My 29 September

[I wrote this as the first chapter of a manuscript on my first 12 months without Clea. Some of you have read these words before but not many of you. This is my perspective of the day my daughter died. I have not read it again for sometime so if there are grammatical errors, I apologise. This is my 29 September 2009; and my 29 September every year.]

“Corred, corred” he screeched to his family who were skipping along the beach blissfully unaware of the future ahead.

We are a family like all other families with expectations of children growing up and of parents growing old. A mother, father, daughter and twin sons. Early risers. Out on the beach early. Playing in the sand. Nothing unusual, fairly ordinary.

We appear, and are, happy, content. The children easily entertain themselves building a sandcastle. Jorge speaks Spanish. I speak English. It is interesting to listen to the mix and the children are not concerned about which language is being spoken by whom and when. They understand. They are self-contained, not in need of anyone or anything to occupy them.

We slept last night in a fale in the front row. Right on the beach. Listening to the waves lapping and the wind rattling the fale. A little thatched house on stilts. A fragile beach house standing on the sand. Traditional. We slept on a double bed under a mosquito net and the children slept side-by-side on a double mattress on the floor, also under a mosquito net. Their towels, swimmers, snorkels, goggles and fins draped over the railings and chairs on the small veranda. Evidence of yesterday.

Yesterday, we arrived at Lalomanu beach. Ate lunch in the restaurant at Taufua Resort. And spent the afternoon in the sea. Omar was unwell. He sat on the sand. Jordi was brave, using his goggles for the first time and watching the fish swim past. Clea was a mermaid, as usual. She had learnt to use the fins and snorkel, walking backwards into the water so as not to fall. Jorge was swimming over the reef, calling to Clea, come look at the fish. But she stayed with me. Close to her mother, as usual. We swam all afternoon.

A photo was taken of a mother, daughter and sons. Standing on the veranda of the fale. Smiling happily at the proud father taking the photo. No one has ever seen that photo but the image is etched into my memory. A happy family about to walk along the road to the village in search of ice cream.

Sitting on the veranda with the sand beneath us, we can see the reef about 200 metres off shore. The clichéd coconut trees sway in the breeze and coconuts even fall on the roof of our fale. An island paradise. We arrived yesterday. Only yesterday. My sister drove us along the inland road from Apia. We were to return on the coastal road after two nights at the beach. We came round the bend through the village of Lalomanu to the beach with sweeping views of the fales, the sand, the lagoon and the islands offshore.

The fales are located between the road and the small beach. Sand flows onto the road. Across the road is the ‘toilet block’ like the many caravan parks of my summer childhood by the beach. Behind the toilet block a forested escarpment climbing high off the beach. Quite steep. There are a few houses, not many. I presume the resort owners live in them. These are family businesses. Family is important in Samoa.

The sign says ‘resort’ but there is no swimming pool, no bar, and no kids’ club. We ate in the restaurant last night, as did everyone else staying in the fales. Rows of tables and chairs, everyone eating communally. A small boy wanted to eat with us but there was not enough room for him and his parents. They found another table. It was a pleasant evening.

There are no lights. The children are scared to sleep without a light. We are all tired. Jorge read them a Spanish book. It was his turn to read. I kissed them goodnight saying the same thing as always ‘good night (kiss), sleep tight (kiss), I love you (kiss)’. Jordi in the middle, Omar on the far end and Clea on the end closest to our bed. All snuggled up with their sleeping friends – Jordi has Tookey, who was once Clea’s Osito; Omar has Tigger and Blah Blahs, who was also once Clea’s; and Clea has Chuchi and Tower. Omar woke during the night, scared. He woke his brother and sister. I settled them, telling them it’s OK, Mummy is here and kissing them each once more.

The day breaks warm and bright after the windy night. The sun shines over the sparkling lagoon; the waves break over the reef. There is a small island just off to the left of vision. Two resorts next to each other, both with fales on the beach. No wind. No rain. No need to wear hats.

