I do not write often of my sons but they are very much a part of this journey as well. They are the reason we get out of bed each day and the reason we continue to work and function in this world. I’m not sure where we would be if it wasn’t for them.
I have met a number of people who have lost older children and who have older children still with them. I have had two mothers say to me that they are unable to focus on their other children because they are consumed by the death of their children. Both of these mothers have children who are around 30 years of age and the ones who died were of similar age.
My mother and her sister have said the same thing about their mother. They were in their mid-20s when their brother died at the age of 19. Both of them, at different times, have told me not to forget my sons as they felt forgotten by their mother.
I have also had an email exchange with a mother who lost her sister and feels forgotten by her parents. She is about 30 years of age as well.
I have told them all the same thing. It is different for us; our sons were five years old when they survived the tsunami, their need for us was immediate. We were all part of the tsunami. We were there with Clea that day.
For my sons, their world overturned within 10 minutes on 29 September 2009. They woke early with their sister after sleeping the night together on a mattress on the floor in a fale on the beach. They had listened to the wind rattle through the fale and the waves edging closer to the steps.
My children are very close and spend a lot of time together. That morning, they had been on the beach trying to rebuild the sandcastle which had been washed away by the tide during the night. They had been skipping through the waves as their sister skipped behind their father. They did not know why their father told them to run but they ran. And they never saw their sister again.
My husband picked up one son as he ran toward the escarpment. He held onto that son during the tsunami; never letting him go, dragging him back as the waters tried to take hold of him. That son may have seen the water coming as later he drew a picture of a monster with teeth for a psychologist.
My other son was holding my hand, as was Clea. I lost both children as the water hit. We were close to the escarpment but not close enough. We do not know what happened to Clea but my son says he found things to float on and when he fell off one bit of wood, he found another bit of wood. He was washed into the muddy jungle sometime before anyone else. When the water had subsided and we could breathe, he was shivering amongst the trees in the mud calling out to me. I do not know how long he was there before he saw anyone else. For the psychologist, he drew a picture of an enormous blue ocean and a little speck at the bottom which he said was him.
How does it feel to be playing with your sister and then five or 10 minutes later she is gone? She was the leader, the boss. She organised their games. She told them what to do. They ran to her when they were hurt. She kissed and cuddled them like a second mother. She was only 17 months older than them. She was the best big sister and she would never let anything happen to them. Now, she is gone.
We made them sit next to strangers amongst the trees as we searched for our daughter. The boys did not necessarily understand what had happened or what was happening. Finally, Jorge said we have to get the boys off the beach. He made a decision that we had to look after them and that they were the priority. They needed us.
We climbed the escarpment and trekked to a small local hospital where the injured and the dead lay. We spent the day in a refuge. One son walked and talked all day; the other lay next to me on a palm mat, not talking, not walking. Jorge went back to the beach to search for Clea and I took the boys to the edge of the escarpment to look down onto the beach. The houses were gone. The fales were gone. The trees were flattened. The tsunami left a lagoon behind; between the escarpment and the road. That is where Clea was. She is down there I told my sons and she will not return. We have been completely honest with them.
While Jorge was at the beach, someone in the refuge gave us some biscuits. One son kept a biscuit for his sister, if Papa finds her, she will be hungry he said.
But he did not find her.
We were taken back to Apia that night and we had to look after our sons. They had to be bathed, they had to have their teeth cleaned, they had to be tucked into bed and kissed goodnight. They had to know that they were loved. The next day, they had to be dressed, they had to have breakfast; we had to look after them. We had, and have, no choice.
So, we are unable to isolate ourselves from the world; as much as I would like to do that. We have to take them to school. We take them to the same school their sister attended. We took them back to preschool the Monday after Clea’s funeral (Friday 9 October 2009). We have carried on the routine of daily life – dinner time, book reading, bathing, teeth cleaning, kissing goodnight.
Their lives have changed completely. It took them six months to want to go outside to play. They now watch different television programs. Subtle changes have appeared. They lost their leader and the dynamics of their relationship has changed. They are twins; who is the oldest? Who is the leader? Neither.
We have told them that Clea is in their hearts. They even ask why we cry as Clea is in our hearts, and hence, she is always with us.
People often ask how the boys are going. I guess it is much easier to ask how the boys are than how I am. That is a hard question to face. I say the same thing mostly; that, the boys are fine, they are young and live in the here and now, they do not understand the never, ever part of their sister’s death.
My sons are not like other children. They have survived a tsunami and lost their sister. They watch their parents cry daily. They play tsunami games in the bath with their toy ships. And when we have travelled to other countries they ask whether tsunamis happen in this country or does this place have earthquakes – in London, Singapore, San Francisco, Mexico City. Even in Liverpool, in England, as we drove along the River Mersey, each asked separately whether a tsunami would come here and how far would it travel along the river. My friends were somewhat surprised but for the boys the tsunami is part of their everyday lives.
They may be able to comprehend her absence but they would not be able to explain it to anyone. They have had to face mortality and reality at a very young age. Not many of us have to do that. They know they will die one day and I cannot protect them from that fact and I do not try to protect them from the fact of death.
They talk as though Clea was here only yesterday but she has been gone for 122 weeks. My sons are now older than their elder sister. In one week’s time, they will begin Year 2 at school; something their sister never got to do. She was looking forward to starting Year 2 as then her brothers would be in Kindergarten and she would be able to look out for them.
My daughter would be so very angry with me and so very disappointed in me if I did not look after her brothers. She loves them as do I and as does my husband. They are all we have and I am unable to not look after them. I have no choice.