In the winter of 2002, Shannon Leone Fowler was backpacking with her fiancé Sean in Thailand. It was there, in the warm waters of Koh Pha Ngan, that their globetrotting adventure came to a devastating, premature end.
He held me in the warm, waist-deep water as I wrapped my legs tighter around him. We kissed and I could taste the seawater salt on his tongue.
I felt something large and soft brush against the outside of my thigh. I flinched and gave a short yelp. Sean had always been afraid of sea creatures and quickly asked what it was.
“I just felt something,” I began, but hadn’t finished the sentence when Sean flinched and dropped me. He was making his way as fast as he could to the beach, running and pulling through the darkening turquoise sea with his hands. His movements were urgent and awkward, his elbows held high, his fingers splayed. I followed him to the water’s edge. He sat down on the wet sand.
“It’s all over my legs.” I bent down in the fading light and could barely make out a faint red welt rising on his ankle. “My head feels heavy. I’m having trouble breathing. Go get help.” He was quiet, calm, and coherent.
“Come with me.” I’d never heard of venomous marine life in Thailand.
And he wasn’t sensitive to bees, so an allergic reaction seemed unlikely. “Come with me,” I said again as I looked down at him sitting at the water’s edge. His dark hair wet, his narrow chest leaned back, and his long white legs now covered with sand.
Sean started to sink down on to his elbows in the wet sand. “The key is in your shoe.” It was the last thing he said as I turned to go. I was topless. I didn’t realise he was dying. I went to our cabana, peeled off my shorts and threw on a thin sundress.
By the time I ran back outside, he had collapsed face first into the sand.
I sprinted to him. “Sean! Sean!” There was no response. It was difficult to turn him over. As his head and shoulders touched the sand, there was a brief rush of air. At the time, I thought it was an inhalation.
I rushed to the bar, several hundred feet down the beach, crowded with August tourists. “My boyfriend’s been stung! He’s having trouble breathing.” I was having trouble breathing myself.
A number of people followed me from the bar. When we reached Sean, he had no pulse. A young female backpacker began compressing his chest, her slender white hands folded on top of each other.
I waited for a reaction, a Hollywood-esque splutter and cough as Sean came to and gasped for air. We would exhale in relief and I would tell him how much he’d scared me. I still thought someone could save him. Save us.
I was sobbing and screaming and choking. But I was still trying to breathe for him. “We need an ambulance. Can someone get an ambulance?”
It didn’t occur to me that Ko Pha Ngan wouldn’t have one.
'Has he taken any drugs?'
Finally, a truck was reversed down to the beach and Sean was moved into the back. With his head in my lap, I continued mouth-to-mouth as we jolted along a dirt road.
The truck pulled up directly in front of the Clinic Bandon International at Haad Rin. The two men in the back jumped out and carried Sean through a tiny waiting room and straight to a bed against the far wall.
“Has he taken any drugs?” a round-faced Chinese doctor asked from behind thick glasses. “Has he been drinking? We will work on him for twenty minutes.”
We watched through open white curtains as the doctor leaned into Sean’s chest. A nurse squeezed a plastic bag placed over Sean’s mouth, before pushing tubes down his throat and up his nose.
I paced. I shook. I couldn’t figure out what to do with my hands.
I watched as twice, a thick dripping needle was plunged into his chest. There was hardly any medical equipment. There was no defibrillator. Not even a bottle of vinegar, a common treatment for jellyfish stings. And certainly no antivenom.
There was nothing there that could save Sean.
The twenty minutes passed in an instant, and my heart seized as the doctor walked away from Sean’s bed and over to me.
“I’m sorry,” the doctor said. I collapsed onto the floor, sobbing. “There was nothing I could do. He was already dead when he got here.”
“How are you going to pay?” the receptionist asked.
Losing Sean is not something I will ever get over, or move past, or recover from. I’ll always be haunted by his death. I’ll always be enchanted by his life.
Over the years, I’ve slowly settled on my own ways to remember. I still sometimes light candles for Sean, raise a toast on birthdays and anniversaries. The cardboard box with most of his things has been moved to the attic. Our two silver rings are now in my grandma Joy’s old butterfly jewelry box, along with his funeral card, his Cadbury Schweppes business card, and the fortune I got from a Chinese cookie on what should have been Sean’s twenty-seventh birthday: There are times when sorrow seems to be the only truth.
Because the truth is, the world isn’t full of Hollywood happy endings. Sometimes the princess doesn’t rescue the prince. Sometimes children never find their way home.
I’ve now loved Sean longer dead than I knew him alive. I still can’t help but sometimes wonder, Would we have had a smaller house and a bigger garden together in Melbourne? What would our children have looked like? Would we have been happy?
Sean will always be gone. He’ll never get married, buy a house, or hold his first child.
When I first started writing this story down, an early reader said, “I didn’t find the silver lining.” But this is what I have learned—that real tragedies don’t need to be redeemed, they need to be remembered.
This is an edited extract from Traveling with Ghosts by Shannon Fowler. Published by Hachette Australia RRP $32.99.