I kiss my children good morning. I kiss them every morning. I even kiss them when I clean their teeth. They should clean their own teeth. They eat fruit and biscuits waiting for the breakfast bell which won’t ring until 9am. I brush Clea’s hair and tie it up. It is sandy and wild from spending all yesterday afternoon in the sea. We all wear our swimmers except for Jorge. We all bought new swimmers for the holiday in Samoa. We are preparing to spend the day on the beach. What else is there to do?

Clea pesters me to wear my pink shirt. I am sunburnt from yesterday and want to cover up. Clea has to wear her swim shirt instead. She always wants my clothes. She asks if this or that piece of clothing will be hers when I die. Of course, I tell her, I only have one little girl.

The shuddering begins soon after 6:30am. Rattling the fales. The beach shifts and rolls. The children glance up. We smile. They continue constructing the sandcastle, which had disappeared under the tide last night, armed with the confidence of their parents. There is chatter amongst the tourists, mention of tsunamis and certainty of an alarm or siren. No cause for concern. The island suffers many earth tremors each year. I didn’t see any signs in the fales, any warnings of what to do in case of earthquake or tsunami. No tsunami evacuation routes. There would be signs I assure myself. There will be a system, sirens, alarms. There will be something and we will have time if a tsunami comes. Nothing unusual, fairly ordinary.

Jorge guides us on a walk down the beach past all the fales. The same path we walked yesterday. We see children heading off to school in their red and yellow uniforms. Why are they going to school asks Clea. Because they are not on holidays like we are. They still have to go to school. School must begin early here or maybe they have a long way to walk.

Jorge is watching the vast ocean. He is mistrusting of such an expanse of water. I chat with Clea. She hugs me. She comes right up close and stares into my eyes. She does that. Sometimes she pulls your ears as well. Jordi and Omar hate having their ears pulled. She stares right into my eyes and dares me to look away. What are you doing Mummy she asks? Sometimes I am Mama and sometimes I am Mummy. Papa is always Papa. I’m following Papa’s footsteps I tell her. Me too, she says, I want to follow his footsteps too. Our final conversation. Jordi and Omar run in and out of the water. All wearing our swimmers. No shoes. Clea tries to walk in her father’s footsteps and I try to walk in her footsteps. I follow the little footprints which don’t quite reach the big footprints. You’re not doing a very good job I tell my daughter.

Jorge’s footsteps seem to wander. He must be trying to avoid the glass in the sand that we had noticed as we walked along the same stretch of beach yesterday. We are happy and content in each other’s company. No need for anyone else. Horrible things don’t happen to nice people.

Jorge yells something in Spanish. ‘Corred, corred’. Clea runs to me, Omar also runs to me. I am holding their hands. Jorge sweeps up Jordi in his arms. We run. Over the beach, across the road, past the green houses. Jorge yells at the occupants; they run. Pigs and dogs run. Almost at the bottom of the steep hill. In the taro gardens. Almost there. I look back – confusion surrounds my face. I have no idea what I am seeing. I think I can see water coming over the road. It doesn’t look so bad. Surely it won’t reach us. But now it is behind the houses and where does the ocean finish and the sky begin? Jorge runs past a fallen woman lying on the ground. He has his son. He cannot help both. He has to make a decision. He knows what is coming. We do not.

The water hits. Hits hard. Surrounds us. It is dark, black, swirling water. Not a wave. Not like the waves I am used to. I lose my children. Their hands lose my grip. I feel the release of my children. The last contact I have with my daughter. We need both hands to fight the water. Around and around we turn. The houses are gone. Bits of house are in the water, palm trees, cars, wood, furniture, fridges, animals, everything. Stuff, so much stuff in the water. We are in very deep water pushing us up the steep incline into the jungle. Tumbling in a gigantic washing machine with the door closed. There is no escape.

