by Raju Peddada
"Life, like a child, laughs, shaking its rattle of death as it runs." —Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)
"The thing I fear most is fear."
—Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)
[Author's preface: The images of the Japanese earthquake and the tsunami on March 11th, 2011, again washed in the dreadful visual of my boy's struggle in the Des Plaines River on that frightening day of July 12, 2008. For me, it equaled in the pathos and was as horrifying as the one in Japan. The difference in scale here is irrelevant, as it is utterly inconsequential. In fact, in such catastrophes, the whole is infinitely smaller than the parts, which happen to be the personal tragedies with which each survivor is faced. On that day, darkness had my son in its grasp, but somehow, I wrestled it off, and got my boy back. It would have become an irretrievable and an irredeemable vacuum for me if I had lost that day. Three years removed, even today, with my boy bouncing off the walls, the guilt persists as to how such a thing happened. A ten-second distraction or delay could have transformed my life into a slow and painful dissolution. To protect my sons' privacy, I have resorted to their nicknames.]
(Swans - May 9, 2011) The Des Plaines River is the most notorious river in Illinois, regularly overflowing its banks and flooding low lying towns every spring. The innocuous and eponymous town straddles the river and resides on its flood plain, northwest of Chicago. A mere two days of rainfall can make the coffee colored river a belligerent force to reckon with; it crests and recedes quickly. It is known to be dangerous to live in ignorance of this river, and I almost came to know it, the hard way.
In the melancholic months following the release of my father's ashes in the Des Plaines River, I returned to the same spot again and again, reluctant to let go of him. And I kept going back reflexively and subconsciously, to somehow retrieve and repossess him. This place gave everyone an easy access to the river. In Des Plaines, the river meanders and flows from north to south, dividing the town into the east-west sides. Near the downtown, for a short duration, the river flows straight north to south, and is contained and controlled with a high retaining wall on the west bank, near the city center. The east bank river-level concrete embankment runs north-south under the metal rail bridge that runs parallel to the Dempster Street bridge, going east and west. It was the confluence of the Des Plaines River road, west of the river, above the retaining wall, running parallel with the river and intersecting the east-west train lines and Demspter street, with the river underneath. There is also a frontage road south of the train line, which runs parallel and circumscribes the forest preserve. This was the access road to the river. We could park the vehicle about a hundred yards from the river and walk to it. That's what we did that day, and that is where it happened. The boys -- Butch was five and Mani, three years old.
It had rained heavily the previous two days, but the 12th of July was a bright sunny day and the boys and I drove over to the river on that frontage road, while my wife went to the woodfield mall with her friend. The coffee colored river was an ominous body of swirling water in strong currents, literally one inch below the embankment at the dam, a straight 7-8 foot drop there. As soon as we arrived there, the boys got excited to see the river riding high, "daddy, look...we can touch the river!" It didn't occur to me at all that it was very dangerous. I did the perfunctory thing: "boys...the river's high, watch it, don't bend over into it and don't run on the banks!" After this warning, I set about getting lost in my own spiritless and wistful rêverie on the blackness of the recent past, and the bleak economic future.
Suddenly, I was jolted out of my dreary cloud, as we heard the train blast from the west, over the bridge. I told the boys "there will be a train on the bridge!" They were excited, as we heard the exerting engine behind the cars, pushing the double-deckers towards Chicago. It took the train a few seconds to become a quiet receding act. Then, a deafening silence, no banter between the boys, nothing for interminable seconds, and a bloodcurdling silence descended. Instinctively, I shouted Mani, Mani...Mani! But no response. I spun around and saw Butch, his older brother, standing off by the frontage road, but no Mani. We three were the only ones there. A quick 360-degree scan showed no trace of Mani. He had vanished; it was as if someone had sucker punched me. I again, yelled after him, with an abrupt chill shaking my entire body on that hot day. Mani...Mani! And reflexively scanned around, the tracks and the forest were far enough, to see him run towards them, which he did not. My heart and stomach had already become one giant knot around a huge stone that seemed to abruptly materialize in the pit of my stomach. An inexplicable feeling of finality started to descend on me as seconds dissolved. I also had no answer to the rising bile into my trachea -- I had already become numb. But somehow the dreadful premonition, the survival switch, and providential instincts swiveled my head straight to where the dam was, the deepest point, the place where the concrete embankment curved slightly.
