, to understand one’s own survival.  Linking this to Freud’s theory on the life and death drive, Caruth tells us that it is not the incomprehensibility of survival that creates an imposition for death, but a traumatic ‘awakening’ to life (64).  As a survivor, realizing one’s near-death experiences often leaves a person with little to no preparations for such moments, and the impact of this, the “failing to return to the moment of a [person’s] act of living” changes the future for that individual.  For Deraniyagala, her grief for the loss of family is what keeps her from moving on; it is the source of her personal trauma.  Her memories frequently haunt her, and the fact that she wrote this book nearly 9 years after-the-fact is a sign that she is still coming to terms with her loss but is nevertheless learning to live again.

There are moments in her writing where Deraniyagala tells us about shying away from or  utterly avoiding people who inquire about her family.  Only her closest friends know about her situation, and through them, she sees her boys grow older, the daughters of her London friends, an example of this.  She dreads their birthdays because the pain of knowing they’re no longer alive is too tormenting, always referring to each in the tense “would be.”  Whenever she is placed on the spot and someone asks about her family or her parents, she attempts to get out of answering their questions, a point she motions in the book as having caused a “pickle” when seeing the person a second time around.  “How are your parents?”  She would be asked, to which her response was “they’re fine,” always afraid to go into anymore detail than this.  But, this changes by the end of the book.  She confesses that it may have been the mojitos that loosened her up to reveal what she does, but she confides in a stranger, an inquisitive old Jewish man, asking about her family life, and this moment, much like the writing of this very book, is what reveals to us that she has found peace within herself and can move on with her life.  She tells us that it is becoming easier for her to live with the memories of her two boys and her husband, and that there is life beyond suffering.  One only has to endure to learn it.

I will be thinking about this woman’s story for a long time to come.  The use of the personal pronoun I not only makes it Deraniyagala’s story, but it makes it my own, and I cannot help but mourn the loss of her family with her, while celebrating the time I have now with my own.

Works Cited

Avidreader. Community Reviews [Comment]. Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala.” Goodreads.  Goodreads, Inc., 2014. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.

Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1996. Print.

Cole, Teju. “A Better Quality of Agony.”  The New Yorker. Conde Nast, 28 Mar. 2013. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.

Deraniyagala, Sonali. Wave. New York: A.A Knopf, division of Random House, Inc., 2013. Digital Media Library. Audiobook. 17 Mar. 2014.

Lisa. Community Reviews [Comment]. Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala.” Goodreads.  Goodreads, Inc., 2014. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.