Missile, No Missile, and What Happened in Between.
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, 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.” My heart plummets into my stomach. What does this mean? 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 to put my soaked socks 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— our last moments on earth. One of my worst nightmares.
“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 his number. My nine-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 as I can muster. He doesn’t hear me, the phone cuts in and out with his voice, and then my six-year-old’s. They must be doing something, distracted as usual. “Get your dad on the phone,” I say louder, more firmly.
I hear muffled voices in the background, and then my ex says, “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! Where are you? Are the kids safe?” They are at the Farmer’s Market, he says, and that they’ll head home. “Okay,” I say, and hang up.
At this point, I’m sitting on the floor with my husband. 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 laminate wood floor, on an otherwise normal Saturday morning, trying to figure out what to do to save our lives and if we even can.
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. My husband says, “Calm down. It’s going to be okay.” Or something like that, I don’t remember for sure, I just know it helped. I stop and pick up the phone to call my ex again.
“Where are you guys?” I ask. “We’re at Kalani’s.”
“Okay, 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. My husband 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 my husband had put together after a tsunami warning a few years back. He 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 in bed talking about the day’s plans with my husband: 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. My husband 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.
As we are driving up the hill to our destination, 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 my ex. “It’s okay,” 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? My husband 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 my son is running up to us with a smile. “You look worried mom; it’s okay, 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. This isn’t the same as the day my husband and I were swimming near a shark and called out of the water by a bystander, or when I was driving home late one night from college and fell asleep, my car veering off the shoulder, only to wake up moments before a collision with the guardrail.
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 who slept through the alarm and woke up to the missile threat combined with the retraction.
Those of us who 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. As unreal as the threat ended up being, the terror of that time in between could not have been more real.
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.
Scarlet Garn is a wife and mother. Her family lives in Kahului, Maui, and she has been here for the last 12 years. She is a freelance writer and also a nutritionist. You can find her on Scarlet’s Letter and Intuitive Wellness. When she isn’t working, or mom-ing, you can most likely find her in the garden or in the kitchen, which are her two happy places. She has been published in Elephant Journal and Rebelle Society.