Sympathy Via Satellite
Sympathy Via Satellite
(A Brief, Remote Memoir of the Night of Brisbane’s Flood Peak)
Snow fell the night Brisbane drowned.
My nine year old son, Jared, was overjoyed. Though limited in his capacity for speech, he let his actions shout a single word: “Finally!” Winter had underwhelmed him to this point; the promised festival of snowmen, snow angels, snowball fights, snow forts, snow anything else you could think of having fallen well short of expectation. Many had figured it to be a bad season in Vancouver. All manner of alarmist predictions had signposted the December solstice; claims abounded, trumpeting record lows and frequent storms and full shelters. For two months, Jared had waited for the white-out to come. When finally it arrived, he wasn’t aware that calamity always rode sidecar with the snow, propelling motorists into ditches, cutting off electricity and bringing assured levels of chaos to the streets. He simply gave thanks. Mother Nature had deigned to be kind.
I was not thankful. I was otherwise occupied, awash in Facebook updates.
Water over the bikeway now
…there are so many people panic buying in the supermarkets, wiping out supplies of milk, bread, fruit and meat…
Police cutting off access to my street! Shit just got real!
I held a hand to my pinched forehead as the feed continued to hum. This was insane. The city of my youth, my family, my entry into fatherhood; the city I still considered home, though I resided on the other side of the globe – it was suffering. Not at the hands of a sudden, unfamiliar trauma; the sort dropped at Vancouver Island’s feet with the 1946 earthquake. No, Brisbane’s foe was experienced, proven, all-too-known from forty years before: an insidious and inevitable rising of the river, slowly drowning the inner-city ‘burbs the way hantavirus takes its victims by submerging the lungs in the body’s own fluid.
And it was just beginning.
Around dinner time, my brother Simon posted photos from his downtown work vantage at the State Library of Queensland. The first showed the river lapping at the foot of the landscaped surrounds. By the time of the second, taken an hour later, the concrete walkways at ground level of the Library were submerged. I noted Wend’s rhetorical comment – Why aren’t you going home _ – and decided he needed further encouragement:
Yes, gtf home, Si…
He replied he was doing just that, but was stuck in a gridlock of fleeing CBD commuters.
Three hours later, we would post that he’d received a message from Al Jazeera, letting him know they were using his pics.
Have been through heartbreaking morning helping with moving a friend’s belongings upstairs or to elsewhere on higher ground…
OMG…Edenbrooke is being evacuated!
Saw footage of flooding in Milton and Oxley’s / Drift Cafe floating down the river. Scary stuff.
“Your son has an idea in his head.”
Wendy’s plea prised my gaze away from the iPad and toward the lounge space. Jared was doing his “happy dance” – leaping and spinning and raising his arms and rocking foot to foot. He bounced, bum first, on the adjacent exercise ball then pressed his hands and nose against the glass back door, staring wide-eyed at the flakes cascading from above.
“Snoooow!” he said in a tone balancing awe and delight. “I love snow!’
“Think I’ll take him out,” said Wend, donning cold weather gear. “Just for a couple of minutes.”
She gave a tired smile and led our celebrating son outside. I could see my wife was glad to have a distraction, if only for a brief moment. She was a native of Vancouver, but she’d laid roots in the Queensland capital as deep as any belonging to me. Family, friends, stories…She had a trove of each. She’d given birth to our children at the Wesley. Worked for Suncorp. Cheered on the Maroon triumphs and lamented their defeats. A nurtured niche in her heart would always pump to the rhythms of Venero Armanno’s Firehead and Powderfinger’s ‘Odyssey Five’.
It was faltering now.
Much of her day had been spent fretting over the online Courier-Mail and its flood coverage. No detail had escaped her attention: the river was set to peak overnight; it was believed it could top 1974 levels; thousands of homes would be inundated; damage would be in the billions; the death toll – currently standing at thirteen in the wake of the Toowoomba and Lockyer Valley tragedies – would undoubtedly rise. Every prediction, every declaration of doom, had added another arrow to her quiver of concern. It hurt to be so far away, to be a hapless spectator. Sympathy via satellite left a lot to be desired.
