The South Napa Earthquake

!cid_66A738E3-D89A-4D34-8CDB-34648514C53F@gateway_2wire

On August 24, 2014, in the early morning darkness, the South Napa Earthquake roared through my neighborhood, buckling streets, bouncing cars, cracking homes and hurling residents out of sleep. Thrown this way and that, deafened by crashing furniture and breaking glass, it took me a couple seconds to understand the nightmare was real. The earth, rupturing below us, sent sparks into the night. Groaning and swaying, the house was a living thing under attack. I was certain it would not withstand the beating, and I felt sorry for it: it had been a good house. When the violence finally ended, I was on my feet and panting, and my partner was holding me, telling me to calm down. I couldn’t. I had not counted on being alive.

My sensible spouse already had a flashlight in her hand and was sweeping the beam over the chaos of the room. “Get some shoes on,” she said. I stepped over the lamp and all the other objects scattered across the floor—both dressers had landed on the bed—and fished a sturdy pair of loafers from the closet. Room by room, we went through the house, shining our flashlights on the bewildering wreckage. With every turn our work mounted, and what frightened us more was the damage we could not yet see. The garage—actually a wood shop—was a disaster of comic proportions. How had those massive machines keeled over? Where would we even begin?

My partner wanted to document the event, and so we waited for daylight to take pictures. Numbed by what we had seen so far, we ventured outside to check on the neighbors. Most were in their bathrobes, wide-eyed and confused. One was dazed by a falling picture; another had cut her leg on the glass from a closet door. An elderly woman, scared beyond speech, would not come out of her house; many others would not go back inside. In the dawn light I saw that the trees in our neighborhood were unharmed, and our yards, pleasing and tidy, were momentary solace.

We started with the most vital part, the kitchen, then moved through the rest of our home like a triage team, swiftly discarding what couldn’t be saved, setting aside the things we held hope for. More than a few of these things gave us pause as we tried to absorb losing them. “It’s just stuff,” people chorus, by way of consolation, and this is true enough. But it is the stuff of our lives, the treasures, chosen or given, that bring us pleasure, and to which we’ve assigned value and meaning. These things matter and it is right to mourn them.

We did not eat much that day. We did not bathe, or drink enough water, or look in a mirror. We did not do much thinking, we just kept going. There were moments we snapped at each other and moments we couldn’t be kind enough. Frayed nerves, big hearts. At some point in the afternoon we left our house and drove around town to see how others had fared. Damage varied but not by much. Like us, many had lost their chimneys, and lawn after lawn was littered with the rubble. Though we could not see them from the street, swimming pools were reported to have caused spectacular destruction, swamping yards and patios, even living rooms. Water in fact was the biggest problem, gushing from mains all over the city, and in this drought-ravaged summer. We did not venture downtown—we’d all been advised not to—nor did we linger over anything we saw. Our home was injured and we wanted to be with it. And we were worried about the cats—we had not seen them all day. Happily, they reappeared that evening, bringing us relief and a measure of normalcy.

My partner and I have talked about the earthquake several times, trying to comprehend what happened to us. As with most accidents, no one remembers the same stream of details, and it is not likely we will ever have a clear picture of those 15 seconds. Perhaps because of this, the terror still ricochets through me whenever I recall the event. I wonder if I will always be this way.

Disaster is relative, and the South Napa Earthquake is a meh compared to the colossal catastrophes Mother Nature lets loose in her ongoing show of who’s boss. In Napa we are thankful for whatever we were spared. Those who lost their homes are grateful to be alive; those with lesser losses are relieved they don’t have to move.

Our home is largely back together, but the small repairs will take months. There is so much work to be done in this town and so few who are capable of doing it. We don’t need dot-commers, we need skilled labor: carpenters, masons, plumbers, electricians, roofers, sheet-rockers. Those without skills can offer their strength: there are countless things to simply pick up.

We persist. Though our efforts may not be enough, we rebuild anyway, shoring up the weak points, learning as we go. We are not safe; we are not meant to be. Life is state of peril and wonder. Allowing this gives us rein, an open road for the journey.

