Mamá was in the hospital when the earthquake hit. My sister and I were in the car, in a parking lot. She felt it first, telling me to “knock it off.”
“Knock what off?” I said.
“Stop moving the car.”
“I’m not moving the car,” and that’s when I felt it. A tug to the right, a tug to the left—something pulling at the rubber tires under us.
“Look,” I pointed at the back window, to the strip mall, and the lamp store behind us. All the ceiling lamps inside the store as far as I could see, and those hanging from the outside awning were swaying—really swaying, while people were running outside.
“Earthquake!” we both said. There was nothing we could do but watch people gather outside the stores.
“Is everyone okay?” yelled a man holding a broom outside the lamp store.
No lamps had fallen, no crashing of glass.
When we got up to the eighth floor of the hospital and to mamá, she was relieved to see us. “Are you okay?” were her first words.
“We’re fine,” I said.
She told us that many people were screaming, beds rolling everywhere. Her bed had ended up on the other side of the room, next to the large bay windows. What if they had cracked or fallen out? What if? What if?
But nothing had happened except for moving beds, flower vases tipped over. The nurses were still scurrying around with mops or garbage bags.
|Glass enclosed hospital room|
A few days later, we visited mamá again and a woman in a nearby room had been screaming, sometimes moaning. I had never heard any adult in such distress. It shook me.
“What’s the matter with her?” I asked.
“She’s dying.” Mamá answered.
“Is that what people do when they are dying?”
“Some people. Not all people. It depends.”
Mamá then explained to me about all the people she had been with who had died. And there had been many. She was there when her older brother died, had held her father when he died, had witnessed other family and friends dying. She was not hesitant to tell me every detail about dying that she knew—as if giving me instructions.
“It’s a shifting,” she said. “Movement. And it can be painful or not.”
I’m thinking about these earthquake memories tonight while inside a “viewing blind” in Kearney, Nebraska, watching thousands of Sandhill Cranes leave their day’s feasting on farm fields to congregate in the middle of the Platte River. Tonight they are flying in by the thousands, hovering over their intended landing space on the river’s sandy mounds, descending like parachutes, their long lanky legs hanging like two twigs. It’s not like any other bird landing. And when they do land, they strut, or flap their wings, they lift themselves a bit, they dance with each other. However, they are ever on the alert for predators.
|Platte River at sunset with sandhill cranes|
Our guide has just told us that the night before, eagles had interrupted the cranes’ roosting. Thousands flew up to escape the eagles, except one—its injured wing preventing it from flying away. The next day, the guides found the crane carcass on the river.
Ever on the alert. When I left Los Angeles and moved to Nebraska, I realized I had been “ever on the alert” for earthquakes. I had cultivated a second sense, so when an earthquake began, I’d know to go under a desk, stay away from windows, or stand under a doorway. A geologist had taught me to begin counting as soon as an earthquake hits. He taught me to tabulate the number in order to figure out the epicenter and magnitude. It never worked for me, but it was a distraction, and seemed to calm me during an earthquake. Yet, along with the fear of the earth so strangely moving beneath me, I would also feel a fascinating curiosity, and a yearning to move with it, like a dance.
Now I live where severe thunderstorms occur, high winds hit, and tornadoes are not unusual. Some people here have told me they would not like living in Los Angeles--on shifting tectonic plates. There is no warning when an earthquake may occur. “At least you can find out if a tornado might be coming your way,” they tell me. Yet, I’ve learned that even with a warning, one may not have much time. You may be hurt or incapacitated in some way, preventing you from getting away or finding a safe space.
|Sandhill Cranes swirling above The Platte River|
Tonight something scared the cranes. Maybe it was an eagle. Maybe it was a coyote or perhaps they didn’t know what to make of the four frolicking deer near the edge of the Platte River. Thousands swarmed up into the sky, their alarm calls like rattling bugles.
So much beauty in this panic. And then, after a few minutes of circling above us, the swirling masses parachuted slowly down again, onto the sandy, shifting river.