I looked at my cousin, Cynthia, and could see the shock and disbelief in her eyes! The same look was probably reflected in mine. We both wanted to move yet it seemed as if we were glued to the spot. Should we move? Was it over?
“What happened?” we seemed to be asking each other with our eyes. We both knew the answer, yet it was if our brains were unable to process it.
Unbidden, a word my mother had used many times while I was growing up, came to mind. Her favorite uncle, her father’s brother, Uncle Stanley, had fought in World War I and had returned home, shell-shocked. As a child, I really did not understand the meaning of the term, but I understood the behaviors her uncle demonstrated as a result of being shell-shocked. As an adult, I came to understand that this was another word for PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In this moment, we were shell-shocked!
In a few short seconds, we had experienced severe trauma. I knew in that moment as I looked around that it could have been a lot worse. What was it like elsewhere?
After trying unsuccessfully to go back to sleep, I had gone to the kitchen to make some coffee. It was 4:20 a.m. As I quietly got the coffee started, Cynthia walked out of her room and joined me. She too was having difficulty sleeping.
We talked softly as the rest of the family was still sleeping and took our cups of steaming coffee to the dining table. We were laughing at something one of us said when a strange rumbling pierced our subconscious. We looked at each other questioningly, and in the next second, we had our answer as we heard then saw the chandelier above our heads begin to shake and sway slightly. I felt like someone shook the chair I was seated on and then the crashes, as one object after another fell off the mantle in the living room.
The beautiful ceramic bowl with the intricate Oriental artwork was the first to go, followed by tall brass candleholders with unlit pillar candles. As the beautiful artwork with the Mediterranean scene fell off the wall, I recalled my husband warning me that it was not anchored properly and may fall. “It had some help though,”, I found myself silently replying, with an inner smile. In a moment of awareness, I wondered if I’d been hit on the head during the quake. With the destruction around me, how could I be so flippant? Again I answered myself, “It’s done. Nothing I can say or do will change that.”
I finally forced myself to get up off the chair and step into the living room. Cynthia joined me. My husband, who could literally sleep through anything, just did and was now getting out of bed. Our two grandchildren, who were spending the weekend, came to the bedroom door with their blankets. The poor darlings looked so confused. I quickly called out, “Stay where you are!” and walked through the living room with glass and heaven knows what else crunching under my feet, feeling grateful that I’d slid my feet in my bedroom slippers on getting out of bed.
As I hugged the children and tried to calmly assure them that everything was okay, I stepped further into the bedroom and saw that the stuffed toys we kept on a shelf in the bedroom were all on the floor, but everything else seemed to be okay on that side of the house.
It was still dark. Was it safe to open the front door? Would there be more tremors? I could not wait. I had to know the effects the quake had on the neighbors in my community. Before I could clearly identify anyone in the dawn’s early light, I heard voices as people were coming out of their homes. Our driveway had some cracks that were not there when we went to bed, and everything else seemed normal until I looked in the direction of the blue two-story house with the white trim a few doors down.
As the morning started getting a little lighter, and with the help of street lights, I gasped with horror! One side of the house was in ruins. It looked like someone had taken a giant sledgehammer and knocked down a section of the house. There was a pile of stones, while the remainder of the house stood proudly. Going closer, we realized that where there had been a beautifully manicured lawn in the back yesterday, there was now a crack in the earth that seemed to run right across to the neighbor’s backyard. Going further, we saw that another neighbor’s gazebo had just split in two.
Since we were still in our robes, as most people were, we decided not to venture further. At a subconscious level, it seemed as if I had been avoiding what I suspected I might find in talking with my neighbors, and so my focus was on seeing the physical damage in the neighborhood.
I will never forget the look in the eyes of many of my neighbors, some of whom were in their later years. There was shock. There was confusion. Unuttered questions begged to be answered. I touched the shoulders of a few of the women I was close to and urged them to go back inside. I prayed silently and thanked God for keeping us all safe.
We should have started cleaning up the debris in our house, but none of us had the desire in that moment. We needed time to absorb the events of the past hour. We had not lost power, but telephone lines were clearly affected. We waited for the news of the damage on a wider scale. The reports would start coming into the radio and TV stations shortly.
This story is my interpretation of the artwork by Anne O’Brien (above).
Thank you to Mark O’Brien for challenging me and four of my colleagues— Laura Staley, Maribel Cardez, Helen Qiu, and Tom Dietzler to write our interpretation of Anne’s artwork.