I was in Hawaii when the Japanese tsunami hit, and this post telling the story is much longer than usual, part of a book-length manuscript I’m working on. It’s also more serious than the norm, so I hope you like it. Back to regularly scheduled programming next time.
After a day exploring Haleakala National Park I was watching Law & Order in my hotel room in Kihei, Maui, when I got a text from a friend in New Mexico. “8.9 earthquake hit Japan and tsunami on its way to you. Have you seen this?” I lived in San Francisco in ‘89 when that 6.9 earthquake hit, so I knew 8.9 was huge, devastating, almost impossible. But it was an ocean away.
I texted back. “Terrible! Will check the news.” As I searched online, I got another text from a friend in California. “Tsunami heading for Hawaii. Do you know about this??” I stepped out of my room, registered the calm breeze and silent walkway, the scent of flowers like hands on my skin. There was no way a tsunami would reach me.
I got another text like the first two, then called my boyfriend at home in Taos, home because I’d booked the trip before we met. Every day I’d called to tell him what I’d seen and done, and it was no postcard cliché when I said, Wish you were here.
“Should I be worried?” I asked. He did exactly what I thought I needed: he said it would be fine. I feebly argued that the sheer enormity of the earthquake might mean a tsunami could hit Hawaii. He made a few more reassuring comments, and we hung up.
When the next emergency message appeared I went to the hotel office, where guests clumped together like nervous cows. The desk clerk said she’d keep us posted.
Messages were now scrolling the screen every few minutes, announcing that the state was on tsunami watch. I received more anxious texts from friends. “R U OK?” and “This is scary, text me back!” I made a second call to my boyfriend, where I was embarrassed to hear my voice crack over what was probably a false alarm. Even though, I pictured myself in my hotel room, lying on the bed watching a cop show when the tidal wave crashed through my door and swept me to nothingness. Gone because I ignored the warnings.
“Just in case something bad happens, it’s been good to know you,” I said. We were too new as a couple for me to tell him what I really felt: that I already loved him, deeply, and the idea of never seeing him again saddened me more than I could say. He brushed past my lame comment and told me he loved me. Then he said something else I didn’t expect, but was exactly what I needed: “It’s okay that you’re scared. Call me as much as you want. I’ll be here.” I knew he couldn’t save me from more than 3,000 miles away, but the fact that he loved me despite my fears, which felt like flaws, made all the difference.
I watched the TV for updates, perched on the stiff polyester bedspread. A half-hour passed. An emergency siren burst to life and wailed. I went back to the office. The desk clerk whispered we might be asked to evacuate. I returned to my room and put my belongings into piles so I could leave quickly, but reasoned that if I didn’t actually pack, maybe that meant this wasn’t actually happening.
The hotel cut the power just before midnight. I threw my things together by the light of my laptop, cursing the staff for the lack of notice and my own superstition. I left my room and saw the other guests hauling bags to the parking lot, grimly determined in their leaving. I went to the office and picked up a map from the desk clerk, who explained it by flashlight. We were to drive to a hilltop a few miles away and wait there for further instruction.
A line of cars crawled up the hill to an office park. Soon the lots were full and people got out and made jittery conversation. I chatted with two women sharing a bottle of wine on a bench, who half-heartedly joked that the golf tournament they were supposed to play in the next day was probably a bust. The office buildings were locked, and as it got later people needing a bathroom crept behind buildings and bushes out of the glare of security lights. A man lay on the lawn near my car, a lump under a blanket lit by the rectangle of his glowing cell phone as he, like the rest of us, watched for word from the world outside.
We sat in our cars on the hilltop and waited for the tsunami to hit at what newscasters said would be 4 a.m. I counted down the hours – three more, two more, one. It felt as if we were members of a doomsday cult waiting to be delivered. I updated friends on Facebook, their kind, concerned comments making me less anxious. And it turned out my boyfriend hadn’t misled me – he was there, by the phone, whenever I needed to talk.
None of us slept though we tried, folded into back seats or sitting upright, the radio just loud enough to hear the details of Japan’s devastation. It seemed unimaginably great, the waters a wrecking ball for half a nation. I listened to disembodied radio voices predicting the shockwave rocketing to Hawaii and wondered if I’d have a hotel to go back to, then banished the worry – I had nothing serious to worry about. We’d been evacuated and staff had gone home. People an ocean away had something to worry about.
