A year without seasons
Marjatta Sunna's daughter and her entire family were lost in the Asian tsunami a year ago
By Matti Huuskonen
It is Monday, December 12th at Tehtaankatu 5 in Helsinki. Marjatta Sunna walks through the doorway in her blue woollen coat. She is the former director of Onnela, Finland's oldest child day-care centre.
The morning is bright and windy.
It is exactly one year since Sunna last saw her daughter Alviina Kolehmainen and her family alive.
"They drove me home in a car from the birthday of the daughter of my son. I sat in front, and when I stepped out, Alviina came into the front seat to take my place. As an old friend said later, her last journey began in a seat warmed by her mother."
Only a few hours after saying goodbye, at midnight, Alviina and her husband Matti Kolehmainen and the family's children Samuli and Aino all boarded a plane that would take them far away.
The next day Marjatta Sunna received a telephone call. "That is our habit whenever we reach a destination."
It was the start of the Kolehmainens' long-awaited holiday at the Blue Village Pakarang Resort in Khao Lak, in Thailand.
It was a different kind of phone call that woke her up on December 26th. "Have you heard on the radio?" a friend asks after waking her up.
A powerful earthquake has raised waves which have caused massive destruction on the shores of the Indian Ocean. The first news includes reports of fatalities.
Marjatta Sunna tries to get in touch with the Foreign Ministry. It takes three hours before she can get through. There is no more information at the ministry.
On the first day she sends a total of 170 SMS messages to three mobile phone numbers - those of Alviina, Matti, and Samuli.
"Why didn't I record my daughter's voice? They didn't even have it on the answering machine", Sunna laments.
Early Wednesday morning, on the third day after the disaster, Marjatta Sunna packs the Christmas elves that had decorated the table back into their boxes. They are replaced by pictures of her daughter's family.
On the evening of the same day she gets a feeling that will not go away: Alviina, Matti, Samuli, and Aino are gone.
"People have to prepare themselves, but all the time there is the feeling that I am talking about completely different people", Sunna says, describing her feelings in an interview with Helsingin Sanomat on New Year's Eve.
At the bottom of the same page is a list of Finns missing in the Asian disaster. There are 263 names listed.
The numbers later became more precise: more than 200,000 dead all told, 178 of whom are Finns. One of them died in Sri Lanka, and the rest in Thailand. The worst hit location was Khao Lak, and there it was the Blue Village Pakarang that bore the brunt of the waves and the fatalities. In addition to the Kolehmainens, 102 other Finnish hotel guests died.
Alviina was 34 years old, Matti was 38, Samuli was nine, and Aino was four.
The disaster was the worst single event since the war to hit Finland - thousands of kilometres away from home.
The New Year's Eve interview yields much feedback. With one exception, it is all positive. "Many said that I had dared give a face to sorrow."
Sunna has stayed inside all week and let her husband Antti Männistö take care of daily routines. He has taken out the trash and gone shopping, and outside for an occasional cigar.
On New Year's Day Sunna and Männistö go out together for the first time. Their destination is a certain city in the south of Finland. A woman from there had called on the previous day. She had been on holiday in the same location as the Kolehmainens.
The caller had asked to see photographs of the family.
"Naturally it was the winter, and... I was afraid that I would slip and fall. I had so little strength that I went very slowly", Sunna says.
At the destination she shows the caller pictures of her daughter's family. The woman recognises the Kolehmainens.
"Your daughter had a nickname?" Sunna recalls the woman asking.
She was there and had heard Matti's last shout: "Allu, I love you!"
The shout was answered by a young woman's voice: "The children, the children, we have to find the children!"
"And then I didn't hear anything."
On February 13th comes the news that Alviina Kolehmainen has been provisionally identified.
Two days later Marjatta Sunna is at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport to meet her daughter, and at the end of the month she dreams for the first time.
Contrary to before the disaster, the dream was not in colour: "only shades of grey".
In her dream Sunna is walking along the shores of Kaivopuisto. The route is a familiar one - the same one that she walked with the children when they were small.
She arrives where the rock slopes down to the sea and intersects with the pedestrian path, cutting into two different parts, as it were.
