MH 17

My wife’s phone rang at 3.19am. It confused me, because my alarm does not make that sound. Mostly asleep, I thought of the time when the noise would stop, and I could submerge myself completely. My wife was obviously also not conscious.

“What’s that?” I asked, innocently.

“My sister is trying to call me.”

“Oh.” With no sarcasm, I said “Maybe you should answer it”. I was being helpful. “Yeah, maybe you’re right.” Again, no sarcasm. Sleep is a type of drug.

I didn’t think, who has died?, the way I would back home. 3am is 11am there. Not a time when anyone should call us, but a safe time nonetheless. Then I kept hearing, oh no … oh no … oh no … And then, no, he’s here. He’s asleep. In the room next to us.

In a six week period, I flew the Amsterdam-Australia route with Malaysian Airlines three times. The first time, just before I boarded in Sydney, I heard the news that one of their planes was missing. I didn’t know what was happening, but that didn’t worry me at all. Air travel is safe. Statistically invalid though it is, if I reacted at all, it was only to think that if here had been a recent disaster, air travel was for the moment, even safer. Only at breakfast the next morning in Kuala Lumpur, reading a local paper, did I realise the extent of the tragedy, did the selfishness of my glib reaction sink in.

My next trip was back home a month later, on the noon MH 17 flight. We flew over the Ukraine again, just as I did a fortnight later as I brought my family to join me in Europe.

My wife’s octogenarian uncle, spry and fit and still travelling the world, has been using our home here as a base while he journeyed around Europe. He was travelling home on MH 17 on Friday. We had gone to bed that night not knowing that Thursday’s flight had simply been shot out of the sky, killing everyone. Our family in Australia suddenly worried that they may have had the date wrong.

Half asleep, I dismissed their worry. I knew that he was safe and that he was travelling the next day, and I had not yet seen the news broadcasts. I later saw the horror, but connected only on an intellectual level. Viscerally, I think it was not until midday that it hit me. Flags at half mast here in the Netherlands. The number of Australians killed. (No more important than anyone else, just that I can relate a little more to that.) My daughter’s Dutch teacher, telling her that she was late for school as she had to prepare her son. His little friend had been killed, with all of his family. They had been going on an adventure to Australia, a trip long planned and hard saved for. All the class had been excited for them. AIDS researchers, their knowledge and skills built up over decades, gone in an instant. Good people, bad people, ordinary people, their bodies scattered over a field in the Ukraine after they fell ten kilometres from the sky.

I may have once, or thrice, flown on that exact same aircraft, like thousands of other people. I’ll never know. And I may have been served by the crew who died. And if my wife’s uncle had flown a day earlier, the shock and horror we would have shared much more directly.

There is nothing to learn. There are no new truths. All of our lives are so contingent. Our existences may be snatched from us in an instant. When powers conspire, they do not care about the effects. We are refreshed in the knowledge of the horror, and the veil is drawn away from our eyes for a moment. We carry on, because what else is there to do?

My wife’s sister will join us in a month or so. She says she won’t let the bastards stop her doing what she wants to do. We will worry for her while she travels. At some level, we worry for everyone all the time, because the moment you love, the moment you are connected to another human being, you are open to loss, and by the time you reach my age, you have lost, and know you will lose again. But still, love we must, and lose we must, for otherwise, we are less than human.


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