Clea is knocked from me. She must struggle and fight. She is determined and strong. She is a good swimmer. She’s on level 5. She wants to be a swimming teacher. She wants to be 16. She desperately wants to grow up. She wants her mother and father. She likes to be close to us. She must be brave she often tells herself. She doesn’t like to be alone. She hits something, a tree, a rock wall, there is so much stuff washing around. She is unconscious. Washed this way and that way, her body floats around in the water. She swallows too much water. She never liked to drink water and now she has too much. She is no more. She has drowned. She is six years old. Where is the mermaid’s tail she wanted so badly? Where is the potion she needed to drink in order to breathe under water? Where is the magic she so believed in?

Omar is knocked from me. He struggles and fights. He is confused. Why did Papa tell him to run? Where did the water come from? Where is his mother? He finds pieces of wood, he floats; he falls off and finds another piece of wood. He keeps finding more pieces of wood. He is close to the edge and can just touch the bottom of the deep lagoon which wasn’t there before. He is washed into a forest and the water stops. He crawls out into the mud, shivering in fear; there is no one in sight. He can’t see anyone, not his father, not his mother, not his sister, not his brother, no one. He calls for his mother. He is five years old.

Jordi clings desperately to his father. He won’t let him go. He can see the water over his father’s shoulder. A monster is coming; a dark monster with teeth is going to eat him. It is coming for him and for his father. He screams but there is no sound. Papa pushes him above the water, holding him high. The water stops. Jordi is still clinging to his father. They are still in the water. He can hear Omar calling for their mother. He is five years old.

Jorge runs. He follows his family, making sure they are running. He runs past the houses. He grabs Jordi on the way past. He knows what is coming. He has seen the horizon bend and arch with the force of the water. There was no flatness on the horizon only a forewarning of death. He is under the water, swallowing water. More and more water. There is no break. Where is the noise? It must be deafening. When will the pounding stop? He holds Jordi up, up. The monster tries to drag Jordi away but he hugs his son close. His son must live. He is dying. All is black. There is too much water. The water stops. He still has Jordi. His feet are stuck in debris, surrounded by water. He can hear Omar calling. He looks for me. He looks for Clea. He cannot see either of us.

I lose my children. I tumble and tumble. I let myself go with the water. I do not fight the force. It is what I do. I let go. There is nothing to see. There is no sound. Only debris, bits of wood, tiny bits of wood and dark, foreboding water. There is a lull in the waves. I think I see my sons and my husband. Where is Clea? The surge pulls me back. Another wall of water must be coming. I can see a tree. I know I will hit the tree. It is right in my path. I let myself go and smash against a tree. I slam into another tree, wood and debris piles up across my chest, water streams into my mouth and my nose. I must be dying. It is black. I struggle to reach the surface, pushing against the debris, pushing against the darkness. The water stops. I am still in the water, still against the tree. I hear Omar call me. I see Jorge and Jordi. I scream at Jorge, I cannot see Clea. Where is Clea?

We will never know exactly what happened. We are unable to comprehend such a force of nature. You do not holiday in paradise in expectation of hell. Your mind stops processing. Your body focuses on survival. It lasted a few minutes, only a few minutes.

We struggle out into the mud of the forested hill. A few locals are sitting in shock. A lagoon has grown between the road and the hill. We have not been dragged out to sea. Out to the reef. We are stuck on the far side of a lagoon with fallen trees, houses, furniture, fridges, leaves, wood, stuff too much stuff. Dark and murky water. We cannot see anything. Everyone is searching for someone. Calling for their mother, father, son, daughter. The sun is shining. There are no clouds. There is no wind. It is warm. Yet we are all shivering.

Omar and Jordi are scared and shivering. We hug and kiss them, tell them to sit and wait with the strangers in the forest. We search for Clea. We scan the dark water for something pink. She was wearing her pink swimmers. Pink, anything in pink amongst the debris, amongst the stuff (that is the only name for it). We call her name over and over again. It is deathly quiet. No birds. No animals other than the pigs crawling out of the water too. I cannot be bothered to save piglets.

I have lost my son. I have lost my mother. I have lost my daughter. We all tell each other. The people on the beach, they must be all dead. No one can return to the beach, the lagoon is deep and crowded. There is nothing left on the beach. The locals tell us of a village at the top of the hill. Everyone must climb the steep muddy hill to get help from the village.

