A world citizen may provide value to society by using knowledge acquired across cultural contexts.
Written 11 August
I’ve been to war memorials. The point of them isn’t lost on me. War is sad. Devastating. Death is a final note. But in my time of seeing monuments and memorials to the dead, I don’t think I’ve seen one that has hit as close to home as the one today.
Most people haven’t heard of Childers. It is a small town in Queensland, a rural one based around a small main street, some colonial architecture, and a farming industry. It is also the site of one of the worst travel tragedies that I’ve come across.
On June 23, 2000, an arsonist set a hostel ablaze. The ensuing fire took 15 lives.
On a utilitarian level I accept that this isn’t that many. People die every day. War kills so many more.
But on a personal level, it wasn’t the number that hit me but the connection to them. These were 15 young souls taken out of the natural order far earlier than expected. These were a group of people who were out traveling, seeing the world, making money doing hard work, meeting new faces, gaining new perspectives. They were living life and doing more to feed their curiosities than sitting around in the same town and watching crap television.
And like that they were gone. Many died in one room. The memorial and booklet detailed the questions of where and how and in what state the bodies were found. But it wasn’t the gore or the details that hit me so hard.
It was the book.
In front of the painting of the deceased, next to a wall of family photos of each of those who died, was a book that consolidated letters from friends and family to the deceased. Many were religious and tried to make sense of the events by focusing on heaven and seeing them later on. Most were touching.
But it was, in particular, the letters to Claire from her sister that were the kick to my ducts. There were a few that had been written over the years. And you could see it in the text just how close these two were. Reverent, honoring, caring, lonely, yet snarky and with a bit of humor. They read like a window into the relationship between the two, and into just how amazing an individual Claire was.
I cried. Not openly sobbing, but my eyes watered multiple times and tears fell. I had to blow my nose using the tissues they provided. I was affected.
There was the window into the lives of those who had died. And there was the sense of young people with promise being taken away. But more than that I connected to a few more things.
This was the first time I can remember where a memorial fully drew me in and brought the devastation home since an exhibit on 9/11 at the Newseum a couple years ago. These weren’t soldiers in countries I’d never seen or refugees from countries I couldn’t place on a map. These were young, exuberant backpackers. Their death could have just as easily been mine.
And specifically it was the letters from siblings and parents. I’ve heard that one of the saddest things is for a parent to have to bury their child. I can imagine that is true. But beyond that it was the letter to the older sister, lamenting that the deceased would stay 24 forever, but the author, the younger sister, was now the older one. It was feeling the weight of a life, of all the changes and growth, of the events and stories, of all the countless hours of conversation and connection, that was drawn to a close.
I thought about my family and friends back home. Of what they would do if I were to get killed on an adventure. I don’t know how well they would handle it. I don’t know how well I would given a reverse situation. It is romantic to say that I was out doing what I loved when I died, but it is a consolation prize. Given the choice, I’d rather stay home and be lame for the one time than go out and have fun knowing I’d die. Sure, I don’t want to always stay home, but I don’t want to be young forever. I don’t want to go out in a blaze doing something I love. I want to stick around, get old, run my course, reminisce over it at the end, and finally slip away after a long, long time on this planet.
I want to see my parents retire and go out and have their own adventures. They’ve worked and worked, and it is time for fun. I want to see my sister get married and have kids and grow old. I want to see what happens in the lives of my friends, whether they change or stay fundamentally themselves. I want to find out what my own course has in store for me, be it further globetrotting or getting married and having kids or starting a business. There is so much the future holds in store and I don’t want that to come to a close anytime soon.
Reading those letters I felt connected to the deceased. She could have been one of the travelers I had met. She could have been my friend. She could have been me. And deep down, knowing viscerally that I don’t want someone to be reading the letters my sister and parents wrote to me after my death, I felt sadness and terror of the unknown and helplessness against the gears of the universe.
I wiped the tears away. I blew my nose one last time. And I plodded slowly, nodding to the woman at the desk silently, finding my way outside to a bench, and I sat. I stared off into the distance at nothing in particular, and I tried to focus on one of the few positives that anyone had been able to put to the event. It was a note from a backpacker who had survived the fire. It was his resolution that, knowing he could have just as easily been the one to die, he wasn’t going to live in fear or squander the borrowed time. He would go out and live and travel and enrich and be enriched. It was his wake up call to live his life.