It was there, eternal and excruciating seconds later, I saw his billowing black hair surfacing from under the swirling beige water, about nine to ten feet away from where I stood. I went from a stabbing chill, in a nanosecond, to a heat flash, which enveloped my head, igniting my earlobes, as I realized what had happened. Mani had run straight backwards, on the foot wide embankment, with the water inches away, looking up at the bridge for the train. He simply ran past the slight curve and fell in. And, as I gathered my senses, I could see my boy slowly drifting away from the embankment, as the strong river current started to swallow him. My mind had become paralyzed, but my body assumed that paternal control instinctively, and convulsed into action. Two giant leaps covered much of the distance, with about five feet to go, I simply flung myself forward, falling straight down like a plank, bruising my knees, as my right shoulder and hand broke the water and grabbed the boy's left pinky and the ring finger, pulling him to the embankment. Eventually, getting hold of his arm, I pulled him out of the water. Fortunately, he had not yet swallowed any water. I squeezed the water from his clothes and called his mother. We didn't talk much. He was affected and I had no inkling of how it was going to affect me. I was ecstatic that he was safe -- that is all that mattered at the moment -- but it hit me later.
"The sleep of reason breeds monsters" - Goya
It rammed me like a freight train when I settled into bed that night. I felt the "what if" thoughts swirling around, inundating me in terrifying and horrifying hallucinations of retroactive guilt and remorseful scenarios. Many versions of disaster flooded my knotted psyche. The malignant anxiety oscillated in my mind, victimizing Mani to Butch to Mani, in a circuitous sledge-hammer-pendulum of nightmarish possibilities. Trauma induces anxiety, which in turn perpetuates the trauma. It is not what happened that eats us, it is what could have happened that destroys us. Our conscience becomes a capricious animal, and it tends to work best when it finds its owner beset with anxieties and guilt; it lies there waiting till we become vulnerable, then, it spears us. There were conscientious mines that I kept stumbling on, of exploding guilt and anxiety, as I tried to sleep that hot July night. Here is what metastasized in my cranium for months, the different iterations of disaster, yet having the same effect.
1. The issue that kept coming back again and again, jack-hammering my psyche, was how we were only seconds apart from never seeing him alive again. I had only seconds, literally less than ten seconds, to find him. Even at three years later, I am shaking as I write this -- just the mere thought of those "few seconds" had not allowed me to sleep for the whole month in 2008. Despite nihilistic tendencies, I believed and was unequivocally convinced that it was not my instinct, as much as providential intervention, that saved the day. It was only seconds between a lifetime of laughter with Mani versus a lifetime of dreadful misery for my mother, my wife, his brother and I. Also, I usually scoff at the concept of luck, but that day, I had to bow my head to this ubiquitous idea that almost everyone believed in. Mani, by being alive, had rescued me from a certain living death. I am infinitely grateful for those serendipitous few seconds!
2. If I had gone running towards the train tracks or the forest preserve looking for Mani he would have been lost. I played the whole macabre circus of the police and the neighbors looking for the him, the empty sympathies, the innuendos for being so irresponsible, the mother's and the grandmother's unbearable and unabatable pathos, and that dreadful call from the police, 72 hours later, informing us "we found him" and the request to come and identify him. Imagine what "identify him" inferred! Just the vague flash of that image, of his bloated body in the morgue choked me. I swallowed hard, stopping myself from being heard in the middle of the night. Things like his walk, his body movements, his voice and speech, facial characteristics, his little idiosyncrasies become a trigger for my emotional paroxysms. Later into the night, I clamored into his bed and curled up with him.
3. The other "if" scenario that kept regurgitating in my psyche was that if I had spotted Mani being carried away by the current, beyond any reach, and jumped in after him, it would have translated to two drownings, as I being no swimmer wouldn't have made it. What this meant for my older boy Butch was unfathomable. The loss of a brother and the father, with no one by his side in that July dusk. He would still be standing there, perhaps calling out to me, expecting me to return with Mani, as all little boys do, believing their dads to be superhuman. But, after half an hour, he would have succumbed to a state of fear and confusion, with nobody around and the calling coyotes in the Forest Preserve. I visualized my boy's face in that predicament, which induced me to go over and gaze at his serene face in deep sleep.
