Friday, March 11, 2011


On October 17th, 1989, at 5:04 p.m., I was putting away laundry in my room--finishing up my final tasks before our family would settle on the couch to watch the World Series where the Giants and the A's would play each other--when the rumbling started and the house began shaking and then kept shaking and shaking. I ran to my doorway, as all children raised in California have been taught, and saw my youngest sister, just five at the time, trying to climb the ladder to her top bunk, too little to understand. I remember panicking for her and trying to coax her down. When the shaking stopped, I grabbed her and then watched my other sister finish her scramble up the stairs to my mom, her homework left on the floor of our family room where our TV had fallen.

Our thoughts went immediately to my dad, who drives all over northern California for his work, and we began trying to get in touch to make sure he was safe. He was fine, though we understood all too well how easily we could have lost him.  He was supposed to be on the Bay Bridge that day, which we learned had collapsed in part.

The Loma Prieta quake registered a 7.1 magnitude and lasted twenty seconds by some accounts, a full minute by others--a seeming eternity, regardless, when you're riding out the waves. But the worst part was the aftershocks, which triggered a rush of panic and adrenaline and fear that this one might be the one that changes our story. All three of us slept on the floor of my parents' room for a week, too fearful of being apart.

Eventually, we went back to our own rooms. Eventually, we went about life without the anxiety that it might end at any second. Eventually, we stopped running through the what if's that prepare us for life's hypthotheticals. But there were still times when I'd hear the rumbling of what I later realized was a semi driving by or, even years later in college, the approaching T in Boston, when my heart instinctively skipped a beat and my stomach fluttered with dread. The trauma of survival remains, not just in your memory but in your body. Survival changes you. Even when your experience is one one-thousandth that of brothers and sisters around the world.

When I heard about Japan this morning--their 8.9 earthquake followed by a devastating tsunami--I thought about the widespread grief and fear and panic that would ebb and flow for these people over these next several hours and days and weeks and months and years. I thought about the thin, tight feeling that takes residence in your chest whenever you wait out crisis, the feeling that makes it impossible to breathe properly and that leaves you bone-weary, teetering on the exhausted brink between stoicism and weeping.

Now they are being rocked by aftershocks as large as many countries' initial, catastrophic quakes. And they have the added mass destruction of the ocean rising out of its bed and sweeping away any hope of survival or recovery in some parts. It is heart-breaking. 88,000 missing. So many more waiting, hoping, praying. Homes, businesses, livelihoods destroyed. The enormity of their loss is unbearable. Impossible to fathom.

And the ripples of this quake reach the other side of the globe. It is extraordinary that the western coast of the Americas braced for their own waves, our global community separated--and now connected--by a mere ocean.

These disasters dash the illusions upon which we rely every day: that our world is safe and secure, that when we go to bed at night, everything will be the same as when we woke up, that we are somehow in control of our lives. It is a global wake-up call.

But even before I heard the news of Japan this morning, I'd been reflecting on how tenuous our sense of reality is. Our friends' infant son--seemingly healthy at birth--now waits in the NICU at Children's Hospital while doctors conduct test after test to determine the cause of his seizures. Each day, they wait for an answer, for any word that the crisis is over. They make it through an afternoon without a seizure and hope that perhaps they are getting close. And then his little body shakes again, and the hope gives way to unbearable disappointment and renewed anxiety. Over and over. They are suffering their own aftershocks, a personal tsunami, and I wonder how long it will take before their lives resume the illusion of normalcy.

My heart is heavy today. I know neither story is over, and I know that time will heal much, but first, these precious people must ride out the emotional marathon of the aftershocks, even as they try to piece together a semblance of their former lives.

Lord, help us all.

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