The day after Christmas in 2004 I found it hard to pull myself away from the TV. No, I wasn’t involved in a movie or a football game. With tears in my eyes I was watching the aftermath of the Indonesian tsunami that had hit the coastal city of Banda Aceh. The earthquake that triggered the tsunami had registered 9.2 on the Richter scale—the second strongest in recorded history. And its epicenter was just 75 miles offshore from that city.
When the earthquake hit, people ran outside to escape collapsing buildings and found they couldn’t even remain standing on open ground. When it finally ceased, the local people began rescue efforts for those trapped under collapsed buildings in the downtown area. Little did they know that two-and-a-half miles away, a wall of water 30 to 90 feet high was rising out of the sea—a wall that would soon come raging inland to sweep them away. In fact, in just a few minutes those black waters would kill 125,000 people in that one city alone—fully half of all who died in 11 different countries.
When the water receded, debris 10 to 20 feet deep covered much of the city. Surviving fathers searched desperately for their children. Broken-hearted mothers sat on the ground, wailing over their lost children. Others just sat in stunned, uncomprehending silence. Half the bodies had washed out to sea and were never found. The others lay strewn amid the rubble. In the ensuing days, relief workers hauled bodies to mass graves. Some held up to 20,000 bodies.
As my wife watched me watching the news, she said to herself, “If there’s a way for him to get there, he’s going to Indonesia.” And as it turned out, that’s exactly what happened. A few weeks later my employing organization, Medical Teams International, asked me to accompany a dentist to Banda Aceh for a month. Soon he and I were crisscrossing the ruins, holding makeshift clinics for survivors who were working to clean up the rubble of their lives, and extracting their abscessed and broken teeth. While we couldn’t heal their heartaches, at least we could relieve their toothaches.
My Worst Nightmare
Just two nights after we arrived there, I purchased some local DVD’s containing about two hours of footage of the tsunami and its aftermath. Again I shed tears as I watched scenes that had been too terrible to show on TV. And I made the mistake of watching it just before bedtime. It truly was the stuff of nightmares, and that night I had the worst nightmare of my life.
I dreamed that my wife Nancy, and our then 11 year-old daughter Christina, were with me in Indonesia when another terrible earthquake hit. Somehow we got separated, and when the shaking stopped I started looking for them desperately. Soon I saw Nancy—but only Nancy–coming toward me up a crowded street.
I asked her anxiously, “Where’s Christina?”
Stunned and in shock she answered, “I’m sorry…. She didn’t make it…. But she’s peaceful.”
I thought, “No! No! That can’t be!” And not willing to accept such news I ran on, searching until I finally found her. She was lying on the floor of a big bank building that was still standing. She lay there lined up with many other bodies, all muddy and still. In desperation and denial I knelt down to feel for a pulse in her neck, hoping against hope she might still be alive. But I found no pulse.
The agony of the realization that my only child was dead was so intense that it woke me up. In my confusion as I began to wake, I actually tried desperately to re-enter my nightmare, hoping that somehow it wasn’t true and that maybe I could still save her! Then I wakened more fully, opened my eyes, and realized with sweet, wonderful relief that I was lying on a mattress in my room in Indonesia. That meant that there was no earthquake, and that my wife and daughter were safe at home, half-a-world away in broad daylight.
As I lay there I began to shed tears of profound relief. And then it hit me: “I was able to wake up from my nightmare, but these poor people here will never be able to waken from theirs….” Then I shed more tears—this time for them.
Feelings of Empathy
As the weeks passed we were able to help hundreds of people out of pain. I derived great satisfaction from being able to show compassion and encouragement in my own small way.
I’ll never forget one woman in particular. She stood there alone in a line one day at one of our open-air clinics, waiting her turn to have an aching tooth removed. As I assisted the dentist, our interpreter said to me, “You see that woman in line? She lost everything in the tsunami—her home, her husband, and all of her children.” I looked her way and our eyes met. I could read the profound sadness in her eyes. And she somehow must have sensed the compassion I was feeling for her, because she slowly raised her open hand and tapped gently three times over her heart, then just held it there. I nodded back to say I understood, and tears blurred my vision till I could no longer see her. It was at that moment that I became profoundly thankful for my nightmare. It had sensitized me to their pain like nothing else could have. And it put love into everything I was doing for them.
Now when I see news of the victims of other disasters, I try to put myself in their place as well, and long to do something to help them, too. And through my experience I have come to see Jesus’ compassion more clearly. He left Heaven because he couldn’t stand to remain there as long as he knew we were suffering down here without help and without hope.
—Written by Keith Canwell
Originally published at: storyharvest.org