I was noticing the Jamaican lilikoi, and how it was finally, after two years, growing. The sweet potato was looking healthy too, had it been raining? Just then, I feel my socks expanding with water. Somehow I always remember to water the garden after I put my socks on, deciding not to take them off for the sake of convenience. Dropping the socks on the bench inside, I come back out with the bird food and begin scooping it into the tiny tray of the feeder.
My thoughts drifting from the birds, their usual rations, the cost per bag…sharply interrupted by first, loud barking and then “BABE! BABE! GET IN THE HOUSE, HURRY UP, GET IN NOW!” My husband, Jon, with an urgency in his voice that shakes me. I start immediately towards the patio door, fear rising, I’m trying to make sense quickly of what it could be…” Dog? Rabid dog? Did he see something? What’s happening??”
Just then, he comes running down the stairs reading his phone, “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” Heart plummets into stomach. What does this mean? Like what does this mean we do?
His words sort of float through me, without fully landing yet. I think, “No, this can’t be happening. This can’t be real,” and walk into the garage with my soaked socks to put in the washer. During this somehow necessary and meaningless act in the face of nuclear destruction, I begin thinking about time. How I’d calculated from a recent podcast, that if it took 15-20 minutes for a missile to hit the West Coast from North Korea, a missile aimed at Hawaii would be 10-12 minutes? Maybe? I’m trying to make sense of this being “it.” Like our last moments on earth, “it.” One of my worst nightmares, “it.” No. “NO!” I want to scream. I hold my pregnant belly, wishing I could comfort my unborn baby boy. I think of my older boys, 6 and 9 who are with their dad today. I have to call them, NOW. I hope there is time.
I dial Dan’s number. Kaleo, the 9-year-old answers, “Hi mom!” he says in a voice that tells me he has no idea what is going on. “Please get your dad on the phone, I command, sounding as least panicked I can muster.” He doesn’t hear me, the phone cuts in and out with his voice, and then Quinn’s. They must be doing something, distracted, as usual. “GET YOUR DAD ON THE PHONE,” I say louder, more firmly. Muffled voices and then Dan, “Hey, what’s up?” I tell him about the missile threat, and he says, “Oh, that’s what the little message ring I got was about?” “YES!” But there is no time for that. “Where are you? Are the kids safe?” They are at the Farmer’s Market, and he says they’ll head home. OK, hang up.
At this point, I’m sitting on the floor with Jon. We’re searching the internet, Facebook, anything that can give us some idea of what is going on. He’s texting his sister; I call my dad twice who works with FEMA, text him too with no response. And now we’re just sitting here on the wood laminate floor, on an all other ways, normal Saturday morning, trying to figure out what to do to save our lives and if we even can. And all I can think of is, “If we’re going to die, it’s going to be with the kids.” Tears. Shortness of breath. Panic surging through me like electricity with no grounding. Jon says, “Calm down. It’s going to be ok.” Or something like that, I don’t remember for sure, I just know it helped. I stop and pick up the phone to call Dan again.
“Where are you guys?” I ask. “We’re at Kalani’s.”
“OK, I want to be with the kids, can you come down here?”
He suggests we come up there. Because if shit (nuclear holocaust) does hit the fan (Hawaii), we’re safer where there’s food growing and fewer people, somewhere out of the city. I agree because it makes sense or as much sense as it can make when absolutely nothing is making sense. Jon agrees too, and we start preparing to leave.
I’m saying out loud as I run up the stairs, “I don’t even know how much time we have?!” Imagining us on the road, watching some apocalyptic scene, like something out of Independence Day but without the aliens, just fire and blasts, and pedestrians and cars rolling and, “Is this the best idea??!” But I have no other plan. I have never had a plan for this. Sure, we have some extra bottled water, what’s left anyway of what we haven’t used in a pinch for bringing to the beach. We have batteries, some packaged food, a flashlight ( i think?), from the box of supplies that Jon put together after a Tsunami warning a few years back. Jon says, “Get shoes you can run in.” I grab my lightweight boots, the ones with traction, my best bet for the “end days,” I decide in less than five seconds, and head downstairs. He’s by his car, and before he closes the garage, I reach in to grab the Costco sized pack of Oatmeal sitting on top of our supply boxes.
We’re off; the road seems too normal. The morning light too expected. We were going to head upcountry to the Farmer’s Market, anyway. That was the plan we had at 7:45 am when I came upstairs to get dressed and sat with Jon in bed talking about the day. Farmer’s Market, we’ll eat brunch there, and then a hike.
The moment your life seems like it’s diminished to minutes, is completely arresting. I think about others like this; maybe someone recently caught in the mudslides, or fires of California. This feeling of knowing it’s going to end, and still feeling like you have to do something, and really, what can you do?
We didn’t have any plan other than we were going to, like a magnet, move closer as fast as we could, to what matters, to family.
We leave the computers, paperwork, clothes, pictures. I bring my boots and oatmeal. Jon brings his Converse and his watch with a reliable battery. We take our phones and credit cards. We are singularly focused, on the kids and getting to them as fast as we can, with a few things of no consequence.
Jon is driving up the hill to Dan’s, and I’m checking my phone. Something, anything, please tell me what is happening and how quickly. I call Civil Defense; the line is busy. 911 – busy too. Then I get a call from Dan, “It’s OK,” he says. “It was a false alarm.” “Where did you hear this?” I ask. “It’s on Twitter,” he responds, “Lots of people are posting about it.” Twitter…TWITTER? How can we be getting informed by Twitter on the state of our survival?! Jon turns on the radio and finds an AM station. We are almost to the top of the hill, almost an hour since we learned about our imminent death, when we hear a man’s voice, “There is no ballistic missile threat. I repeat there is no ballistic missile threat. This was a false alarm.”
We look at each other. I can feel myself filling back into the reality that I have known, back into my “normal.” But not fully. Not even close. A part of me still feels like I’m clinging on to life by my fingernails, just barely. I don’t feel fully settled even when we’re out of the car and Kaleo is running up to us with a smile. “You look worried mom; it’s ok, there’s no missile, you heard that right?” I hold him, I smell his hair, and I am reminded of the few things of this life I would miss.
In all, it took 38 minutes for the state to issue an update that in fact, there was not a ballistic missile headed our way. I am intensely aware of the power of each of those minutes, life in that in-between. How each movement felt futile, running up and back down the stairs, closing windows, grabbing the oatmeal, the boots, locking the door. When in seconds, this could, and as far as we knew, would, all be gone.
There is a sense that we, in Hawaii, are survivors. But we have nothing real to feel we have survived. We are left with the story of a false alarm, generated by someone accidentally pushing the wrong button, twice. My relief coupled with lingering anxiety, in some ways, feels unjustified. I am jealous of my friends that slept through the alarm and woke up to the missile threat combined with the retraction. Those of us that went 38 minutes, or an hour, or more believing that our lives and the lives of our loved ones were ending or at least ending as we knew it, are changed.
Maybe it’s that I’m even more aware now, of the fragility and uncertainty of life. It’s more than that too. It’s the reminder that when something unthinkably terrible happens, it just happens. There is no lead-up to any moment. Moments just arrive, or in some cases, collide, with the last thought, the last action. Bird food/ imminent death. Dog barking/ missile attack. The expected/the unthinkable. It’s the realization that we are always living on the edge, there is no bubble, no safe zone. We are born on the edge, and we die on the edge, and our life exists too, on this same edge, just as thin, just as vulnerable, just as real.