We’re Here to See the Great Doomed Thing
What do you do after surviving a near-death experience? Visit a dying natural wonder, of course. After his husband suffers a stroke at the age of 40, our writer plans the trip of a lifetime to the Great Barrier Reef—and discovers new meaning in the term "last-chance tourism."
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It was early morning, the milk light of late dawn. My husband and I were lying in bed in his childhood home, in the suburbs of Sydney.
It was December 2019. The house was silent but nevertheless charged with a faint vibration of anticipation; everyone still sleeping, but lightly. Remi and I were planning to depart that morning for a trip to Queensland, where we would spend a few nights camping on one of the world’s most beautiful beaches, and then dive the Great Barrier Reef. Though Remi had spent a large part of his childhood in Queensland, he’d never had a chance to visit the reef. It was a dream trip.
It was also a promise of escape. Normally, we spent most of our time in a cabin we owned in British Columbia. I wrote books; he ran a film-production network. We both worked from home, so we could live just about anywhere. In the winters, to escape the Cascadian gloom, we sometimes hid out with Remi’s parents on the underside of the planet. But that year the plan had backfired. For weeks wildfires had been burning in the nearby mountains and elsewhere, the worst fires in anyone’s memory, fires already burning their way into the pages of history. We had inadvertently traded one gloom for a darker, more ominous one. After weeks spent mostly indoors, hiding from the smoke, we were itching to head north, into humid jungle and sea wind.
That morning, I had just woken up and spent ten or twenty or thirty minutes staring at my phone—who knows really, phone time being slippery—and was rising from the bed and glancing out the window when my husband abruptly sat up and looked out the window, too. He was staring at the waving branches of a eucalyptus tree, its bark peeling away in white shreds. We had a habit of doing this, waking up and looking out the window at the trees across the road, to judge how thick the smoke would be that day: faint trees meant bad air.
The air that day was bad.
He turned to me, then he looked out the window again. His face was oddly slack, his lips drooping at the corners.
I figured I had woken him abruptly, and that he was still groggy and half dreaming. “Go back to sleep,” I said.
He looked at me, at the window, back at me, squinting, mouth open, with an expression almost of curiosity, as if everything looked slightly unreal.
The gum trees waving in a silent, numb wind.
The spotted doves going roo, roo.
Remi’s right hand was bent and held close to his body, like a little broken wing. He looked at it, then felt it with his left hand.
“Something’s not right,” he said. His eyes were childlike. “Something’s not ri-ight. I fee lilly meer.” The words melted on his tongue. He tried to rise from the bed, but found that he couldn’t stand on his right leg and toppled backwards.
I felt a cool, distant wave of panic. I knew I needed to call an ambulance. But, as if in a nightmare, when I reached for my phone, I realized that I didn’t know the number for 911 here in Australia.
I later learned that it’s 000, a number I will never forget: nothing nothing nothing, or void void void, or oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck.