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  • Writer's pictureRachel Levy

It Wasn't My Sister Then, But It Will Be My Sister Now

We have a shared tragedy in my family. By tragedy, I don’t mean a loss or an accident, but a gruesome, throbbing scar that marks us all as twins in shared horror. In 2004, my 38-year-old Aunt Carol was lost off the coast of Khoa Lac when the Indian Ocean tsunami swept away nearly 230,000 people.

In processing Carol’s death, I have learned what the weight of a single person’s life is. It’s a harder number to swallow than I thought it could be. The number one, I mean.

I wonder if the other 229,999 or so families still suffer the same shock that mine does all these years later. I wonder if their siblings, too, have framed photos of their lost loved ones on their desks like my mother does. Framed photos of faces frozen in time; faces who sunk back into the earth a bit too early.

I was recently in Durham to visit my own sister, just a few hours from where my mother and Carol grew up. She greeted me wearing our aunt’s jacket, and I was instantly reminded of the wave that ended her life. It made me wonder, in this changing climate, how many more tragedies my family will come to know at the hand of natural disaster.

When our home, just four miles from the beach, is overtaken by lapping waves, will part of me drown, too? Or, perhaps it’s more likely to fall first to the fury of a hurricane. In that case, I can only hope that my sweet childhood pets are buried deeply enough so as not to be disturbed by the winds.

It wasn’t my sister who was lost in the tsunami, but, in the wake of these modern, climate change-induced natural disasters, it will be my sister who is lost now. The death will be that of the future that could’ve been and the past that didn’t last long enough. It’ll be death to my childhood, to my family’s memories, to gathering around buried relatives. It’ll be an end to the red flash of cardinals I see now when I sit on the patio with my mom in the mornings, and to the subtle smell of jasmine from the vine wrapped around the swing my uncle built in our backyard.

No, it wasn’t my sister then, but it will be my sister now.

My dad told me once that the family never recovered from Carol’s death. He said my Grandad’s fatal stroke was the effect of long-term aftershocks from the trauma that plagued him in the years after the tsunami.

I wonder what effects my sisters and I will be plagued with once our home becomes too dangerous to inhabit. What will hurt more: being exiled from what was or losing what could have been? There’s a word for this suffering: eco-anxiety. Eco-anxiety is fear in the face of changing climates and environmental degradation. Fear not necessarily of higher temperatures but of what we know those will bring along with them. It’s fear of becoming a refugee; fear of having one’s history erased; fear of watching one’s home become uninhabitable.

Already, these anxieties are becoming more than simple worries. Over the past two decades, the slow and steady violence of climate change has been creeping into my community. I see it in the reefs I once snorkeled as a child. Bleached beyond recognition, with these reefs have gone the green sea turtles and blue herons, species as fragile as the coastal ecosystems they once depended on.

If I must, which seems to be the case, I can choke down a world lacking in biodiversity. What I can’t swallow, though, is a world constantly bracing for hurricanes that will only grow each year in their intensity, longevity, and frequency. Bracing for storms like 2019’s Hurricane Dorian: The strongest storm ever recorded in The Bahamas, it was a behemoth that took 74 lives.

What I can’t digest are the changes to precipitation patterns, like those that triggered the 2013 landslide in Uttarakhand in northern India. After 13 inches of rain poured down on the city, triggering a landslide, 6,000 people were buried into the earth. This calamity was provoked by a rainfall event that was an almost 400% increase above the average rate for that area during that time of year.

I fear the temperatures that will prolong summer, ravaging food production and fresh water supply. Estimates predict that such rising temperatures will force 38.5 million people from across East Africa to leave their homes by 2050 because of climate change-induced ecological degradation. Because they don’t have access to water anymore. Because their land has become too dry to even farm.

It wasn’t my sister then, but this, now, is my sister.

This is her world and mine and it has become one in which the very land we grew up on is being threatened. The day-to-day choices we now make are no longer just between sustainability or waste. They’re choices that have the collective power to blow away my house brick by brick with the same slow violence that has been bleaching my reefs shell by shell over the past two decades.

Climate change is knocking, and we can no longer pretend we aren’t home. The next time we get a knock, it might just be the unbridled rattle of window shutters quivering against the unforgiving, 160-mile-per-hour winds of a Category 5 hurricane.

The object of my eco-anxiety is no longer far removed: Sisters within my own country are being lost already to climate change-induced natural disasters. It hasn’t been my sister yet, but hurricane season is only ever just around the corner. Meanwhile, sisters in Nevada and Arizona are getting thirstier and thirstier as the Colorado basin dries up due to drought, and sisters in California can’t even breathe because of the smoke from the wildfires that they’re now confronting each year. For now, I speak as much as I can with sisters in New England to try and share my knowledge on hurricanes to help prepare them for those storms that are creeping ever further north each year. I share with them the best types of lanterns to have when the power goes out and the proper amount of fresh water to keep stocked throughout the season.

If my family has been able to take solace in anything in the years after Carol’s death, it’s in the fact that nothing could’ve been done to prevent what happened. It was a freak accident that defied intervention.

In looking towards the future, though, if there’s no collective change to our carbon output and something happens to my own sister, I’m afraid I won’t be able to claim that same comfort. The effects of rising temperatures don’t fit that into that category of autonomy and ignorance can no longer veil us from the role we’ve taken in what’s to come. We have the ability–and the responsibility–to intervene and prevent the catastrophes that, left unchecked, will come looking soon enough to collect their dues, and, take it from my family, the price of even a single life is no easy burden to bear.


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