Four a.m. came and went, the dark hiding the roiling ocean from the hillside. At dawn we dragged our creaky bodies to the mouth of the parking lot and were told we couldn’t leave yet because roads were under water. A security guard shrugged and said he couldn’t stop us from trying to leave – “We’ve got no real authority, ma’am” – but the police lined up on the road below could.
The night escaped into blue skies and left frayed nerves. A father scolded his restless daughter with a bit too much force. An old woman scowled at me as I held the door for her into a now-open restroom. No one swapped stories on the lawn. Everyone sat in their cars. Waiting.
From the parking lot I could see the ocean glimmering in the dawn, whitecaps sailing along the surface. The guard said the main road – the one my hotel was on – was flooded, and waved a hand at his truck with a muddy water line halfway up the door as evidence. He said most businesses were closed, so a few hours later when the police told us we could leave I called the hotel. The desk clerk said the water had receded enough to get through, that I could return any time.
I was grumpy and tired as I hauled my luggage back to my room, then checked myself. It had been a long, inconvenient, uncomfortable night, yes, but I’d had no real loss. I stripped down to my underwear and crawled into bed, falling immediately into a dreamless sleep.
I woke up around noon and the housekeeper knocked soon after. I asked about her night, if her home had been damaged. She said it hadn’t, cheerfully explaining she’d spent the night safely in the mountains with her family but, like all of us, hadn’t slept. She’d gotten her husband and kids settled then come right to work, where she proceeded to pick up my dirty towels and replenish the coffee packets. It was 80 degrees and sunny, the waves lapping the shore. The only evidence of the tsunami were the white plumeria blooms littering the lawn around trees that had held them.
The evening before I’d sat on the beach drinking a daiquiri garnished with a tiny paper umbrella, listening to waves massage the sand and the murmur of satisfied people enjoying expensive meals on a patio behind me. I couldn’t afford that restaurant, and my hotel was a Days Inn because I’d cobbled together the trip with a ticket voucher from a canceled flight and savings left over from graduate school. But as I sat on that beach in the warm air, luxury echoing all around, I’d toasted my privileged life in wonder.
The day after the evacuation the wonder continued. I looked at video after video and photo after photo of Japan’s devastation. I couldn’t stop looking. A wave the size of an office building washing away a village. Smashed trains and cars piled like toy blocks. Homes splintered into sticks. A crying woman standing alone on a hillside.
I looked at it all on my laptop at a Starbucks, and felt shamed by my luck. But wouldn’t my luck eventually run out? And when it did, wouldn’t I deserve it? I’d just survived another near miss, this time completely unscathed, and you only got so many of those in a lifetime.
There’d been the man who tried to molest me when I was four, but failed because I managed to slip his grasp and run as fast as my Keds could carry me. A father who was selfish and cruel but never physically abusive. An eating disorder that was ten years of obsession but never life-threatening. A car accident where the vehicle flipped, leaving me with just a goose egg on my forehead and cuts on my arm. That San Francisco earthquake? Only broken dishes. A man drugged me in a bar and though I escaped him, too, Rohipnol slammed me to the floor of my kitchen where blood leaked from my head halfway to the cabinets. My only lasting symptom was a diminished sense of smell.
I’d lost nothing I couldn’t live without.
I searched online for ways to donate money to the Japanese. I was an underemployed writer and teacher, so I texted a phone number that sent ten dollars to people who had lost their homes, their families. A sharp inner voice reminded me that if I hadn’t gone on this expensive trip I could send a bigger chunk. I texted the number again.
The amounts were small, but I reasoned it was better than doing nothing. Money soothed, money absolved. Is that what my father felt, every time he wrote me a check at Christmas? Despite the fact it had been more than a decade since he’d said don’t ever contact me again, did he believe that annual check meant his work as a parent was done for one more year?
Every Christmas he had my mother deliver it, and every Christmas I put what I called the f***-you money into my bank account. Every January I wrote him the same polite but cool note: “Thank you. I put your generous gift into my savings.” I tried not to spend it. I thought it was okay to take it as long as I tucked it away, untouched, unloved. I had rules. I left it there until I needed it for something serious, like medical bills or grad school. Not Hawaiian vacations.
I texted my ten-dollar donation. And another. I knew it was going for something serious. I hoped it would help.