I awoke to a terrible shaking sensation at around four in the morning. At first I thought the large Tongan woman sleeping beside me had put another quarter in the vibrating bed machine- kidding. Books were falling off the shelves, pigs and dogs outside were barking, howling and squealing at the tops of their little lungs. It took a minute, but I realized I was experiencing an earthquake.
Now, some people might freak out and run into the ocean or wrap a shotgun around their lips. But as the Navy Seals fall back on their training when confronted by life threatening situations, I did not panic, but simply fell back on my training. Pointedly, my second grade earthquake awareness safety video training. Why we watched those in Nebraska, I have no idea. Maybe they knew dilatants like me would wind up in earthquake hotbeds on the other side of the world someday.
Like a fearsome jungle cat, I sprang to my bed and hid underneath my 300 thread count sheets and whispered sweet nothings into God’s ear. I remember saying something about church and bars and loose women. But that was just pillow talk in the heat of the moment. God’s a smart guy, and omniscient. He’s seen me do that a million times for reasons much less important than death. Well, some believe sex is more important than death. I’m still undecided. I do believe man’s fear of death stems from the conscious realization of the inability to have further sexual encounters while dead- by traditional definitions of the term. Corpse sex is another philosophical matter.
I’m in the middle of my marriage proposal to God when Tuahai, the 12 year old, runs in my room teary-eyed and screams, “We’re having an earthquake!”
“No, shit!” I replied, “Quick, jump underneath the covers for protection!”
They obviously didn’t have earthquake safety videos in Tonga, and Tuahai elected to stay underneath the doorway. A stack of books from the bookshelf above my bed landed on my leg, causing a mild contusion. I decided that maybe outside would be a safer place to be. Out I ran.
Outside was a funny sight. The pigs were staggering around, falling over, and rolling around on the ground. I laughed. At this point I wasn’t really scared anymore, just wishing it would stop sometime soon. And it did. I was relieved for a second before I realized I was on a tiny island and a tsunami was probably on its way over to my house.
In my travels around the island, I learned it was flat as a pancake. There were no mountains or even small hills. The other side of the island was a little bit higher, but at least a four hour walk. I figured my best bet was to climb atop the highest building at the university, which happened to be a two-story building with an A-frame roof that was maybe 30 feet at its highest point. I found a ladder and made my way to the building.
On my way up the ladder I felt like a rat climbing to the top of a mast on a sinking ship in the black of night. Many things swam through my mind while sitting up on that roof in the absolute darkness. It wasn’t a matter of if the tsunami was coming, it was when, how large the wave was going to be, and if this mound-of-jelly building would hold up. I was very aware that I wasn’t ready to die yet. I’d already brokered my deal with God to save me from the earthquake, so that option was out. Beings’ death was imminent; I didn’t feel like asking Lucifer for some extra time. It crossed my mind that the fact I didn’t try to cut a deal with the devil, might get me in good with the old man upstairs. Enough to squeak my way into Heaven as a janitor or some other form of public service. A bus driver would be all right. I’ve had a clean driving record on earth. My lawyers had proven that, in fact, I was not drinking and driving that night I was eighteen at the Blues Festival, and the police had no right to pull me over when I ran over that gas station.
I sat. For the first time, I was completely helpless to change my fate. When you’re in a car accident, you can at least swerve or slam on the breaks. Futile, maybe, but it distracts the mind from the one thing every man is in complete denial about : his own mortality. We know humans die. We witness it all the time. But we never fully, consciously grasp it will happen to us.
I was stunned. I felt like I was experiencing gravity on Jupiter. I didn’t know if the roof could support my weight any longer and I would crash through it to the center of the earth. I still couldn’t completely accept the fact I might die. It seemed an impossibility, yet here it was. I tried to think of other things to prevent it. There was nothing. An invisible, silent, black funk began to inundate my body like rising floodwaters. I pinched my leg to make sure I could still feel. Nothing. I tried to laugh it off, thinking how of all the people I know, this could only be a logical death for me. Some of my friends might even say it at my funeral. A fitting death. Ordained.
The rain came after a couple hours of sitting on the roof. This is so typical. I soon became wet and cold. Knowing I wasn’t really any closer to safety than when I first ascended to the rooftop, I decided to move down into the second story classroom of the building. A few feet probably weren’t going to make a difference, anyhow.
I entered the classroom and lay down on the floor, staring at the ceiling. I envisioned the Grim Reaper surfing the fifty foot tsunami, snatching me up by the hair on his way through Tonga; a real big wave rider, that Reaper man. Freud said humans always dream or imagine their death in the third person, but never through their own eyes. It has something to do with this denial of their mortality, I guess.
Utterly exhausted, too cold and tired to further contemplate my situation, I fell asleep.Tuahai came in at first light and woke me up.
“The radio says the tsunami warning is over. The earthquake was an eight point two.”
“They have tsunami warnings here?” I replied.
“Yes. They’re on the radio.”
“You have a radio?”
“You didn’t think about turning it on last night?”
“No,” he replied like it was a stupid question.
“I guess that would be too logical.”
“Never mind,” I said rising to my feet.
“Come to the house and eat some breakfast.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“You were scared last night.” he said with a laugh.
“I wasn’t the one crying, Tuahai.”
“I wasn’t crying.”
“Did you go to the roof?” he asked.
“I didn’t really feel like drowning.”
“You cannot swim?”
“That really doesn’t have anything to do with anything.”
“Come to the house and eat. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.”
“I’ll take a multivitamin.”