My youngest, Sudi, called me yesterday and we went online together and watched aerial video footage of the Tsunami making landfall and destroying a city. The hair on the back of my neck stood up; and as buildings and vehicles were swept away like matchsticks, Sudi kept murmuring “whoa” in transfixed horror. Afterward, we spoke about building a career around a creative passion, among other things. I had barely hung up with Sudi, when his brother Akili called and we went online and watched the same aerial video footage together, with the same transfixed horror. Akili is recovering from a broken ankle and he lives two miles from the ocean. “Mom,” he said, “I would be dead if a Tsunami struck here right now. I wouldn’t be able to get out in time. My best bet would be to climb to the roof of my apartment building.”
We live in California, another earthquake hot spot. My children live in close proximity to the ocean. After all, Ron and I raised them, and being near the ocean is a spiritual necessity for us. For many years, my greatest fear in every substantial earthquake I experienced has not been the fear of being crushed in rubble or drowned in a Tsunami. It has been the fear that a nuclear power plant somewhere has been destabilized, which is exactly what happened in Japan where radiation is now leaking into the atmosphere from a nuclear reactor core meltdown. Nowadays, my greatest fear of course is for the safety of my children.
From the time the earthquake struck to the time the first Tsunami wave made landfall was between 10 and 15 minutes, depending on the location. I wonder how far I could drive in 10 minutes in such an event. If I lived two miles from the ocean (as Akili does), and I jumped in my car and drove East immediately after the earthquake, could I get far enough inland to be safe? Would the roads be passable? Would they be destroyed or mobbed with traffic, making it impossible to escape? It would take 10 minutes just to collect my computer, my photo albums, and my two cats, and throw them in the car. (That is if I could find my cats. Would they have a better chance of survival in or out of a cat carrier?) What would it feel like to walk away from everything I own? Have I secured the manuscripts of all the books I have written electronically in a remote location so they would be safe?
As I continue to follow the news and send my thoughts and prayers to the people of Japan, it all seems far away. I am removed and safe here in my inland home. But not as removed as all that. I remember when the December 2004 Tsunami struck Phi Phi and within 24 hours of the disaster, my friend Derek called me from Denmark to tell me that our mutual high school friend Stephen was vacationing in Phi Phi. Stephen’s wife Heather was swept out to sea and drowned. Stephen survived by clinging to the upper branches of a tree in which he became tangled. He was so badly injured that he spent several weeks in the hospital in Phi Phi before he could travel home to London, accompanied by a nurse. I telephoned him upon his return. Not so removed.
The question that haunts me in the aftermath of this week’s Tsunami is: How can I make better use of my life?