Tsunami in Hawaii–a constant shadow. Not everyone has grown up in the shadow of these killer waves, but I am one who has.
Last night's warning klaxons, traffic jams, barking dogs, and overall environment of anxiety brought it all back.
I grew up on Kauai, spending the majority of my days spitting distance from the beach, a circumstance which spoiled me for living elsewhere (though God knows I’ve tried.) My parents were hippies beyond when it was fashionable, and working was not high on their priority list. Kauai was never an economic hotbed, and these circumstances combined led to jobs involving buckets, mops, lawnmowers and duct tape as the answer to—well—just about everything.
By age 11 things were beginning to unravel (don’t worry, I’m getting to the tsunami part). My dad’s drinking had moved from sometimes, to often, to constant. I hated school as one of two haoles in my entire class.
A bright spot in my life was my pony, a deceptively cute Palomino Shetland with a wicked set of teeth and a mean bag of tricks. I learned to ride the hard way, namely by hanging on for dear life while he ran at telephone poles and tried to scrape me off (still getting to the tsunami part) We kept him in a pasture occupied by cows and other horses on the large estate where my dad was caretaker. I loved that house, the pasture, the beach literally across the street.
I also developed a tsunami phobia.
I thought about it all the time. I pictured the wall of water passing like a lateral freight train across Hanalei Bay, sucking up me, my pony, my family, my baby sister and throwing us against the far steep walls of the valley. I’d been in the ocean all my life and had several near-misses with drowning, so I knew that death would be far from peaceful.
I packed my “tidal wave escape bag” with a few important things—gold locket from my grandma, a hairbrush, my favorite book The Secret Garden. A toothbrush. A change of clothes. My good Pentel pen set and art tablet. A gallon milk jug of water.
I read the pamphlet from school on Tidal Wave Awareness (because calling it a tsunami is a relatively new thing) tried to get my parents to have a Safety Plan (I dimly remember them indulging me in a rehearsal of our lengthy drive out of the Bay to high ground in our old Rambler American which only started 50% of the time) and I continued to have bad dreams about it, obsess about it, and not want to be away from the house in case it happened and I was separated from my family.
Looking back, as a child therapist now, I believe I was going through separation anxiety because of the alcoholism, and the tidal wave was a metaphor for the disease I feared was swamping my family.
This went on for close to a year until one night I had a different kind of dream. In the dream the ocean receded, and miles of exposed sea floor were too fascinating to resist. My sister and parents went out onto the bare sand and reef, picking up shells and fish.
“We have to run!” I screamed, and it fell on deaf ears.
Then, we saw the wave.
Looking at the footage of Japan reminded me of it. It was enormous, and endless in its scope, and roared down like a giant clear turquoise mountain. Too late to run, my family came together and we all hugged with my baby sister in the middle as the ocean fell on us.
And it was peaceful.
I woke up on a golden beach, knowing I was dead. Knowing I was still in the dream. My rascally pony pranced up to me, nudged me with his nose, and when I got up it was to see everything I knew, only perfect now. The beach, pristine, white foam like whipped cream on yellow sand. The ocean, calm as a lake, back in its bed, jade-green mountains surrounding it. A perfect setting for heavenly Kaua`i.
I climbed onto my pony without saddle or bridle, and he lifted off the ground, magically flying straight up. There was no anxiety about falling off and for once he was sweet and I had a couple of good fistfuls of mane to hang onto as we rose in the air.
We flew straight into the sun, and in that formless golden glow was everyone I ever knew and loved.
I woke up with my phobia “cured.” I just stopped worrying about a tidal wave, though I liked knowing I had my bag packed and an escape plan. I knew I was going to die someday, and I would be in a place with everyone I ever knew and loved. It was that simple.
As to the metaphor I was living out, just like in the dream the wave engulfed us—but I never woke up on a perfect beach.
In the next year my pony died by choking on a piece of coconut. My dad went to rehab and my mom took us to live with my grandmother in California, sleeping with my sister on a couch in the living room and going to a big city junior high where I was as lost as a hippie kid from Kaua`i could possibly be. (I still played with Barbies at age 13, for godsake, and I’d hardly ever watched TV.)
