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Published: Sunday, 12/25/2005

Toledoan remembers those who did not survive tsunami

BY TED WILHELM
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE
Ted Wilhelm, 33, a Toledo native and alumnus  St. Francis de Sales, and his wife, Natalie, 30, are in their second year as teachers at the American International School/Dhaka in Bagladesh. In a series of articles in January, Mr. Wilhelm, a freelance writer, described escaping the tsunami and the couple's struggles in Sri Lanka. The couple's son, Noah, was born after the flood. Ted Wilhelm, 33, a Toledo native and alumnus St. Francis de Sales, and his wife, Natalie, 30, are in their second year as teachers at the American International School/Dhaka in Bagladesh. In a series of articles in January, Mr. Wilhelm, a freelance writer, described escaping the tsunami and the couple's struggles in Sri Lanka. The couple's son, Noah, was born after the flood.
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It has been a year since the old Sri Lankan man, the chief patriarch at the family-run resort my wife and I had been staying at, was sitting quietly staring out at the ocean. He was leaning on a cane that was more ornamental than enabling. When the tsunami wave came, he was pushed backward and then dragged forward into the ocean, gone before there was time to wonder.

Each morning I had passed him while retrieving my breakfast. Now he was gone. Later, while sitting on a hill with other refugees, I would hear a death toll of 2,000 spit from a voice on a transistor radio. The crowd, circled about the radio, fell silent at the announcement of the death toll. In fact the tsunami of Dec. 26 - with beach resorts filled with Christmas vacationers - was to take 300,000 lives, and a year later, a void remains.

Still, this is not to dwell on the pain left by those who were taken. Instead, we can do right by their spirit and memory by recognizing the extraordinary efforts and miracles that have risen like a phoenix from the pyre of this dreadful environmental catastrophe.

I can only think that those missing would want to recognize the espirit de corps that brings honor to their memory. A year later, I remember the old man who had no chance at escape, and honor his life by bringing to mind the miracles that followed.

There are countless inexplicable stories or survival and tales of inspirational contributions that came to light after the tsunami. Conduct a rudimentary search of the Internet, and you'll come across stories such as that of the surfers from California who raised nearly $500,000 to rebuild the towns whose waters they'd braved in search of thrills. Or there are the monks from British Colombia who sold their temple for over $400,000 contributing the entire sum to the Canadian Red Cross for distribution to the relief effort. Even the Tamil Tigers, active rebels in Sri Lanka, quieted their arms to ensure peace in the aftermath.

Stories such as these are endless and should not be forgotten. Anymore it is hard to turn on the television or browse the papers without being bombarded by tales of worry, destruction, or fear. It is essential that we not loose sight of our remarkable capacity to carry on, to contribute, to hope.

Likewise, I have my own story. When my wife and I returned to our "normal" lives as teachers in Dhaka, Bangladesh, we found ourselves with little time for grief. A little plastic pregnancy-test stick boasting blue told us that we were alive, we were moving forward, and we were soon to be parents.

Of course, this was a moment for elation. Yet, at the same time, as we considered the papers and the news, and recalled the disaster that nearly took our lives, we wondered if it was right, bringing a life into this, at times, ugly world. Sure, maybe selfish, but please remember, but a month prior, we witnessed rampant death and destruction without the ability to change channels or turn the page. As our world was reshaping and our once infectious optimism was floundering, a blue stick gave us a peek at our fate, and remarkably, things looked amazingly bright.

I bring this up to recognize the indomitable spirit of the survivors who lived through the loss of family and friends to recognize our amazing human capacity to turn disasters into footholds and tragedy into temporary setbacks to be pushed through, over, and beyond.

When a colleague learned of our pregnancy, she was quick to share that it eased her pain to know that the soul of a dear friend lost in the tsunami would live on in new life. Her attachment to our baby, even through the earliest days of pregnancy, has been undeniable. It is a great honor to watch her move forwarded comforted by our gift of new life.

She has property in Phucket, Thailand. All that she owned was demolished. Recently, she explained that the most amazing flora is taking root about her property. Plants and fruits previously unknown to her area have made their way across vast distances, impossible waters, to bring new life to old ground.

Funny how it works, how from the flooded and downtrodden, miracles crest and leap, and how two wanderers bare-footing the sands of Sri Lanka lived to share their tale and welcome new life.

So, as for the old man who was lost before he could know, I can't help but feel that in one way or another, he lives on. In his admiration for the horizon, his patience to watch the tourist come and go, trampling a land he likely knew before there were roads, and in his toothless smile he shared with the children, his spirit lives on.

And for the rest of my days, when I peer into the eyes of my son, Noah, who was born on Sept. 22, I will remember the gift that life is, and the responsibility we all have to hold each other up, dry each other off, and help rebuild the smiles and hope that can never be diminished.


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