On Saturday I devoured the book “Wave” by Sonali Deraniyagala on the recommendation of a good friend, Collette. She had this to say about “Wave” on Goodreads:
Wow. Wow in so many ways. I loved this book not for its tragedy, but for her writing. I wonder if Sonali knew she was such an amazing writer? I fell in love with her boys, and her husband, and her life. Her husband’s cooking, and downright love of being happy has stayed with me… I felt like I was THERE. The tunnels she went down…an enormous desire to DIE, drinking incessantly, harassing the tenants of her childhood home, all things I felt as if I would have done. I related to each and every feeling, thought, and description. If I could speak to the author I would say, You did a great job Mom. Your boys knew they were loved. They had a beautiful heartfelt home… I would hope she could take some comfort in that. I also very much appreciated her not mentioning “God” in all of this. Really, what’s the point? Well done: beyond 5 stars. Sonali, mother to mother I want to say…I admire you.
After that beyond-five-star review, how could I not read “Wave”? So I did, and I loved it. Sonali truly is an amazing writer. But, different than Collette, I did love this book for its tragedy, too. I was hooked from the start by the raw details of that morning, December 26, 2004, when a tsunami struck Sri Lanka and killed Sonali Deraniyagala’s two sons, her husband, and her parents, along with about 230,000 more people. I would have read this story for the gawker factor, because the subject is riveting, but I was surprised and impressed by Sonali’s brutal, relentless honesty.
A different reviewer, Greg, felt differently about “Wave.”
Not a book for me. Wave is compelling, and extremely well written, but is just page after page of pain. The pain and depression are relentless, and I don’t understand the appeal of going to a grey, formless universe of awfulness, and just sitting there while the anguish seeps into your skin. I have no children, and I can’t imagine the masochism it would take to read this if I did.
Greg goes on to describe “Wave” as “misery lit.”
Greg and my husband would probably get along well. Greg’s confusion over the appeal of “misery lit” reminds me of an argument Chris and I had in 2008, after the earthquake in China which killed more than 80,000 people, including thousands of children who were crushed to death when their schools collapsed on them. I was reading the “misery news” in our local paper that day. A particular story was so heartbreaking that I just had to share it with he-who-I-love-the-most.
“Listen to this, Chris,” and I started reading quickly, before he could protest. The article quoted a dad (I am recreating this quote to the best of my memory) who sat, in disbelief, next to his nine year old daughter’s body; “My sweet daughter, just last night you dressed yourself in your red pajamas, and now I dress you for your funeral.”
Chris cut me off at that quote, “Why?! Why do you make me listen to this shit?!”
“Because it’s terrible and sweet, and you should hear it!” I insist.
“No! Now I am depressed! I will never get that image out of my head!”
Triumph! I had branded it onto his brain, he felt sad for this girl and her family. It’s just what I wanted. But the tender flogging I’d given his innocence wasn’t as fun as I’d wanted it to be. He was actually pissed and it seemed a bit like intellectual rape. Why did I do it to him? That evening I tried to explain my side. It was an apology of sorts but it really amounted to, “I’m sorry baby. It just felt so good and so right at the time.”
I told Chris that, especially as a mother, I hurt for anyone who’s lost a child. If I were in their place, feeling so dire, I would want everyone to stop and listen to me. It’s the only thing I can imagine which may bring some sort of relief. To stand and cry and tell anyone who would listen about my baby girl who was sitting in her school desk, doing what she was told, being a good student when she was crushed to death. Who had dressed herself only the night before. I would want the world to know about my daughter and what had been lost. It feels good, in a perverse way, to hurt for someone who’s hurting. I just want to pass that good feeling along to him when I share the depressing stories of child death, puppies hit by trucks, and kitties in the microwave.
Sonali successfully conveys a great sense of loss. When her family was together, they lived an enviable life. Her two sons were bright and curious, her husband was passionate about life and a devoted father. Her parents’ love was supportive and constant. They had all spent the Christmas holiday together at a favorite hotel on the coast of Sri Lanka. The boys were playing with their new toys, Sonali’s husband Steve was reading on the toilet as the sea moved in to swallow them. At the last possible moment before being sucked out to sea, Sonali grabbed hold of a tree and saved her own life—a move which she regretted almost immediately. For years after the tsunami, she was suicidal. She felt that her family would not recognize the woman she had become. She didn’t know what to do with herself.
This could not have happened to me. This is not me. I teetered endlessly. Look at me, powerless, a plastic bag in a gale… I don’t have them to hold. What do I do with my arms?… I resolved not to leave the house, ever. How can I go outside? Outside was where I went with my boys. How can I walk without holding on to them, one on each side?
There is a fine line, as a mother, between being your self and being Mom. A mother loves her little ducklings more than life itself. And she sacrifices, oh how she sacrifices! Mothers often don’t sleep through the night. The job can be thankless, sometimes isolating. You will drown if you don’t take time to nourish your self. Besides, the kids will grow up and become increasingly independent. This is the goal, anyway. It’s important to maintain your individuality.
I’m getting better at setting boundaries and making time for myself. Though my love for my girls consumes me, I strive to keep sight of who I am apart from them. I like to imagine that I’m protecting myself against empty nest anxieties one day down the road. But I also relish in our codependency. When they throw their arms around my neck, when they can’t hide that they’re happy to see me; at those moments, I’m unabashedly proud to be “Mom,” not “Mary,” “wife,” or “daughter.” It is a perfect feeling to be a mother to little kids. Sometimes it feels like it will last forever.
When Sonali recalls one such “Mom-dentity Crisis” moment, it struck a chord in my heart. It was my favorite part of the book.
And now I remember how Malli would describe and define me. And how I’d protest. “We are three boys and one girl,” he’d say… Then he’d recite our names, “Stephen Lissenburgh, Vikram Lissenburgh, Nikhil (Malli) Lissenburgh, and Mummy Lissenburgh.” He’d announce to us with aplomb.
“Mummy Lissenurgh?” I’d roar in exaggerated objection. My new credentials. Me having no identity without these three boys to whom I was merely tagged on. “Malli, why do you get both my names wrong? You got everyone else’s right. That’s not me.”
“Wave” didn’t depress me. It made me feel grateful for my family and to be alive. Sonali Deraniyagala is a fascinating person. She told a sad, sad story. And in the end, it was humanizing and uplifting.