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Help Wanted, At Last

Bolstered by the pride and folly of youth, she conducted her life without the input or aid of others. Until the day a life-altering tragedy made her realize that sometimes the person who can’t ask for help is the one who needs it most.

By Shannon Leone Fowler
Ocean Study III Blaise Hayward
I have always been an independent person. If you ask my parents or any of my old boyfriends, they will tell you I’m too independent. When I was little, I wanted to be a tightrope walker. I would practice on the back of our couch, insisting my parents not hover nearby with nervous, outstretched hands. I preferred falling on my own to succeeding with someone else’s help.
 
In between high school graduation and the completion of my doctorate in biology, I visited 52 countries, mostly solo. I was the sort of traveler who never asks for directions, choosing instead to struggle with maps and signs until I found my way. My independence was a mix of pride, daring, stubbornness, luck, and innocence. It worked only because I had never been truly lost.
 
Then one day on the island of Koh Phangan, in Thailand, everything changed. I was swimming in the ocean with Sean, my fiancé, when he was stung by a box jellyfish. He died within three minutes. He was 25 years old.
 
I never felt so terrifyingly alone. Yet when onlookers and travelers on the beach that day asked if I wanted company, stubborn pride, force of habit, and overwhelming grief prevented me from accepting. I no longer knew how to relate to other people, as if I suddenly spoke a language no one in the world understood. And I didn’t see how anything anyone could do would possibly help. I even declined repeated offers from my parents, who desperately wanted to join me. But two young Israeli women, despite my protests, refused to leave.
 
When Sean’s body was taken from the beach to the hospital by truck, these women followed on foot. They were with me the moment Sean was officially declared dead. When the receptionist immediately requested payment, the women demanded I be allowed time alone with his body. When the hospital staff gave me a document written in Thai and told me to sign, I automatically picked up a pen, but the women held my hand and insisted the document be translated first. The cause of death had been listed as drunk drowning. I learned later from a scientist who specialized in box jellyfish that deaths from jellyfish are sometimes covered up to avoid hurting the tourism industry.
 
These women went with me to the temple where Sean’s body, wrapped in sheets, was taken. A large group of locals gathered around the truck, opening the sheets and pointing excitedly at the welts on his legs. The Israeli women yelled at them to show respect and stood guard over Sean as we waited three hours for someone to find a key. The women were 21 years old at the time and complete strangers to me. They had been with me through some of the most intimate and terrible moments of my life, and at that point I still didn’t even know their names.
 
 
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