At least the burden wasn’t hers alone. During the morning, anxious and unable to concentrate, I’d bent the ear of anyone and everyone at the office. My colleagues were familiar with the coverage – it had been in the papers and had featured in both local and national news broadcasts for the better part of a week – and they’d wanted to inquire about the deluge. I’d tried my best to make them understand its magnitude:
“Imagine one third of Surrey going under…”
“Picture water covering the field in BC Place…”
“Visualize people paddling kayaks down Robson Street…”
They’d shaken their heads in disbelief. I could see, to a person, my analogies had brought them closer to understanding and distanced them further from empathy. I didn’t hold it against them – how could I given my own wedges of separation: three years of Canadian permanent residence and a fifteen hour flight?
How’s your folks? had been my workmates’ tentative follow-up. I’d told them my parents lived in the safe, northside suburb of Mitchelton. My brother and his family were in Red Hill; much closer to ground zero but high enough that they would remain untouched. Friends and acquaintances were spread far and wide across the city – most had offered assurances they were fine; some had revealed they were preparing for the worst. I’d brought the conversations to a close the same way each time:
“Keep us in your thoughts today.”
They’d assured me they would and returned to their workaday, mundane, flood-free lives. Purged of silence but not of guilt, I’d inwardly admonished myself for the use of the term “us”.
The city was empty this morning. 90% of businesses closed.
Waking up to clear skies and devastation is still on it’s way with the king tide.
Ipswich Mayor Paul Pisasale: “If I find anybody looting in our city they will be used as flood markers.”
Facebook was still rolling at 11.00pm local time. In amongst the torrent of Brisbane posts was detritus from my local friends. Questions about plans for the evening. In-joke innuendoes between friends. Links to favourite products and movie stars and music videos.
And complaints about the snow.
“This is bullshit,” I muttered. “Get outside your lives for a moment and see that there are people doing it a lot tougher in this world. And not just in Brissie either.”
Such thoughts were irrational and unfair, but I indulged them all the same. I was on the verge of a scathing online attack, when my wife removed the WTF from my wanton fireworks.
“He’s going to be very sad tomorrow.”
“Jared…He’s going to be sad tomorrow.”
For a moment, I couldn’t reconcile the statement with my most recent images of our son. He’d come in from the brief play outside contented and rosy-cheeked. He’d gone to bed with a split watermelon for a smile. He continued to randomly shout “SNOW!” at regular intervals, as if it were an incantation of supreme fortune.
“It’s turning to rain tonight,” added Wend. “Most of the fall will be washed away in the morning.”
I put the iPad in my lap and leaned back in my chair. It was true. The winter wonderland that had floated down from the sky like manna would be gone by sunrise. My son’s contented and gracious appraisal of Mother Nature would be replaced by confusion and despair and distrust. It seemed grossly unfair, but that judgement was overturned with a single pivot of thought. Challenge was the way of the world. Cruel blows, delivered by circumstances bereft of logic or control, were destined to rain down in life. Could we absorb them, own them, shape them into stories of courage and fortitude and compassion? That was the defining question.
I looked down at the iPad screen. Positioned around a photo of two teen boys paddling a gutted fridge down their suburban street were the most recent Facebook updates:
…We’re high and dry with spare rooms. If anyone needs help let me know.
My place is fine. We are available for clean up duties – if you need the help, don’t be too proud, just sing out
…Disasters like this bring the best out in people. John Farnham and Angry Anderson will come out of retirement AGAIN…
“Jared’ll get through it,” I told Wend. “He’s a Brisbane boy after all.”
This short, dedicated to Queenslander courage during the 2011 floods, featured in the Brothers Groth e-anthology, Surface Water.