Eyes - March 24 / Day 83

I finally finished Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave, which I’d originally reviewed here. When I wrote that review, I had read only the first half of the book. Now that I’ve finished the entire thing, I’m still thinking about it. Wave is a book you read slowly, then spend a long time processing.

Red ruffled

At first glance, Wave is a memoir of Deraniyagala’s experience losing her parents, husband, and sons in the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka, but the book struck me as being several memoirs in one: or, more accurately, a memoir that recounts the cyclic and spiraling cycles of grief. Grief isn’t something you get over, as if life after loss could ever be the same again. Wave describes the way in which grief goes through its own seasons. In the first half of Wave, Deraniyagala is beside herself with sorrow, harassing the tenants who move into her deceased parents’ house and endlessly Googling ways to kill herself. In the first half of Wave, you aren’t sure whether Deraniyagala is going to make it: yes, her body survived the tsunami that claimed her kin, but will she survive the aftermath of that maddening loss, body and soul?

Dreams of trees

There is no clear dividing line between the first half of the book and the second: there is no clear corner that Deraniyagala turns. But in the latter parts of the book, the focus seems to shift from what Deraniyagala lost to what she shared with her husband, sons, parents, and the friends who remain by her side as reconstructs a life after unspeakable loss. Gradually, the book isn’t about a wave of destruction but a swelling surge of remembrance.


There are parts of the latter half of the book–most memorably, an account of a whale-watching excursion in the very ocean that swallowed Deraniyagala’s family–that are hauntingly beautiful, with Deraniyagala longing for her husband, Steve, and sons, Vik and Malli, who she feels should be on the boat watching whales with her:

I shouldn’t be on this boat, I thought, as I nibbled on a ginger biscuit to stop feeling seasick. Vik never got to see a blue whale. I shouldn’t be out searching for whales when Vik can’t. It will be agony without him. I’ll have hell to pay.

Tree shadow

Deraniyagala will have hell to pay, indeed: how can you do things alone that your lost family would have loved to have done with you? And yet on the whale-watching boat, Deraniyagala discovers that she is never alone. Not only are there whales, as blue and enormous as the sky, gliding through the water beneath her, but the persistence of memory means that Steve, Vik, and Malli are somehow gone but never far away:

As the first blow of a whale was sighted, our boat speeded up, and I was in our living room in London. Vik and I on the red sofa watching The Blue Planet. I could hear him catch his breath as two blue whales appear on the screen, impossibly huge even as the aerial camerawork dwarfs them in an infinite ocean. He twists his hair faster and faster as they cruise and dive.

Tree shadow

Whales are huge and mysterious, easily inviting awe. As much as Deraniyagala cannot stand seeing whales without her husband and sons, she experiences a moment of tranquility and calm in the presence of these huge, aquatic beasts: creatures who live in the very element that proved to be so deadly.

Where were these whales when the sea came for us? I wonder. Were they in this same ocean? Did they feel a strangeness then? Another whale who was in the distance has come closer now. I hear a loud, low bellow as it exhales. Now the whale inhales. Resounding in this vastness I hear a doleful sigh.

There is something inexpressibly beautiful in Deraniyagala’s description of remembering her dead family while listing to whales breathe: a moment both intimate and awesome. I felt a bit guilty for finding spots of beauty in an otherwise harrowing story, but perhaps that is what made Deraniyagala’s memoir so memorable. Perhaps the greatest shock of grief isn’t that human life is fragile, but that survivors are so resilient, and a cruel world is somehow so beautiful. Perhaps the greatest shock of grief isn’t that human bodies pass away but that love never dies.

Rain and waves

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?

Cormorant on rock

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 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.

Japanese screens

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.