We can’t leave without Clea. Again Jordi and Omar sit on a rock and wait. I crawl out onto a fallen tree, calling for my daughter. Crying and calling in shock and disbelief. She should be able to hear us. Are we looking in the right place? How would we know where she is? This cannot be happening. She was going to have a wonderful life. She cannot be dead.

The questions begin in our heads. I should have held her hand tighter. We should have left the beach when the shuddering began. We should have protected our child that is what parents are supposed to do. Parents are expected to save their children.

We are all dirty, covered in tiny shards of wood and mud. Cuts and abrasions. Jorge has a sprained ankle from being caught in the debris. I have cuts on my legs, my back, under my eye. We feel no pain. Clea and I must have been caught in a different slipstream. Where is she?

Finally, Jorge says we must leave. We must take Jordi and Omar to safety. We have to look after them. We must leave without Clea. She is gone he tells me. How do you leave your child in a deep, dark lagoon? She is gone he tells Jordi and Omar. Your wonderful big sister is gone.

We stagger through the mud up a steep incline to a path. The local people walk ahead of us, leaving us behind. Jordi is first following the people. I follow him. Omar and Jorge are behind us. No one speaks. Until Jordi screams, there are prickles Mummy. I rip my orange sarong into pieces and wrap it around my feet. I carry Jordi through the prickles of the banana plantation. Jorge carries Omar. He cannot feel the prickles. His heart has been ripped out.

We come to a house. A man gives us water and points in the direction of the police station and the hospital. We wander, dazed and shocked down the road to the hospital. The small, overcrowded hospital. Others are walking up past us. Why are you going back to the beach the people ask? We are not; we are coming from the beach. We are going to the hospital. We see people from the fales earlier this morning. Some families are still together. I do not want to know how or why.

Barefoot, tired and broken, we arrive at the hospital. Many injured lie on benches. The dead lie on the floor. We have never seen dead people before. We do not tell Jordi and Omar of the dead. Our injuries are not bad, not like some. Some have broken bones, deep gashes and pains. A girl gives us antiseptic spray for our cuts. A woman gives me blankets to wrap around my legs. I do not fit the modest Samoan culture in my swimmers and no sarong.

The police station is across the road. I run over to try to phone my sister, Carolyn, in Apia. There is no one in the police station. I use the phone. Dial the number. Nothing. I do not know whether I remember my sister’s phone number. I return to my husband and sons.

I keep asking people if I can use their mobile phones. No one has credit. A lady lets me use her phone. The woman includes a prefix to the number to Apia and I realise that I had the right number but not all the numbers. I get through to the housekeeper but I use my sister’s nickname. The housekeeper tells me that I have the wrong number. There is no one of that name here.

A man, not a local, Norwegian I think, has a car. He drives back and forth from the beach to the hospital with the injured and the dead. The entire south coast has been wiped out he says. The authorities have been tracking the tsunami all morning he says. I find out later that this is not true. Lalomanu was too close to the epicentre of the earthquake. There was no time for an alarm.

We have no shoes and do not want to walk back up the hill. The man takes us. Have you lost someone he asks? Our daughter. We have lost our daughter. We will go back and look for her again he says. We must try again. Yes, we say, we must try again.

The tourists are moved to a refuge at the top of the hill. Overlooking the beach. There is nothing left on the beach. The houses are gone. The fales are gone. The trees have been knocked down. Our daughter is down there, directly below us, somewhere in the newly created lagoon. She is gone.

The refuge is a half built house, not even half built. A house belonging to the Taufua family. The family who owns the resort. Water is swept from the floor. There is half a roof, no windows, no doors, cement floor. Palm mats are placed on the floor and everyone sits down. Tables are pulled together and the badly injured lie across them. Some are trying to organise the others. There are no doctors, no nurses, no help. Only those who were in the tsunami and those who live nearby.

