Update: We are OK! Just sweeping, mopping, putting stuff back on shelves, throwing crap furniture away, trying to remember how to sleep dreamlessly.
When I was a kid, in Connecticut, I would lie awake planning for disasters: tornado, hurricane, lightening storm, flood, tsunami, earthquake. Eventually, I had a defense strategy for each path of natural destruction. Tornadoes were easy – the manual is written in the Wizard of Oz: run to the cellar. Hurricanes the same, but use lots of masking tape on windows and keep an eye out for flooding (see flood danger for more info). Lightening storm protection involves the use of a lightening rod on the roof, and avoid bodies of water larger than a dixie cup as soon as you hear thunder. Flood danger: have a boat at the ready. Tsunami: surf it out. And then there is earthquake. This one worried me the most. How do you escape a shaking planet? I settled on grabbing my two favorite stuffed animals – a Le Mutt dog and a raccoon, and running outside to leap over the cracks as they opened into small canyons in my backyard, being sure to protect my head from falling trees and bicycles at all times. Of course this never happened. As I grew into adolescence and beyond, I remained somewhat cautious, but got over my more outrageous weather phobias, especially since thunderstorms were just the stuff of summer and the hurricanes I encountered never amounted to more than broken branches and excited weather reporters. Otherwise, planetary weather events seemed to happen in exotic states far, far away and I became lulled by the safety of my part of the world. Then I moved to California. It was five years after Loma Prieta and 20 years to the month before I woke myself by screaming for the first time in my life.
I was dreaming that I was sitting in my bed and my body was in some kind of extreme danger. As my conscious brain was sound asleep, my primal brain did all the explaining, in a loud desperate wail to wake the fuck up. The bed was a boat in a terrible but dry and airless storm, rocking and shaking while glass broke and heavy things fell and voices shouted in the distance. Then the voice was so close, it was a loud howl from my own throat and my husband was shushing me and it wasn’t a dream. But it was dark, all deep night dark and we were hurtling into uncertain rubble to find the children.
I think the shaking had stopped by then but I don’t know. We stepped with blind confidence into the girls’ room, my husband ahead of me. I remember sweeping my arms around me asking if he had the baby, and Helen, our ten year-old. He said yes more than once. I was confused, still not really awake even, just moving toward my children somehow. I said I would get Henry in the adjoining room. But as I felt toward the door, I could feel the shape of the piece of shit IKEA wardrobe obstructing my path. It took an effort that seemed eternal to sort out which way to hoist the thing upright to free the door, while calling him with my (calm and reassuring?) trembling voice.
I finally understand now the significance of the amygdala, the almond sized portion of our brain called the fear center. What I encountered was an idiotic argument between the attempted rationality of my cortex (still sleeping) and my fear manager, the amygdala. I have been aware of the heightened alertness in the presence of perceived danger in various situations over my lifetime. But never before had I felt like there was an autopilot function in my body that could make the right decisions. Yell for help. Fetch your children. Flee to safety. Don’t flail and vacillate. I did all of the above.
Once I had removed the barricade, reached my preternaturally calm son, and assured myself for the fifth time that Michael had the others, we found ourselves finally outside, assessing our needs: turn off gas, find flashlight, get pants, pee, sweatshirt, shoes, keys, fetch the last child (at a friend’s), re-assess. And I had the now absurd worry of looting and water supply. We got Frances after a short drive through the lightless streets, surprised at how many of us chose to drive at 3:30am, 10 minutes after the biggest event of our lives. I couldn’t remember if the car is a good place to be at such a time.
With all four kids in our midst, safe and mostly calm, we could face the strange night. We prepared for aftershocks, and knowing the house was a disaster zone of some unknown description, decided to camp out on the back deck. I dragged pillows and blankets and a toddler mattress into a tiny formation of comfort that held us for several hours. Some of us slept. Oddly, I had no fear for myself, just a powerful need to be with and protect the clan. Listen to them breathe, be on the look-out for falling meteorites or other debris. Henry and I mostly lay awake – he excited, I alert. The quiet was deep as it is when the hum of so many devices is suddenly hushed. But then that quiet made the punctuations that much more invasive. A transformer burst and fizzed, lighting up our yard, sirens screamed at long spaced intervals, an obscenely loud mosquito sang in every ear. And then the helicopters began.
At this point we had heard from family in London that the epicenter was near and the magnitude was 6.0 at least. I lay there thinking of what daylight would reveal, how like in scary movies daytime brings relief from the worst, I began to long for the sun to rise. And as it did, more helicopters came, texts began buzzing in our pockets from east coast family. And we embarked on the clean up phase.
Most of damage is chimneys, dishes, many bottles and barrels of wine. A 13 year old boy remains in serious condition. Historic buildings downtown are in shambles. This does not rate on the scale of disasters worldwide. We were lucky – it happened in the dead of night. Our infrastructure is intact. The city is full of fire engines from the whole Bay Area. We are well taken care of and boring them with our short list of emergencies at this point. But I know this quake has altered the attitude of many in our complacent world that the earth can somehow can be gotten. It can’t. We are riding on an ocean of unknown currents. Build as many castles as you please, but they may come slipping, tumbling down without warning or explanation.