4. Another devastating iteration: I kept imagining that I had already lost Mani. The vision of Mani struggling desperately to stay above the current, while imagining Butch's innocent frightened face, as a seemingly helpful man takes him to his car and drives off with him. No call for police help by this man, no whereabouts of Butch; he had simply vanished into thin air by the time I somehow struggled back from the river, after reluctantly abandoning a big chunk of me. I couldn't call 911, as the phone in my pocket got shot-circuited under water. I was faced with utter devastation, losing Mani to the river, then Butch to a kidnapping. Losing both boys on the same evening was beyond redemption. I saw myself run to the closest phone, stumble, and fall...then, abruptly sat up, trying to shake off the nightmare. This continued on for days -- I would wake up in the night at odd times to see my boys. My wife knew this and kept quiet.
These hallucinations kept my trauma from abating. As a matter of fact, when somebody spoke of trauma, I never could fathom it, and simply had underestimated the psychological suffering. I could not thwart the imagination of my boys' faces in that danger, their helplessness and their suffering, which kept swinging between Mani and Butch, importunately. These involuntary macabre delusions persisted for weeks, hammering my psyche into the abyss.
My depression acted like a carcinogen bringing about a self-induced mitosis into three distinct mutant apparitions. First was the one who felt responsible, guilty, and apathetically and helplessly witnessed the whole pathetic catastrophe. The second mutation was an agglutinative specter that coalesced my heart, mind, soul, and body into a big target for the next and third mutant, who stood there spraying bullets at the target. Bullets wrought of various scenes of my boys' helplessness and demise. I hated all of the three sinister mutants, and desired a fourth that would simply plunge me back in time to make sure this catastrophe never took place. Words fall short in explicating how horrifying, repulsive, and debilitating it was being subjected to this involuntary imagery. This brought me to another conjecture; why are the macro views of catastrophes far less invasive than micro views?
We all tend to give a cursory glance at the news of 10,000 bodies washed away by a tsunami or the 44,000 killed in road accidents every year, that are just abstract numbers to us. Till you start to examine and extrapolate each body and its story. Like the one Mr. Akira Suto experienced in Japan a few weeks ago, when he was upended by a wall of icy ocean water, which broke the grip on his 82-year-old mother as they tried fleeing. She got washed away and was never found. How traumatic can that be, just imagine. His guilt and remorse, it becomes an emotional abyss that could swallow him without a trace. Another one is that of Mr. Futoshi Toba, the mayor of a small seaside town, who lost his wife at home, who was unaware of how close the tsunami was and couldn't get to the high ground in time. He has two young sons safe, who kept asking "when is mommy coming back?" This small seaside town, Rikuzentakata, lost nearly 15% of its residents. Survivors remain, with their sad stories.
Drowning is the second biggest cause of pediatric injury and death in many states. Child Death Review (CDR) provides the unique opportunity to identify regional risk factors and opportunities for drowning prevention. The data reports that drowning death rates are higher among Asian Pacific islander children. Most drowning deaths (about 73%) occurred in open water; the proportion in open water increased 42% for 5-year-olds and 83% for 5- to 9-year-olds.
Finally, I am glad that my boy did not make these scary statistics and the ending was a happy one. Realizing what transpired on that July day, I immediately set about to rectify and retard the effects of the near disaster by taking the boys to the lovely and shallow Oak Street beach in Chicago, the very next day, the 13th of July. Butch sauntered into the water, but Mani refused at first, then hesitated, but in minutes succumbed to the fun that every kid was having. I am also happy to report that both the boys are enrolled in swimming classes, and they are at level three, which is instruction for stroke readiness in the deep. Butch is the inventive 8-year-old, and Mani is an incorrigible 6!
"...eat your vegetables, it'll make you smart." His instant retort: "I am already smart!" - Mani, six years in March 2011. This is what I live for!
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About the Author
Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines. (back)