On the opposite side of the rock, across from her mother, stands Alviina. She is wearing a white blouse and a summer skirt.
"She stopped and stood, and I stopped and stood. She was very serious. I asked her: "Alviina, how are you?"
"Mother, I cannot say"
"And then it was over. But I had such a good feeling, when I woke up from that dream."
Death is the border that cannot be crossed, Sunna interprets. "A curtain is drawn, and it is not for us to say what there is on the other side."
Marjatta Sunna plans the memorial service for Alviina in early April, along with her son and her second daughter, Alviina's little sister. The discussions take place in their own home, in the lower level of the Onnela day care centre, and at the Nyberg funeral home and flower shop.
"They know Alviina. She loved white roses, as I do. She got them at Nyberg for her first own beauty salon here on Tehtaankatu. We always had to have flowers."
Sunna chose the Old Church of Helsinki as the venue. "In the altar painting Jesus blesses the children."
In the church Alviina Kolehmainen rests in a pine coffin provided by the state. The family pastor, Martti Pitkänen, who presided over Alviina's confirmation, dips his ladle into the sand, raising it above the coffin, and shakes off the shape of a cross over the cover. He blesses the child, Marjatta Sunna's daughter, Alviina Kolehmainen.
That evening Marjatta Sunna falls asleep sitting in her chair.
After a number of complicated phases, Marjatta Sunna started her psychotherapy on the first of April.
Sessions take place once a week.
Sunna is not able to cry, and her demeanour is deceptively well balanced. Even Antti Männistö wonders if she is grieving at all.
Labial herpes breaks out repeatedly, and the accidents begin in June.
The first one comes when Sunna agrees to look after the golden retriever of a couple that she knows. The dog is asleep next to the bookshelf when the doorbell rings. A visitor enters, and Sunna goes to turn off the radio. At that moment the sleeping dog moves a paw. Sunna swerves to avoid stepping on it.
She sustains a fracture in her foot.
Later in the summer Sunna falls down the stairs, and later she sprains her shoulder.
"My ability to concentrate is weaker, and it is not because of the medication. It is because my thoughts are elsewhere", she surmises.
The therapy is scheduled to continue until March 2006. Marjatta hopes that the sessions might continue so that her loss might not be compartmentalised, and that it could evolve into genuine grief.
In September Marjatta Sunna has a "wonderful full-colour dream".
In the dream, the naturally curly hair of her granddaughter Aino is like golden thread. The girl is running across a lawn in her summer dress, spreading her arms, asking Marjatta to catch her.
"Then I got the feeling that Aino will be found", Sunna says.
Marjatta Sunna was at the airport to meet the father of the family Matti Kolehmainen in June, and she met Samuli in July, two days after Alviina would have had her 35th birthday.
"She got her dear firstborn back, as a birthday present, as it were."
Finally, on the 28th of November comes the long-awaited call. On the line is Niko Ranssi, the contact person of the National Bureau of Investigation. Aino has been preliminarily identified.
Two days later, on November 30th, Marjatta Sunna is at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport greeting her lost loved ones for the fourth and last time.
On Wednesday, December 14th, Rantsi calls again. Aino has been positively and conclusively identified based on the lines on the palm of her hand.
The police have promised to deliver a lock of Aino's hair to Marjatta Sunna - just like she got from Samuli's hair. The mother also got some of her daughter Alviina's hair - all that was left.
The waiting has been the hardest of all, Sunna sighs. "Someone said to me that when thinking of this year, there have been no seasons", she describes. "It is like two nights in a row, and nothing in between."
Marjatta Sunna and her youngest daughter have already started to plan their Christmas. "Let's make it a small one", the daughter suggested.
Christmas is not the start of Marjatta Sunna's second year - only the first one. It is marked by the homecomings.
"This is the day that Alviina was brought back. This is the day that Matti was brought back. This is the day that Samuli came. This is the day that Aino came."
Alviina is no longer there to plan Christmas with Marjatta Sunna, but she will remain with her mother until the very end.
"If someone asks, I will always say that I have three children."
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 18.12.2005
Previously in HS International Edition:
When words fail (11.1.2005)
MATTI HUUSKONEN / Helsingin Sanomat