An hour or so passes (time means nothing). The tsunami warning is lifted. The Norwegian man takes Jorge and several others back to the beach. Jorge wades waist deep, neck-deep, through the lagoon calling for his daughter. Searching for something pink amongst the piles and piles of debris. He walks badly on his sprained ankle. He has no shoes. He cuts his leg again. He needs to find his only daughter. She needs him. He cannot find her. The one who would never leave our sides has gone.

I stay in the refuge with Jordi and Omar. Omar and I lie on the mats. Jordi walks around and around and around us. He wants to go outside. We go with him across the rocky ground, with no shoes, to the edge of a cliff. The refuge is high on a cliff overlooking the beach. We look down. We can see the destruction. The houses are gone. The fales are gone. The coconut trees are bent. We can see the lagoon. We can see the Norwegian man’s car. Clea is down there and Papa is looking for her.

Jordi and Omar share a carrot. That’s good sharing says the girl from the hospital. She has been moved with her injured friend; she has lost two cousins. Later the doctors tie a drip to the rafters for her friend. The friend is shaking in shock from the injury to her leg.

Jordi and Omar are given biscuits and chocolate to share. Omar keeps a biscuit for his sister. She will be hungry he says. She will need it.

Jorge returns from the beach. He is devastated. He cannot find his daughter. We do not know what to do. He sits cross-legged on the floor with his head down. Other men, who do not know what else to do, occasionally stop and hold his hand.

Finally doctors and nurses arrive from Apia. UN officials arrive. We line up to give our names. I register our names. For some reason, I think it is important to explain that we all have different surnames. What does it matter? A man stands beside me, a New Zealander I think. He holds my arm while I spell out our names. I say that Clea is missing but I know she is dead. I know that she is gone.

People try to help each other. They hold hands. Put their arms around each other. Tell me that there is another woman who has lost her child and that maybe we could help each other. It is the woman from last night whose son wanted to sit next to us. Her husband is badly injured. He and his son were washed out to the reef. Their son is never found. He was two years old.

Mostly people stare into the nothingness in a state of shock. Some are glad to have survived; others like us are too shocked by the missing to be glad to have survived.

There are many injured. Some were caught in their fales, hit by timber frames, thatched roofs and nails. The owners of the resort are missing 13 members of their family.

There is a makeshift toilet, a bucket in a half built room. There are around 150 people in the refuge.

Ambulances arrive around midday. Only the injured who can sit up can leave. Rice and noodles are handed out. I am not hungry. I have no appetite.

I keep asking about my sister. Do the people in Apia know what has happened? Yes they know. There was a siren in the city about half an hour after the beach had surrendered to the water. The warning system only works where the technology is adequate. Not on small remote islands, close to the earthquake. No chance.

Finally, someone has my sister’s phone number saved in her mobile phone. I call Carolyn. She is stuck in traffic trying to get to us. She is dead I wail, my daughter is dead. That cannot be says Carolyn. That is not possible. Someone tells Carolyn to turn on the car hazard lights and drive on as though she is from the emergency recovery team.

We wait. We wait all day. We wait for Carolyn and Jason. We wait for Clea. After the doctors have dealt with the badly injured, we ask to be looked at. The doctors cannot fix broken hearts.

Carolyn comes running in. She has left Jason and Brigitte in a car somewhere behind a roadblock. She ran and jumped into other cars until she reached the refuge. She tries to call her husband over and over but the coverage is limited. He’ll be here soon she says. He will take us away from here.

The UN is organising minivans to take everyone to the Apia. Organising for them to stay in hotels. Most of the injured have gone to the hospitals in Apia. Jason is still not here. We start to board one of the minibuses. He arrives.

Dirty, sad, silent, we climb into the car. No one speaks. Jason drives us to his house in Apia. I cry on and off. How can you be walking happily on a beach one minute and have your life destroyed the next? How can that be? It is a long, long trip back to Apia, along the same road we only travelled yesterday when I sat happily in the back with Clea beside me. The roads are damaged; people are trying to get through. There is destruction everywhere.

