Typhoon Haiyan and parenthood

What can I possibly say about Typhoon Haiyan, one of the biggest storms in recorded history? What can anyone say about it?

I have no idea what to do with statistics like 10,000 people feared dead, although this initial estimate appears to be dropping. Whether the final count is lower or higher, all those zeros leave me numb.

I was similarly stunned in the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami, and again after Japan, when death tolls clocked up through unthinkable, abstract figures.

Eventually my brain disengages. I have to change the channel. Not because I don’t care, but because I can’t comprehend what it means for so many people, suddenly, to no longer be alive.

It’s not over though, because now the problem is how to get aid to the survivors. Hundreds of thousands of people displaced and hungry. More numbers that I can’t compute.

Tragedy turns my thoughts toward my own family. While ordinary people in another country were dying and being made homeless, my wife and I were walking with our three healthy boys through the bush at Otanewainuku.

The boys ran ahead, immersed in their own grand adventure. There’s something liberating about the way children run when they’re happy. It’s a straight forward expression of joy. “I am in the bush. This place is cool. Therefore I must run.” The same thing happens when you put children in a big open space like an empty hall. The first thing they want to do is chase each other.

It is an intolerable thought that my family could ever be ripped apart by disaster the way thousands of families have been ripped apart in the Philippines.

Becoming a parent ruins you. As soon as you have kids you’re doomed because you now love someone more than you ever thought possible, and you’re stuck with it.

The day our first child entered the world, joy entered with him, but I drove home with a horrible realisation: “Oh no, what have I done? I’ve brought an innocent life into a world of pain!”

Nothing is ever quite the same after you’ve had children. The universe suddenly looms with danger. Little dangers, like balconies and door hinges. Big dangers, like fires and asteroids.

The last thing my wife and I do each night is check on our sleeping boys. They always look like they’ve fallen into their beds from a great height. Whatever excitement or trauma has filled their day is dispersed softly into the night.

Looking at their peaceful faces is the moment when love seems to ache the most. It’s a wonderful sort of pain that every parent will be familiar with.

Being alive is a risk. The one guarantee is that every life ends, so there will certainly be grief at some point on the journey. This makes love a peculiar combination of win and lose.

I don’t want to accept that grief will eventually land upon my chirpy children. But it’s inevitable. And because the world is filled with sharp edges, there will be physical and emotional pain along the way. I hate that truth.

There’s a photo I’ve seen of a Filipino father holding his two toddlers. His new makeshift home is a corrugated iron sheet leaning against a sea of rubble. Other images show survivors walking through debris, shielding their noses from the stench of decaying corpses that were once their neighbours.

My brain tries desperately to detach itself from these photos, to deny that humans are suffering while I am deciding which herbal tea to drink.

Until it lands on my own doorstep, tragedy of this scale is simply too alien for me to handle. All I can do from my relative safety is to send a donation. Then I have to change the channel for a while. And tonight, as usual, I’ll kiss each of my sons on the forehead as they sleep.


First published in Bay of Plenty Times 15 November 2013. Reproduced with permission.