We lost power when the earthquake hit, and so my plants were not irrigated. Watering shrubs that evening, I became aware of a movement in the branches. Looking closer, I saw it was a spider racing down a strand of a web my hose nozzle had just ruined. I studied the dangling shreds of his home, dismayed by the damage I’d done, and then my gaze moved to the spider, who was waiting me out in the curl of a leaf. I moved on, gave him some space to work in.

To Have and Have Not

file000612565099

One drunken night in college, in a dorm bed with my boyfriend, I was seized with an outrageous idea. We’d been chatting in a noncommittal way about the future, imagining lives in the suburbs, the sort of home and pets we’d like, and while we could not fathom the age of fifty, we could conjure a child, just one, who would receive the best of us: my eyes, his hair; my creative side, his sublime wit. For the first time in my life, I saw myself having a baby, not anytime soon of course, but there at last was the thrilling possibility, which stayed till I fell asleep and was gone for good in the morning.

Most people know, or at least sense, their own limits and are able to make decisions based on this knowledge. When it comes to procreation, knowing what you can handle is useful.

Animals operate differently. Their young are thrust upon them and must be dealt with instinctively, often brutally. While some animals are famously self-sacrificing, others will reject their progeny when the going gets rough, or when multiples are simply not needed. Pandas, who often give birth to twins, will raise only one of them, turning their cuddly backs on the spare. South American penguins hatch two chicks, then choose just one to feed. Other birds, like egrets and eagles, let their babies do the dirty work, looking the other way when the stronger chicks dispatch their luckless siblings. And then there are the cannibal mothers, like some hawks and owls, who in lean times will eat half their brood to save themselves along with the others.

Dismal conditions make for interesting innovations. To ensure the survival of at least one baby, kangaroos have a back-up system. At the same time, a mother can have three joeys in different stages: one hopping freely but still nursing, one in the pouch, and one a waiting embryo. If food and water become scarce, the kangaroo will stop nursing the juvenile; if the drought continues, her milk will dry up and the joey in her pouch will drop out, cuing the birth of the embryo designed to emerge in better days.

Some mammals, like chimpanzees, never eliminate or abandon their offspring, no matter how compromised the baby might be, but have no problem killing, and consuming, another female’s youngster. Nursing takes a lot out of a mother, and lactating females are ravenous.

Rabbits, on the other hand, are passive mothers, causing no harm and contributing as little as possible to the young they continually produce. After a speedy delivery—ten pups in eight minutes—the mama rabbit hops out of the burrow and seals up the entrance. Once a day for the next 25 days she returns to the nest for two minutes, during which time she nurses the frenzied pups, who grow visibly plumper with each feeding. On Day 26, they are left to manage on their own, and despite the scant parenting, most of them do. It may seem that mother bunnies are notoriously lax, but their absence has a point: predators will often pursue a mother rabbit into her burrow; if she stays away, her babies will be safer.

Humans have more options than animals. Our lives need not be so dire or difficult. Which is why I am amazed by the multitudes of women who readily submit to motherhood, who relinquish their bodies, their time, their hearts, again and yet again, as if this were a reasonable price. And of course there is no telling what their efforts will bring. Generous, doting mothers can wind up with callous children. Conversely, inexplicably, some of the kindest people I know emerged from harrowing childhoods, their wounds artfully hidden.

Few of us, it seems, had a smooth start. Children are damaged easily, by ignorance, abuse, neglect, by never being told that they matter. Many live in a state of dread and grow up anyway, blind to what ails them. Who would guess that a task so straightforward—keeping a child loved and safe—would be so frequently botched?

I will never experience the marvel of holding and nurturing a life I created. Fortunately the world is rife with other wonders, and knowing I am not built for the terrifying responsibility of motherhood is a gift in itself.

“Breach”

I wish to thank editor Ian Chung for including my story “Breach” in the latest issue of Eunoia Review. “Breach” involves two women on vacation in Hawaii, one focused on pleasure, the other on a troubling secret.

Eunoia Revew is an online literary journal committed to sharing the fruits of ‘beautiful thinking.’ Each day, we publish two pieces of writing for your reading pleasure. We believe that Eunoia Review can and should be a home for all sorts of writing, and we welcome submissions from writers of all ages and backgrounds.”

eunoia-review