It’s January 2000, and Bill, Annie, and I are on an island in Thailand, at the very spot where, almost five years from now, a tsunami will engulf and destroy thousands. I don’t know this, of course. Yet I am afraid, filled with a sense of dread and doom unlike anything I have ever felt.
All night I panic in the dark steamy bungalow with soggy floor and walls. I lie next to Bill and listen to Annie breathe. Tomorrow we’ve booked an adventure on a small boat, wooden and colorful. Three islands. Snorkeling. A hidden internal beach. But I won’t go.
For years, I’ve loved the ocean, but only the edge of the ocean. In a boat, nothing is solid. A world of water, and I’m supposed to trust a random boatman in a random tropical boat? A layer of thin wood between us and the depths? I can’t breathe. We will die, drown. No . . . I will stay here, by the edge, and my family will drown, leave me stranded.
I know with surety: If I go on the boat, I will die. Annie will fall. Bill will dive deep and never surface, caught by the edges of the reef, trapped in a tunnel. True fear has no edges. I’m swallowed into a gripping, meaty, red pulsing stomach of a giant creature. Fear presses away the breath first. The walls press against me soft but relentless, moving and sighing, oozing acids. My skin slowly melts. My brain dissolves — I cannot think! The beating, beating of the creature’s enormous heart.
Then: It’s a tropical morning. I lie still in a hammock under the palms. The hammock smells of rotten fruit and mildew, the inside of a wine cask. Chickens, geckos, dogs, birds, cacophony.
Bill comes to me in the hammock. “Half an hour.”
“I’m not going.”
It’s a fight, and he wins. I go on the boat. Because I cannot let my daughter die alone, because my husband is unreasonable and won’t let me keep her safe on the island.
The water is sparkling turquoise and glass-green, clear and deep; the many islands look like they’re floating. Beautiful. Deceptive. Bill and Annie grin and relish, and for hours I sit tight-faced. Then we anchor near a hole in one of the islands, swim through a dark cave into the center of an island, and reach a white sandy beach. Sheer vertical cliff walls surround the beach 360 degrees. Light shafts down. Vines climb, orchids bloom, monkeys squawk . . . it’s paradise, and still I’m afraid. It’s amazing, and all around me is doom and fear. Death lurks.
Almost five years from now, right here, the deadliest tsunami in history will happen, and this beautiful, deceptive sea will rise and kill thousands. People who have little will be left with nothing, not even their families. Even tourists — dumb beautiful tourists like me and Bill and Annie — will choke, struggle, be pulverized against rocks and sea bottom.
Exactly four years after the Indian Ocean tsunami, still further around the world, the three of us will travel on a small Zodiac boat to a remote peninsula on the east coast of Madagascar, and I will stun myself — and Bill — by enjoying the trip.
“I’m not afraid,” I will tell Bill. “I feel like nothing will ever frighten me again.”
I won’t know why. But maybe because the things I have always feared have already been set in motion.
For, two days later, Bill will dive deep into sudden illness and never surface. He will get sick in the night in a beautiful eco-lodge in the most remote rainforest on the planet. We will evacuate in a rainstorm on that same boat, waves high, Bill desperately ill, screaming in pain, deathly sick though we don’t know it, and still I will not be frightened.
Fear has no place in crisis. I will hold on as hard as I can to keep from being thrown overboard by the violent slamming of the boat. At one point Bill will kick hard, full in my face, my glasses will fly and smash, my lip will bruise.
We will evacuate, on a small boat through a storm, to a clinic with no doctor, no equipment, only a dirty foam bed covered with a vinyl table cloth on a rusty iron cot. His belly will swell, and something will rupture in him; he will turn dark blue and his heart will stop. He will die, and I will kiss death on the mouth and try to breathe for him. And I will not be afraid.
Maybe because the worst that can happen has now happened. Fear is anticipation gone wrong.
“Mommy, you don’t like boats or planes,” Annie says, when I tell her my plans to go sailing with a friend, to go flying in a tiny plane.
“I didn’t. But maybe I do now.”
And I do like these things, because I am not afraid. I’m not interested in doing crazy, dangerous things — after all, I have Annie to protect — but I refuse to let fear kill me before I die.
So I’ll tell you my truths even if you might not like me for it. I’ll reopen my heart to love. I’ll get the tattoos I always wanted. I’ll perform vulnerable material, fly, sail, eat anything, reapply to the writer’s colonies that have rejected me. Perhaps I’ll move to Mexico or Rome or the mountains. Because I’ve kissed death on the mouth, and there is no fear left in me. Only life, only excitement, only breath.