When a holiday turned to grief
TRAVELING WITH GHOSTS: A MEMOIR By Shannon Leone Fowler Simon & Schuster, $26, 289 pages
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.