My phone screen reads: Magnitude 3.7. The shaking lasts only a few seconds. I’m an amateur seismologist as well as real estate expert, like any good Californian. Californians both old and new are preoccupied with the security of the ground and the space on that ground. My heart beats out of rhythm for the seconds following. Kyle opens the bedroom door, peering at me in his bathrobe, his eyebrows asking the question: Did you feel it?
I feel and hear everything, all my senses seemingly woken at once after the lightning birth of our son, Ian. Ian, who’s gone back to sleep, preternaturally undisturbed by the discovery that the solid earth below his bed can move without warning. I’m relieved that haven’t passed this fear down to him like the waves in his hair. I’m grateful Ian doesn’t carry the fear of the unknown. But I’m afraid that something is broken in me. If he’s not afraid, why am I?
I make a mental graph of my fears sometimes to try to try to cure myself. Usually, if I can figure out the root of most problems then they will magically disappear. My graph looks like a tree in the deadest winter. Too many branches. There’s a memory hanging on a fairly thick branch for the Loma Prieta earthquake of ‘89, where I held my much younger sister while witnessing my mother cry running down the hall, praying Dios, Dios. I pride myself for not panicking like my mother; I held my sister and comforted my brother. I would do the same a few years later, when my father would chase my mother in a rare explosive rage to their room. Even in moments of bravery, the fear comes back after the shaking and explosions, a theme that echos in my life for years to come.
The day after the quake in ‘89, I sit on the still-wet grass in San Mateo’s Central Park with my high school boyfriend. There’s nowhere else to go: The power is out in the Bay Area and everything is closed. Even the birds are still, quietly bearing witness to two teenagers trying to create sense where it doesn’t exist. We sit on the wet grass, trying to orient ourselves to a world new to us, one where anything could happen.
In the months after the ‘89 quake, my sister begins to look out our shared bedroom window, constantly looking for signs or an unusual sway of the trees. I’ve often thought it might be safest outside, as long as you could find a space away from the power lines. I imagine our family of five at the down slope of our hilly street. The irony of choosing the street is not lost on me. In my foreshadowing, the cars stop during the big one. Later in my life, I find out that imagining as practice for the unpredictable doesn’t help rid my fear that something bad will happen when I least expect it.
In college, I take an intro to biology class that studies tectonic plates. The professor passes out a map of the world below us. Plates divided into seven major continents in the lithosphere, the outer crust of the earth, rubbing against each other, always moving even if we don’t feel them. These plates shifted away from each other over billions of years and continue making the world, he says. It’s the first time I see creation as a process: Some things need to be broken to be made new.
When Ian is two, we throw him a birthday party in a misty late June morning at our local park. My father disappears shortly after the Ian blows the candles out. I find my father in the car, uncharacteristically napping. Sometimes two catastrophes happen at the same time. A double shake; not one but two earthquakes that triggered the 2010 tsunami in the Samoan Islands. A magnitude 8 quake that was possibly caused by two earthquakes on top of each other, slippage along the subduction zone of the Pacific and Indo-Australian plates. The first sign of my father’s Stage Four Lung Cancer.
Six months later, a lump in my right breast erupts, a rock-hard formation. Stage 2b Breast Cancer. Not a or c. I hoped my cancer wouldn’t rumble through the alphabet like dominos.
I wait until after my father’s final surprise birthday party to tell my parents.
My father falls asleep for most of two days before calling me.
When something bad happens to you, you have to get up and fight, my father says, his voice crackly and dry from so much chemo. I fight even though I know his cancer is at the far end of the alphabet. Less of a fight than a plate shift in the lithosphere. The earth moves and changes into new formations; shifting us all along.