“IT WAS SO UNFAIR”
After losing both parents on MH370, life must go on for Amanda Lawton.
On the cluttered tallboy dresser in her bedroom, Amanda Lawton keeps a small Guatemalan worry doll resting on its embroidered pouch, secured safely inside a deep 3D frame.
The doll has lost its headband, its Mayan dress is frayed and faded, and it was once in a set of four, but now it lies alone, mounted behind glass.
“It was a Christmas gift for my mother because she was worried about flying to China – she would have nightmares about China,” Lawton says, staring at the frame and unconsciously swiping away dust with her finger.
Two other dolls from the pouch are with Lawton’s sisters, Missy and Glenda, and the fourth was in the pocket of their mother, Kathy, when on March 8, 2014, she and husband Bob boarded Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
“The three dolls left behind were still sitting by her bed… I wanted the old worn one because I remember Mum told me it was in her pocket and accidentally went in the wash. It’s something, I don’t know, a connection.”
Flight MH370 inexplicably vanished over the Indian Ocean that day, and on the third anniversary of the tragedy, it’s still the small things that both haunt Lawton – and keep her going.
When tragedy strikes, the death or disappearance sends out a ripple that touches many, with those closest forced to wait the longest for calm to set in. The 30-year-old knows her life changed irrevocably that day but she’s holding on, and taking each day as it comes.
In the weeks, months and years following the disappearance of her beloved parents, things were a lot worse for Lawton, who all but had to remind herself to breathe each day.
Her pain today is visible, not just in the tears she tries to blink away as she recalls the last text she sent her mother, whom she spoke to twice a day.
She speaks about the what-ifs, like the alternative scenarios in the Gwyneth Paltrow film Sliding Doors, and how her life today would have been different if her parents had never got on that plane. There wouldn’t have been the vodka binges, the stays in bed that would last for weeks, or the ambulances and four hospitalisations, as she suffered debilitating anxiety attacks.
By the age of 30, Lawton had expected to be married with kids and
living in Brisbane or possibly Sydney, where she had considered moving to and fulfilling her life-long interest in property planning and management.
Instead, she has an on-off boyfriend, works in sales and lives alone in a large Queenslander in inner Brisbane with her two labradors, Moose and Duck. Both were once outdoor dogs, but now live inside, with Duck having recognised something was wrong shortly after the tragedy unfolded and not wanting to leave her side.
“After the incident, we expected to have some news and it just never came,” Lawton recalls. “At one point, months after, I thought, ‘I need to get back to what I was doing, go back to work.’ But I was different, my body just went into a different place.
“I almost didn’t feel like I was living. Overwhelmed. I was in shock, trauma… it was like my body was not handling things. I slept all the time, through the day. Depression kicked in. I was drinking a lot when I was awake, lots of vodka.
“I wasn’t myself; I was thinking, ‘Why work when I can do something else and die tomorrow?’ It was a different way of thinking. I have always been driven, career-orientated, outgoing – this was something else.”
She felt stupid that she couldn’t process her own reactions or feelings.
Looking back now at photos taken over the past three years, Lawton can identify what she calls the “fake smile”; a put-on for friends at parties. Lawton moved into her parents’ house in Springfield Lakes, 30km south-west of Brisbane, and bought her sisters out. She can’t bring herself to sell the three-bedroom property.
She was at boyfriend Paul’s house when her sister Missy rang her about the commercial airliner disappearing. Lawton told her to calm down, that planes don’t just disappear and she laughed off the panic on the other end of the line. Lawton vividly remembers everything for the one and a half hours from that 10am Saturday call, but then it’s all “fuzzy”, a blank memory within which there was confirmation of the loss of a plane and 239 souls, the 10 unanswered phone calls to her mother and the text: “Really worried, call us.”
Her life began to bounce back only a year later when she made the decision to travel alone and visit the Great Wall of China to complete her parents’ planned holiday.
“It was unfair they never got to do it, they would have loved it,” she said.
Christmases are the hardest: Kathy loved this time of year. Birthdays, too.
Facebook is a challenge. It pinged yesterday and automatically sent Lawton a photo of what she had posted that day four years ago – she and Kathy lunching at their favourite cafe in Brisbane’s Paddington.
Lawton is more positive today, testament to her strength of character. Her support base is strong; dad Bob’s best friend comes by to cut her lawn and share a memory. No more vodka – she’s on a regular fitness regimen. And while her parents’ goods are around her house – Kathy’s sketches and paintings, photographs of her parents on the TV stand and the framed worry doll – she has come to terms, more or less, with what’s happened and accepts it. Things feel “real”, she says, for the first time in a while. No more fake-smile photos.
You can chart her progress from her diary, once filled with distress and demons, to becoming more perfunctory – dates and appointments. “I accept things, it’s part of life,” she says.
“I hold onto hope [of finding evidence of what happened], but I tell myself I’m not going to, so I don’t think too much about it. It’s my way of dealing with it. Is that selfish?
“I want to know if they knew what was going on, what happened. It won’t bring them back, but I can’t help thinking about it. Dad would say, ‘When your time’s up, your time’s up.’ It might sound weird to say, but does his spirit now know his time’s up?”
“I WAS IN SHOCK, TRAUMA… MY BODY NOT HANDLING THINGS. I SLEPT ALL THE TIME. DEPRESSION KICKED IN. I WAS DRINKING”