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I'm currently reading Wave, Sonali Deraniyagala’s memoir of losing her parents, husband, and sons in the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka. Wave is a slim book, and so far, the most horrifying thing isn’t so much that Deraniyagala’s family dies but that she doesn’t. Given the evidence of history, I can easily imagine a fiercely cruel God who annihilates entire families, villages, and cities: Pompeii buried, or Haiti shaken. History has shown us ample instances where a bloodthirsty God doles out death as if lives were cheap, but who can comprehend a God who would kill all but one member of a family: the only one who escapes to tell the tale?
As I'm reading Wave, I keep thinking of the Biblical story of Job, a man stricken by God. Job loses his material possessions, all ten of his children, and his own health, and at each stage of loss, he is informed by a servant who arrives with grim news: "Only I escaped to tell the tale." The purpose of the book of Job, presumably, is to help readers grapple with theodicy: the thorny question of how a just and loving God can allow terrible things to happen. The answer job receives when he hammers the heavens with the question “why” is more troubling than comforting, however. Confronted with the question of why suffering exists, God responds by basically saying "Because I Am." God grandly reminds Job that He created the heavens and the earth, and Job has done no such thing. God is great, Job is humble, and the humble have no right to question ways they can’t possibly understand.
The line that always slays in me in Job is the repeated refrain each courier utters when they arrive with message after message of bad news: "Only I escaped to tell the tale." (In its King James phrasing, “I only escaped alone to tell thee,” this is also the line that Ishmael utters at the end of Moby-Dick, after the great white whale has drowned Ahab and an entire ship of souls.) “Only I escaped to tell the tale”: what depths of horror and survivor's guilt does that innocuous line express, knowing you were (by some freak of chance or fate) the only one to escape a deadly disaster?
This line keeps echoing in my head while I'm reading Wave. It would have been enough for God to snuff out an entire family in an instant ... but wasn't it a step beyond cruel to spare one alone to bear witness to God’s terrifying power? Deraniyagala herself doesn’t grapple with theodicy; so far in her memoir, in fact, Deraniyagala doesn't mention God at all. Given the raw immediacy of loss, it seems easier — more humane — to focus solely on suffering rather than trying to reconcile that suffering with something as inconceivable as a loving God who allows such horrors to happen. When you're clinging to some shred of sanity after inconceivable loss, the question "why did this happen" isn’t nearly as important as the question "how will I continue to face it?"
One thing that has always troubled me about the book of Job is how cavalier the ending is, when God casually replaces Job’s children as if people were interchangeable and God himself were the overseer of a warehouse stocked with replacement parts. Yes, God can snuff out an entire family and then reward the survivor with new kin… but do we really want to worship a God who behaves this way?
Compared to Deraniyagala, I think Job got off easy because he wasn't there to witness his family’s destruction, being notified of his losses by various messengers who themselves experienced the traumatic events first hand. "Only I escaped to tell the tale," each of these messengers says in turn, and that is the horror: Job is spared the trial of witnessing his children’s deaths, God choosing to traumatize some random servant instead.
Deraniyagala doesn't directly witness her family’s death — one minute they were crammed together in the back of a Jeep, trying to escape, and the next minute, everything was wave. Deraniyagala didn’t see her husband and children plucked from beside her, nor does she see her parents, who were back at their hotel, washed out to sea. But instead of witnessing her family’s deaths, Deraniyagala experiences the dizzying sensation of having her world turned into water as she churned through tsunami debris and came aground muddied, bloodied, and bruised. Is it better to see your family plucked from your grasp, or is it better to be blinded by a whirlwind of water and a surge of shock? It seems absurd to even ask this question.
Unlike Job, Deraniyagala felt in her own body the brute force that killed her kin: she wasn’t safely elsewhere when the bad news came. Instead, Deraniyagala herself was the messenger who bore bad news, having to call her family with her own version of those ominous words, "Only I have escaped to tell the tale." Why, though, the need for a messenger? Do we need to be reminded that death and devastation happen on a daily basis? Do we need to hear a litany of gory details? When the bodies of Deraniyagala’s husband and one of her sons were finally identified, for instance, she visited the site of the mass grave where their bodies had been exhumed and identified by DNA. Neighboring children who had witnessed both the burial and exhumation told her the details of both even though Deraniyagala herself did not dare ask for such information. Why would Deraniyagala want the image of tangled, naked bodies – including those of her husband and son – dumped into a hole by tractors and bulldozers? The neighboring children tell her not for her sake, but for their own, as if retelling a nightmare were enough to eradicate it.
We talk because we want to unburden ourselves of the past — we talk, in other words, in search of catharsis — but talking also commemorates a past that might otherwise slip away, forgotten. The more we tell a tale, the less we can forget it, each retelling etching it deeper in our psyche. So why would God require a witness to his devastating ways: why laden an innocent survivor with a lifelong obligation to tell and re-tell a traumatic tale like an ancient mariner waylaying hapless wedding guests? Let it be known: Job had it easy, and the dead have it easier still. The fate that is worse than death is not simply to outlive your parents, your husband, and your children, but to find yourself swirled in the very water that sucked them away, and then to bear ongoing witness to this tragedy. Only I escaped to tell the tale: this is truly the saddest sentence ever uttered.
At one part of her memoir, Deraniyagala struggles with whether to share her story with strangers: for instance, a woman on a plane who asks if she’s married and has children.
I steer clear of telling. I can't come out with it. The outlandish truth of me. How can I reveal this to someone innocent and unsuspecting? With those who know "my story," I talk freely about us, Steve, our children, my parents, about the wave. But with others I keep it hidden, the truth. I keep it under wraps because I don't want to shock or make anyone distressed.
Deraniyagala understands (as only a survivor can) that once you tell people the full extent of the tragedy that has befallen you, you’re forever branded in their eyes, and they’ll never act normally around you. (In A Grief Observed, for instance, C.S. Lewis described the look he got from married couples when they found out he was widowed: it was a look of fear and dread as each partner wondered, “Which one of us will outlive the other and have to be alone?”)
We all suffer — we all know our lives will end in death after lives studded with sorrow — but we ostracize the individuals who remind us of this fact. The fate of a person who has faced sorrow and survived — a widow, orphan, or parent who has outlived children — is unthinkable, for empathizing with such sorrow requires an admission that we, too, could be similarly bereft at any moment. If death and unspeakable disasters are simply a matter of chance, then none of us is immune, and individuals such as job remind us of this uncomfortable face. Sonali Deraniyagala’s story isn’t horrifying because it is statistically unlikely — what are the odds, we might wonder, that our entire family could be annihilated in a single afternoon — but because its basic storyline is so common. Parents, spouses, and children die every day, but we tell ourselves they don’t. To admit otherwise would sink us like a stone.
The images illustrating today’s post come from a set of photos I shot at the Museum of Fine Arts in August, 2009. Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave is a devastatingly clear-eyed memoir, and I solemnly recommend it.
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