Thursday, February 24, 2011

Trembleman Dete (Earthquake)

And so the earth's crust migrated again, violently shifting tectonic plate against plate.

This time, epicentered around the historically rich city of Christchurch, New Zealand and its coastal neighbor, Lyttelton. Amongst the city's many charms and wonders, it is known to me and many I care about as the historical jumping off spot to Antarctica. Another island of beautiful people, close to my heart.

At the time the plates migrated, I was sitting in the sweltering warmth of my clinic in Haiti, literally in the dark. Our electricity had gone out, again, for the umteenth time this week -- of course, timed perfectly to coincide with the stab of an IV needle into the arm of a young sickle cell patient, moaning and writhing in pain on the bed in front of me.

"Seriously?" I muttered to myself, as my eyes adjusted from the fluorescent light to the dark shadows, and I paused mid-stab to let my pupils widen and adjust to the sudden change in lighting. I palpated his vein with my finger, and attempted to blindly finish the IV placement by feel in the semi-darkness of the clinic.

As I felt for his vein... unbeknownst to me, across the world, on another island, on another sea, another hand in another dark place palpated the vein of another patient. A patient crushed by a fallen building. Trapped under tons of cement. Requiring emergency amputation to free him from the chaos of twisted cement and steel.

Trembleman dete. Earthquake.

That evening, as I ran past the grave of the Archbishop of Haiti and his two assistants -- killed last year in the earthquake collapse of Haiti's once grand, stained glass encrusted Cathedral....unbeknownst to me, on another island, in another sea, others worked in horror, digging bodies from the wreckage of another city's historic Cathedral.

As darkness fell in Haiti -- with still no electricity -- tired rescue workers in Christchurch, New Zealand -- still with no electricity -- continued searching for survivors in toppled buildings. As displaced persons in Haiti wandered about their tent cities, displaced persons in Christchurch wandered to tents in city parks, seeking shelter.

Mid-morning the next day, our electricity was momentarily returned. As the lights returned in the clinic, I took the opportunity to check my e-mail.

I scanned one message from home: "I'm so sorry about the earthquake in Christchurch. You must be so worried about your friends."

My heart skipped a beat.

"Earthquake?" I whispered to myself. "What earthquake?"

Perhaps I am not the normal earthquake-goer. Perhaps no one in Haiti is. You say the world "earthquake" to me, and images click through my mind like an old black-and-white 18mm film -- of fallen and tipping monolithic buildings, amputees, mangled flesh, tent cities, fields of refugees, screaming and crying patients all tangled together in a flash of memory.

"What earthquake?" I murmured again, as I quickly attempted to scan the internet on my telephone. The clinic went dark again. No electricity. No internet. No information.

My interpreter walked into my curtained exam room with another patient. At that moment, I had a hard time caring about her six month history of a headache. I forced my mind back to Haiti. Barely.

At the end of the day, electricity once again restored, I again accessed the internet. Facebook. Friends' postings: "Many dead here in Christchurch." "Cathedral destroyed in the square." "Buildings toppled." "We are lucky to be alive." "I slept on the ground in the park last night..." "I helped pull people from rubble." "We are okay." "I am okay..." "Has anyone seen Catherine..." "Has anyone heard from Joe..." "R U there?" "R U ok?"

No. Not again.

I scanned news reports. 100 dead, maybe more. 300 missing.

Stoically, mathematically, my mind did a calculation. 100 dead. Versus an estimated 310,000 dead in Haiti's earthquake 1 year ago. My mind does not minimize Christchurch's horrific loss and pain. Their 100, possibly 300, is devastating. Absolutely devastating. Instead, my brain is merely momentarily overwhelmed, by the magnitude of pain that comes from multiplying such devastation by a factor of three thousand.

After Christchurch's earthquake last fall, I spoke to a friend who lives in New Zealand. Their government advised its citizens that another severe earthquake was ultimately anticipated, and told people to take precautions. Of course, the problem with earthquakes is that the timing of the next "big one" is completely unpredictable. As tectonic plates get hung up when sliding against each other, the next big pop could be tomorrow...or one hundred years from now. Or, possibly never. Nothing, geologically, it seems, is dependably predictable in human time. A similar next "big one" is predicted for Haiti. Could this nation survive such a thing? Will it be tomorrow? Or long past time when it will matter to you... or me?

I stare at images of Christchurch. They are too sickly familiar. Flattened buildings, sprawling cinderblocks, dust covered people in civilian clothes digging through rubble. The gestalt of earthquake devastation, it seems, is cross cultural. As is the heroic and selfless human response.

There are some differences in the photos. In Christchurch, on day two, unstable structures are already surrounded by chain link fencing warning of dangers beyond. I have never seen such a thing here in Haiti. Good idea, I think, a bit cynically. I imagine, in Christchurch, one will not likely see a shopkeeper opening up a stall beneath a leaning wall of rubble. Nor will they see a tent, then a family, or three, settle permanently on the top of the rubble pile, with semi-naked children running about the apex of the pile, laughing and flying home-made kites. I imagine that deconstruction of buildings will take place with large gasoline-powered machines...not a single shirtless sweating man swinging a sledgehammer.

I pray that one year from now, my friends in Christchurch will not still be walking past the walls of their once glorious Cathedral, still crumbled untouched on the ground, as if it fell down yesterday. That they will not walk, day after day, past hollowed out shells of to peer inside to see the pink and green wallpapers of a better day. I pray that they will quickly recover, rebuild, and move beyond this horrible day. And, honestly, I know.

I know they can...and will... efficiently make things right.

My first reaction, upon digesting the news of this newest catastrophe, was an admittedly infantile and useless rant consisting of a few unsavory verbs, including one beginning with the letter F. And a questioning of the purpose of all things floating and tectonic.

But then, I realized... These same random crashing and floating plates of earth are the forces that created my beloved Alaskan and Himalayan and Antarctic, and, yes, New Zealand mountains. And, ultimately, the beautiful friendships that I have created there. The same random grindings that shook the earth in Christchurch this week are those that brought me to Haiti last year, and opened my heart and eyes to these people and this land.

And somehow, when the earth shook Christchurch this week, so too did it shake me. And I was reunited, instantaneously, with my beautiful friends of New Zealand and Antarctica.

So, to my New Zealand and Antarctic family: when I am threatened with your loss, I am reminded intensely of what you have meant to me and how you have shaped me. Be safe. And strong. And resilient. Be generous. And kind. And humour-laden. And, okay, sometimes inappropriate and cynical. That's cool, too. Be bold. And loving. And resourceful. Possibly intrepid. And, yes, because I know you can, be just a touch heroic and inspirational.

This is just one more upheaval in the crazy crust that creates the folds of our lives.

Things, from this moment, will get better.

This I know.

They will get better.

Peace and love to you all.

1 comment:

  1. Beautifully written, and, being one of the first things I read after learning about today's earthquake in Japan, especially moving. I was relieved to find out that my friends in New Zealand were unharmed by the earthquake. I can recall how much more difficult it was to get information from my friends in PAP. I don't yet know how extensively Japan has been damaged. But I am confident that, as in NZ, the work to repair and restore it will begin immediately. Haiti. It really is such a strong word.

    Thanks for what you do.

    And thanks for this blog.