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A devastating lesson in mortality

By Peter S. Goodman, Washington Post, Jan 1, 2005

PHUKET, Thailand -- The strangest thing may be how quickly you find yourself getting inured to it all -- the bodies, the grief, the smell. As if your own body comes with a sort of built-in self-preservation mechanism that denies this irrefutable evidence of its own mortality. Confronted with the sight of hundreds of bloated corpses rotting in the tropical sun, your own body says, "Not my flesh.

Those dead bodies are something different entirely from you and your body. You are not dead. You find yourself muttering this. You are not dead.

Strewn across the muck are fragments of holiday villas once filled with tourists, people like you, reading novels on their porches, having their morning coffee. A backgammon set is stuck between splintered bathroom tiles, a flip-flop on top, children's sand toys.

A woman in a flower-print bikini lies on her back, her face under a roof beam, her belly swollen toward the sky, her legs tucked under tree branches. A man lies flat against the earth, clinging to the base of a coconut palm. Not your flesh. These corpses with their contorted faces, their discolored skin, plucked from some other form altogether.

There are people walking around five days after the tsunami hit, visiting hospitals and Buddhist temples now turned into morgues, walking through row upon row of bodies, wondering if one of them was someone they lived with, gave birth to, sang "Happy Birthday" to, fought with over who would pick up the groceries on the way home from work. Some bodies lie uncovered in the sun, some with arms sticking up in the air, grasping in their final instant, now frozen in time by rigor mortis, for something that is still palpably yours: the next breath. You see relatives confused by it all, dazed as much as stricken by grief. What do you do after your wife is washed off the beach in front of your eyes? Who do you tell when you had to run for your life with your back turned and have survived but don't know where your children are? What report do you file after your infant has been pried from your arms by a powerful wave? Where do you go?

Not your flesh

You cannot see this, take this in, watch hundreds of people cope with this day after day and not be deeply moved.

You see it, you hear it, you take it in. You are here, but not here. It isn't happening to you. You see the photos taped to the walls of the departure area at the airport -- the strangest scene: suntanned people in shorts and batik shirts, sunglasses and temporarily corn-rowed hair, slumped over in funereal silence. You see the photos and the phone numbers and the urgent pleas written under them.

You stop and look at the faces. Two French children in a photo next to their mother.

Three Swiss men in suits and ties alongside other people, circles drawn around their faces. A 6-year-old English boy in his school photo. An entire family of Swedes -- mother, father, three children. A round-faced, bearded German. "Have you seen this man? Call this number, please." You imagine the frantic tone that you would hear in this other person's voice, the one who taped up the photo, if you dialed the number. Or maybe not. Maybe you would hear only exhaustion and resignation now, waiting for the information about the right morgue, the right row of bodies to examine. The photos literally cover the walls. These are people's grandchildren up here, people's husbands, uncles, friends. Who would not stop and look? Who would not be moved?

And yet what you really see and feel most viscerally is the living flesh all around, the tanned legs of a boy, his lean muscles flexing as he walks behind his parents; the faded tattoos on the shoulder of a man in a tank top, the back of a woman with long blond hair in a bikini top. It is compelling now, this flesh. You cannot stop yourself from reducing people to living flesh, and you cannot stop looking at living flesh and thinking about dead flesh, and you start to see that it is really all the same stuff. Yet you take comfort in the realization that this is a thought that only living flesh could produce. You laugh greedily, stealing a moment of morbid pleasure. Not dead, not you, not your flesh. It is surely not the end, and this is the point.

Scanning for bodies

You find yourself scanning everywhere for bodies. That rock over there, that tree. There could be a body under there. Even the velvet-covered couch at the airport lounge: Your mind calculates the geometry -- room for someone slender.

You find yourself looking at living people and imagining what they would look like dead. You go to the Sofitel resort, where more than 200 people washed away, many of them small children, and you are discomfited by the lack of bodies. They have been taken away, leaving only a scene flattened by the violent rush of water. The not-seeing is bad: It hides what you are already accustomed to, leaving you with something worse -- your imagination. You are in on a secret you did not particularly want to know. You now know what happens to a body after it's been buried in mud and salt water for four days.

In a Thai village by the sea, it is late afternoon and everyone has come running at word that someone may be alive at the bottom of a pile of rubble. The rescuers are axing boards to pieces, working frantically. A Thai television crew assembles, the cameraman points his lens down for a glimpse. And then a shriek, a high-pitched bone-chilling squeal. Not human. An animal. A piglet. The rescue crew pulls it free and the crowd absorbs it. Some smile. Some laugh. It is defiant laughter. It says: People died here, a lot of people, but not us.

And this is the knowledge that you carry around like some sort of talisman. "I'm not dead," you say to yourself, again and again, the very saying of it proving that it is so.

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