We arrive back at the house in Apia. The house we left only the day before. We left to spend a couple of nights on the beach, together as a family. We arrive back to silence. The boys have a bath. We are all so dirty. I put their swimmers in a bucket. I wash my pink shirt. I will give it to Clea.

We eat soup slowly and silently. What is there to say? The boys go to bed. Exhausted. This morning they were playing on a beach with their beloved sister. Tonight, they are left on their own. She is not there to be their second mother. She will never be there again. She is not there to kiss them good night and call their names. They do not understand the enormity of their loss.

We begin the task of phoning our families across the world. How do you tell people that your child has died in a tsunami? That you were on a wonderful family holiday and a rare, random act of nature destroyed your lives? My sister says she will call but I say no, it is my responsibility, Clea is my daughter.

We start with my parents. At first my father is not there, so my Jason tells my mother to get him and we will call later. Of course, they all know that something bad has happened. The tsunami has been all over the news. They have been trying to contact Carolyn and Jason all day. They know someone is either dead or injured. I keep telling people that it is OK when they cry over the phone. I feel that I have to help them with their pain. I am in too much shock to understand the depth and gravity of my own pain. It takes me a long while to realise that I spent more time alone with Clea than I have done with anyone else in my life.

We go to bed, exhausted. We have lost our daughter. Our first-born, our favourite girl, our special child. Our little miracle. Our first IVF baby. Nature does not care how hard you try to have a child or how much you love your child. Love does not fix everything. Clea is alone and afraid. We are alone and afraid. How will we live this life we no longer want?

Sometime during the night, I slip into Clea’s bed and sleep there. I want to smell her, to feel her, to find some comfort. I wrap her pink headband around my arm. It remains there, a link. She has left some things in the room. Not her favourite things. Her favourite things she took with her to the beach. They have gone with her, with the water. Chuchi and Tower are with her. She slept with them every night. Chuchi, the stuffed dog I stole from a stall at the Yass Show when I was about 14 years old. And Tower, an old cloth nappy she called Tower; Spanglish. Towel in English and toalla in Spanish so to Clea it was Tower. Her purple and blue dress that I bought in Jakarta. Her fairy books from the library. Her home reader about Africa. Her Cinderella nightie. Her white sandals from Spain. And the journal she was writing for her class, a story of her holiday. She had been writing every day. Now, it too has gone with the water.

I can see her clothes in the dressing table, folded in neat piles. Her pink plastic Bratz bag which she had packed with her special belongings to bring to Samoa – the costume jewellery given to her by Anthea, her sunglasses, her pink hat with her name on it given to her by Fiona. Her socks, underwear, shorts, pink skirt and pink striped T-shirt. The stuffed animals she brought to give to Brigitte. And the clothes she wore over on the aeroplane. No books. No special toys.

About huntersoledad

Mother of three. Bereaved mother of one. Survivor and victim of 2009 Samoan tsunami. Could be if would be writer.
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5 Responses to My 29 September

  1. Livonne says:

    such a difficult subject, so beautifully written. I keep starting to write a book about my daughter and keep stumbling. Keep going. Such a lovely tribute to your beautiful Clea xxx

  2. Sonya Carson says:

    I don’t know what yo say Trudy my heart goes out to you all. Sonya Carson

  3. grahamforeverinmyheart says:

    Heartbreakingly, unbearably sad. Your description makes it so real and clear and so terrible.

  4. Susan Coles says:

    So sad Trudie. I was thinking of Clea on Sept. 29, when I was in Bali. I always think of her and your family when I am on a beach in a Foreign place, and try to imagine that terrible day. Your description is so real, and so full of pain. I looked on your page just now because I was thinking of Clea as I walked at sunset on the hill behind my house this evening, and the clouds were all pink and purple and lit from behind with golden rays. I always think of your beautiful girl when I see especially gorgeous pink clouds, and imagine her somewhere, in a peaceful place. Even though it must make you so sad for your friends to tell you this, Clea is thought of with such continuing love, by so many people. In places, and on beaches where she didn’t leave footprints, around the world. At moments when you aren’t even aware of it. She has left a special imprint on the earth. And on the pink clouds…

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