When a hol­i­day turned to grief

TRAV­EL­ING WITH GHOSTS: A MEM­OIR By Shan­non Leone Fowler Si­mon & Schus­ter, $26, 289 pages

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif. By Martin Rubin

More than seven cen­turies ago the great me­dieval Ital­ian poet Dante Alighieri gave the clas­sic de­scrip­tion of the ef­fect of loss on a hu­man be­ing: “Nes­sun mag­gior do­lore/ Che ri­cor­darsi del tempo fe­lice/ Nella mis­e­ria,” which trans­lates as “There is no greater pain/ than to rec­ol­lect happy times/ in mis­ery.” While ma­rine bi­ol­o­gist Shan­non Leone Fowler is by no means the only per­son to ex­pe­ri­ence this dole­ful process, the way in which she came to do so was par­tic­u­larly shock­ing.

On Aug. 9, 2002, she was swim­ming with her Aus­tralian boyfriend Sean Reilly on a beach in Thai­land, when she felt some­thing brush against her leg while they were kiss­ing. It turned out to be a deadly box jel­ly­fish, which soon wrapped it­self round his legs, par­a­lyz­ing him and rapidly end­ing his life. Her de­scrip­tion of what hap­pened next — the mis­read­ing of what hap­pened to him, the sham­bolic scene on the beach and even at the clinic with false di­ag­noses and on and on through tor­ment well con­veyed — makes for sear­ing read­ing. This is a writer who is a won­der at con­vey­ing pain amid a rush of emo­tions.

She is a wise writer, too, un­der­stand­ing the na­ture of dan­ger, con­fronting it, which can some­times leave one per­son un­scathed and an­other de­stroyed. The cru­cial in­ci­dent is a case in point and Sean an ex­am­ple of the gra­da­tions of fear, its sub­tle va­lidi­ties:

“Sean had al­ways been afraid of sea crea­tures. … He’d been par­tic­u­larly ner­vous about sharks and since our ar­rival on the is­land had kept ask­ing me, ‘Don’t most at­tacks hap­pen in shal­low wa­ter?’ I was study­ing to be a ma­rine bi­ol­o­gist and knew how un­likely a shark at­tack was, es­pe­cially in Thai­land. I kept as­sur­ing him he was more likely to be struck by light­ning. ‘I just felt some­thing,’ I be­gan, but hadn’t fin­ished the sen­tence when Sean flinched and dropped me.”

Com­ing from Aus­tralia, where shark at­tacks are all too fre­quent, his fear is ra­tio­nal, but if he was more likely to be struck by light­ning than shark bit­ten, how much longer the odds to be stung al­most in­stantly to death across the sea by a venomous jel­ly­fish? Sean’s fear of sea crea­tures seems prophetic, but what is truly eerie is the gap be­tween what seeded it and what would jus­tify it.

If the most mem­o­rable parts of this mem­oir are the at­tack and deal­ing with its se­que­lae, its bulk con­cerns the pi­caresque jour­ney un­der­taken by Ms. Fowler to achieve some kind of peace, in­ter­spersed with mem­o­ries of her trav­els with Sean. Some of th­ese places un­der­score the tra­vails of oth­ers in or­der to put her in­di­vid­ual loss in per­spec­tive. Th­ese in­clude war-torn Bos­nia, Is­rael, Moldova and even Auschwitz. There she did not flinch from en­gag­ing with the hor­rors that had taken place on that spot, in­clud­ing even the relics of the in­fa­mous Dr. Josef Men­gele’s hideous, sadis­tic ex­per­i­ments on chil­dren:

“But by far the most dis­turb­ing pho­tos were the ones with­out cap­tions. Be­fore and af­ter im­ages in black and white of name­less chil­dren turned into ghosts, with­out any ex­pla­na­tions pro­vided. At the end of the ex­per­i­ments, the young vic­tims’ dark haunted faces stared into the cam­era lens while the skele­tal shad­ows of what re­mained of their naked bod­ies turned away.”

Then there are her own spe­cial pil­grim­ages, in their own way per­haps even more dif­fi­cult for her to con­front. Sean’s Aus­tralia and, hard­est of all, Barcelona in Spain where Shan­non and he met. Blend­ing her in­tensely per­sonal pain with historic and cur­rent an­guish is done with fi­nesse and a fine sense of pro­por­tion, never com­pet­ing, never di­min­ish­ing or de­valu­ing.

It is a mea­sure of Ms. Fowler’s great achieve­ment in life and on the pages of her mem­oir that, while never min­i­miz­ing the pro­found pain of her loss, she man­aged not only to sur­vive but to say con­vinc­ingly that “I know how lucky I have been.” Like Wil­liam Wordsworth in his great In­ti­ma­tions Ode, she can “find/ Strength in what re­mains be­hind:/ In the pri­mal sym­pa­thy/ Which hav­ing been must ever be.”

But un­like the great Ro­man­tic poet, she does not re­ject griev­ing, rather she em­braces it boldly, thought­fully, ac­cept­ing its ne­ces­sity as a part of the heal­ing process. But, as in the essence of his poem which cen­ters on rec­ol­lec­tion, she has found myr­iad ways — rang­ing from light­ing can­dles to the Jewish mourn­ing process of sit­ting shiva, phys­i­cal keep­sakes and me­men­tos, and, most im­por­tant of all keep­ing Sean in her heart and mind — to re­mem­ber him. And such is her gen­eros­ity of spirit that she can ex­tend her mem­ory to other vic­tims of the box jel­ly­fish: Her book is ded­i­cated to Sean, but only as part of a list of oth­ers, some name­less, with the dates and lo­ca­tion of their deaths when known — “And for any­one else whose death has not been rec­og­nized.” To which I can only bow my head in trib­ute not just to them, but to Ms. Fowler, who epit­o­mizes Ernest Hemingway’s clas­sic def­i­ni­tion of courage: grace un­der pres­sure.

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