This is one of the last photographs of Clea. Our own camera was of course lost in the 29 September 2009 tsunami; all the photographs we took while we were in Samoa – and there quite a few of them – were gone with the wall of water.
This photograph was taken at the top of the Telstra Tower in Black Mountain, on the 24th of September 2009, less than a week before she died. Clea went on a school excursion that day; she was so excited! It was going to be her last day of school for the term – it ended up being her last day of school ever. The next day we drove to Sydney and boarded our flight to Apia.
On the plane, Clea was sitting next to me during landing. In those days, you had to cross the dateline to go to Samoa, so we arrived the day before at night time. The dim lights we were able to glimpse through the window were those of Apia: little shiny specks amid the immense blackness the ocean is at night. The plane appeared to be shaking a lot while we approached the runway, far more than I am used to, to be honest, so the landing felt kind of bumpy. Clea got a little scared until the plane touched down and ran the length of the tarmac.
For some reason, this image of Clea haunts my imagination in ways I cannot describe – nor would I like anyone to have to imagine. I see a vulnerable little girl, recoiling, holding on to her hat (which, actually, she lost that day!) and grimacing against the very strong, cold winds that swept Canberra that early spring day. I see the image of my daughter against the force of nature; I don’t think anyone could argue that, the impression you get on seeing the image is that she was not having fun as her teacher took the photograph – by the way, I have cropped it so that other students are not seen. Her jumper is zipped up tight; her hair is a real mess, hardly held in place by the pink hair band I now wear on my left wrist every day, wherever I go.
No, her facial expression definitely says that at this moment she was not enjoying being up there, at the top of the Telstra Tower.
For a few months after our return to Canberra, I had frequent nightmares, reliving the tsunami. Even now, nearly three years later, I occasionally may wake up with a start in the middle of the night, and it may take me a long time to settle again into a normal rhythm of sleep, if or when I do at all. Normally, I have no idea of what is it that woke me up. Yet something wakes me up. Believe me: it’s neither the carbon tax nor the prospect of another boatload of asylum seekers approaching the very remote islands to the north of the very remote northern coasts of Australia. Those are not things I would lose any sleep over.
It’s not as if I were consciously trying to keep memories of those horrifying moments. In fact, I wish I could forever forget the panic and the terror; if only I could erase those from my memory for good… But the truth is I cannot. Our imperfect brains: We forget what we want to remember, but what we would like to forget keeps coming back to haunt us.
This is not too dissimilar from the widespread notion that with time we, the grieving parents, have to somehow “get over” our child’s death. I’m sorry if I disappoint somebody: we just don’t. We never will. We just cannot “get over” it, because we will never be able to retrieve such a big chunk of our future. yes, it is their future that we have lost forever. How can one get over the fact that your child’s future (which is also yours) suddenly snaps and then is gone? Does anybody know?
After the Japanese tsunami happened more than a year ago, for a while I kind of expected people would ask me about it. For the first time in human history, a tsunami was broadcast live on TV. It was possible for people to gain a better understanding of what it is like to be there, so vulnerable, so small under the colossal force of nature.