(The week before the earthquake.)
For my generation, it was, “Do you remember where you were when Kennedy died?”
Of course we remember. They’d wheeled these giant old black and white TV’s on stilts into our elementary classrooms so we could watch history unfold. Walter Cronkite told us that our handsome young President was dead. The grown-ups were crying, so some of us did, too. Nothing like it had ever happened in our happy little post-war lifetimes. The President was like God. He didn’t die.
But he did.
Later, we saw shocking images in vivid color. Our elegant, patrician First Lady climbing on the back of a convertible, her pretty pink Chanel suit splattered in crimson blood.
Nothing would ever be the same.
It was striking how many of my sister-survivors wrote about the moment they first knew the house was coming down. They recall the exact moment when the mundane and commonplace was invaded by the surreal and unthinkable. Fran wrote, “It was July 24th 2000. I was in my kitchen preparing dinner for my husband and two daughters... I leaned over the sink to drain the pasta when the phone rang. In that mundane task, something I had done so many times, my life was about to change forever. There are no words on this earth strong enough to express the sadness we were about to endure.”
Our new friend Jody returned from an intense mission trip to Africa, only to discover that there was an earthquake at home: “I stepped off the plane yesterday and quickly learned that my life as I knew it was crumbling. My husband made a full confession of past unfaithfulness, resigned from his job, and was waiting to tell me upon walking in the door.”
Another friend shared, “In September of 2009 we were told that we would never get pregnant on our own. The Earth shook and has yet to stop.”
Exactly two years ago on this day, April 21, 2008, our family experienced a 10 on the Richter scale. We thought we’d weathered major earthquakes before, but understand now that they were only tremors. I remember exactly where I was when I answered the phone that day. (On my bed.) I can still sense myself sliding off the left side and beginning to walk around to the end of the bed when words formed in my head. Then I went into the closet and started packing for would turn out to be a never-ending journey.
One minute: life as it’s been. The next: life as it will be from this point on.
Utterly, totally, incomprehensibly changed forever.
In the space of a breath.
As Fran wrote, “We are a family that was changed in 2.8 seconds.”
I’ve heard from brave survivors of many different kinds of earthquakes. With one exception, none of us could have even begun to imagine what lay ahead. If you’d told us, we probably wouldn’t have believed you.
But suddenly, the world is upside-down.
And you’re just trying not to fall off.
I’ve learned that these sudden earthquakes come in many shapes and forms. I’ve been graciously entrusted with stories of infidelity and infertility. Tragic and fatal car wrecks. Drug overdose resulting in permanent brain injury. Children born with Down’s syndrome. Cerebral palsy resulting from negligence. Divorce and abandonment. Aneurysms and brain tumors. Cancer. Death.
S. bravely shared her story of sexual abuse. M. wrote of the seismic waves that occurred in her family with the discovery that her two siblings are gay. Misha lost everything in a hurricane. Elizabeth shared her struggle with life-altering panic attacks. T. wrote of her horrible experience with carbon monoxide poisoning that resulted in coma. My friend Marianne has lived through more than one earthquake: a child born with Down’s, and another baby stillborn. Evidently, sometimes lightning does strike twice.
Just ask Job.
In several cases, the earthquake came immediately on the heels of times of celebration and joy… as if the Cosmic Forces were playing a cruel joke. Sandra Bullock found out her husband was a sex addict the week after winning an Academy Award. Marielle developed cancer shortly after her wedding. Rachel was diagnosed with lymphoma two days after giving birth.
Reading these stories over the past two weeks has been emotional and sobering. Because these things didn’t happen in a movie. They happened to people like us.
People like you.
Elizabeth wrote, “We are all broken and experiencing earthquakes of all kinds. Katherine's brokenness may be more obvious on the outside, but it is no different than the pain and suffering we all must face in this broken world.”
L. concurred: “We humans have or will at some point experience explosions, earthquakes, volcanoes and the accompanying pain and sorrow. We are held up by each other knowing we are not in this alone. And it's not the misery that comes our way that we gravitate toward, but rather the words of vulnerability from others sharing their angst over our very same struggles. But we don't stop and tarry there - we grow closer to those who share the victories in the midst of all the suffering - the HOPE that we all cling to!”
I believe that’s the bottom line. None of the stories I received was devoid of hope. In spite of the tragedies, there have been great blessings and many dark treasures. New lives and second chances. Maybe even because of the tragedies.
We earthquake survivors want and need to share the hope we’ve been given. When we hear a faint cry for help coming from underneath a pile of rubble, we want to get a shovel and dig. “To comfort with the comfort we’ve received.” To offer a cup of water.
Having read these stories during this anniversary week, I’ve been trying to live a bit differently. More aware of how fragile life is/we are. As I’ve gone about my errands, I’ve been a little more patient with people. As soon as an irritable or judgmental thought starts up, I’ve tried to nip it in the bud. Even at the gym yesterday, when the college kids were getting on my nerves. I almost ran into one, a petulant tiny blonde with a disdainful “I-smell-dog-mess” look on her face. But I just felt this rush of softness and compassion instead of annoyance.
Because only God knows what that child may go through tomorrow.
None of us know what any of us will go through tomorrow. Or even this afternoon.
We need to treat each other more gently.
“For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other. But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation. Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all.” (Luke 17: 24-27)
The week after the earthquake:
The week after the earthquake:
*Next time, I will be sharing Fran's story. It's unbelievable.