Archive for January, 2010

Earthquake in the Cave

January 8, 2010

The earth was a shakin’ today, even if our house wasn’t a rockin’. We can’t turn up the music very loud these days, since there is a T-minus 4 week human-out-of-water trying to get some sleep in his new home outside the womb. He is by far the youngest creature I have ever cared for. I tried with my younger brother to raise some bluebird that feel out of their nest once. We fed them soggy bread through an eye dropper. They got big (well, not big, but relatively big, as baby bluebirds go), learned to fly, and flew off into the trees. But they came back the very first night and were found dead on the doorstep the next morning. Apparently we weren’t very good father birds.

The next youngest animals were probably the little snapper turtles we “rescued”. They grew up all right, but one eventually died of we-don’t-know-what, and the other died while trying to escape. It crawled under the fence and was crossing the street in front of our house when it got flattened by a large automobile. I think turtles are more resilient to bad parenting than birds, but they feel trapped. My brother and I were not any better jailors than we were parents.

The youngest human I have ever cared for was a 4 month old infant. Or was she younger? I can’t remember. But I babysat this little girl while she was an infant. I was practically the only babysitter the family would trust. I can hardly imagine why. I locked myself out of their house with the baby once. But the reason I am getting to this is because she was the infant that I was caring for when the ’89 Loma Prieta earthquake occurred. I was home alone with her.

The quake happened in the afternoon. There had been a smallish quake the night before, and another the week before that. They were nighttime quakes, which are much more frightening than quakes that happen during the day. First of all, they have to be strong enough to wake you up. And then, if they last long enough and you are awake, you are looking around in the dark wondering what the hell is going on.

The two night quakes had had a disquieting affect on people, even if they wouldn’t admit it. Earthquakes do tend to cluster themselves together over time, so if you’ve just had an earthquake, the absolute chance that you could have another one at any given moment is much higher than at any time when you haven’t just had an earthquake. Sometimes small earthquakes can lull us into thinking that the faults are moving carefully alongside each other, releasing small amounts of pressure here and there so that no big earthquakes are being stored up anywhere. I personally think that this is a load of you-know-what. “The big one” could happen anytime.

So it was late afternoon. I had just returned from my after school activities. My mom had taken my other brothers somewhere to do something for like an hour or so. I was left at home baby-sitting the infant (I don’t even think I was getting paid!) when the earthquake struck.

I remember the moment distinctly, as I imagine most of us do. I was standing in the front doorway of our house in Cupertino getting the mail from the mailbox just outside the door. As I was flipping through it I felt the fist shockwave hit the house. It felt like the giant from Jack-and-the-Beanstalk had kicked our house. I felt a rush of adrenaline course through my body that made me at first very angry. Then the second shock wave hit and the earth started to roll. The rolling made it hard to stand up straight. I bent my knees and went into emergency mode. I tried to run the 15 feet or so to where the baby was playing on a blanket on the floor. The dishes in the kitchen were crashing out of the cupboard. Everything was vibrating, shaking, shimmying this way and that. It felt as if the giant had picked up the house and was shaking it like a child shakes a delicately wrapped present, trying to listen for what might be inside, but not shaking too hard for fear of breaking something. Little glass figurines were sidling up to the edge of cabinets, taking one last look over the precipice, and leaping to their deaths. Pictures were coming down like guillotines, smashing on the furniture and baseboards. The stack of books by my father’s chair was careening and toppling. The large glass sliding doors were thundering like sheet metal in the Foley room, but with a darker more dreadful sound.

The baby bounced and rolled toward the edge of her blanket as I made my way across the room. I picked her up and carefully pivoted my body around 180 degrees. No longer benefiting from the added balance that having my arms outstretched had lent me on the way in, and the ground as unsteady as it was, I had a hard time keeping my balance. Knees still bent, I took one, then two, and three quick steps to the edge of the room. CRASH! I looked behind me and the 34 in. Zenith television had come sailing off it’s 3 ft. pedestal, landing face down smack dab in the middle of the little pink receiving blanket where just moments before, the baby girl had been.

I made it to the front doorway where I rode out the rest of the earthquake. It lasted 10-15 seconds, they say. In my memory it was more like 40 seconds. Funny the way terror and adrenaline can alter the brain’s memory. My memory of time after the quake was as if it had stood still. The trees came shimmering to a halt, every leaf on every branch poised in dead stillness. Everything, animate or inanimate, froze in place for a few moments, just to feel the stillness, I suppose. Time expanded then, slowly. Some people came out of their front doors and wandered into the neighborhood street. The sounds of car alarms finally became apparent to the ears, and then they too quieted themselves. The rush in my ears became still and the baby started to cry, softly.

Today’s earthquake brought back those memories. My baby was at his mother’s breast, happily nursing away. I was at the computer. My dog came scurrying out of her den, so I slid my body to the couch where we typically greet each other when she first wakes up. But she wasn’t interested in the morning ritual. She wanted to go outside. So I let her out onto the patio. I was expecting her to pee, but instead she sniffed around curiously, and, I thought, with some urgency. I was standing in the sliding glass doorway when WHAM, the first shock hit. Maybe the building had been run into by a truck or something? Then WHAM again, and I knew it was an earthquake. I froze in anticipation of the coming vibrations, but nothing happened. So I scooped up the dog and ran into the bedroom to check on the rest of my family.

“Was that an earthquake?” asked Sylvia?

“I think so! And I think little Maya felt it was going to happen. Good dog Maya, good dog. Thank you for protecting us.” I rubbed her good and set her down.