I did, however, have a truly amazing imagination and that’s where all the stories come from. That’s also how I can scare myself (and others) so very well.
So now you know why I’m extra sensitive about tsunamis, horrified and haunted by the ones that hit Indonesia, then Samoa, and Japan. Every time we have one of our little nonevents here in Hawaii, I work through it. I deal with my former phobia by staying away from the news, prayer, helping others, and living 1600 feet up a volcano.
To all who are grumbling about the work of the evacuation: watch the videos from Japan. It only takes one time of getting complacent to have it all go badly, badly wrong.
Wow…I’m in awe of your strength. Growing up in Florida, I have a similar fear of hurricanes (and specifically, the tornadoes they spawn). I still have recurring nightmares of them, in several different variations. Oh, and you’re not alone–I played with Barbies at 13, too. When I hit high school and a mean girl told everyone at school about the Dream House still in my room, I trashed them all. Still regret that.
Anyway, I think you’re an amazing person with an amazing life story. I smell a memoir… (You were looking for something new to write, right? 😉 )
I am greatly comforted that you played with Barbies too, Dr. Pierce! 🙂
Great story sis. 🙂
Thanks sis. You are in all my dreams.
In fifth grade the teacher showed our class a Japanese film about tsunamis. This was less than a week before the family moved from a Waikiki condo to a northshore beach house. I shared your tsunami phobia for years! I never had such a sweet dream though. Thank you for such a lovely story.
The dream comforted me more than anything else could have. These things are all part of why I’m a therapist, and why I write.
Lovely, Toby. A beautiful dream.
When I lived in Hilo, I heard all the stories of the big wave that came in and destroyed the waterfront. Understood why the little town is set back from the beach.
Then there were the stories of teacher friends being trapped inside home. One was only a fifth grader. The water filled her little house. Her friend drowned.
My husband’s uncle had been stationed in Hilo during WW II. We took him out to an island that used to exist in Liliuokulani Park. Had parties for the soldiers out there. Gone. Washed away. He felt very sad.
I wish you would write about this Janet, it’s part of our Hawaiian history. If we don’t share it, it’s lost.
What a beautiful, sad story. I was on Maui just last month, and it broke my heart to see the tsunami heading straight for my beloved island. Thankfully it looks like the Hawaiian islands fared pretty well against the waves. Japan wasn’t so lucky.
Maybe your golden dream will come. When it does, write it down. You have a lovely gift with words. Thanks for sharing your hopes and fears!
Thank you Kendall!
Dreams are fascinating and potentially so helpful. That is a fantastic post and a wonderful dream. My husband tells me I was screaming and shouting in my sleep last night – a regular occurrence – but I can’t remember the dream. My mother used to howl like a wolf in her sleep – it used to terrify me listening to it in the dark.
I truly love your blog, Toby – a real pleasure to read!
I do dream analysis in my practice because of my own experiences with dreams. A mother who howls like a wolf in the dark? Sounds like a future blog post to me!
A moving evocation of life’s traumas which constantly threaten to overwhelm us. Your dreamland confrontation of your tsunami phobia reminded me of the time when, facing the second decade of my novel going unpublished, I thought one day, “I don’t care if I live or die,” to which the immediate response appeared in my head, “Then why are you afraid of flying?”
Why indeed? And from that day forward, I no longer was afraid of flying.
Thanks so much for showing up to comment. As a therapist and writer I’m so interested in how our minds are always seeking to heal and cope. Dreams are messages from our subconscious to our conscious mind (in Jungian dreamwork) and clearly my child self was trying to find a way to deal. Unfortunately that isn’t any easier as an adult in the world we are living in.
Tsunami, I’ve been told, translates as “tidal wave” in Japanese. I too used to dream of tidal waves as a boy living on Lake Erie. After all, you never know when or where a comet might strike.
Liked this entry, so much less mushy than some others. I second the thought of a memoir, perhaps combining the experiences of youth with your work as a therapist. Ever thought of something like that? I’ll offer my assistance as an editor and critic.
Less mushy, eh? Well then. and I thank you for your kind offer, and may even take you up on it!
This is the loveliest blog post ever. I say, keep writing until it’s a book.
I can’t watch the clips of Japan either. It’s too much.
What beautiful imagery you created by sharing the emotions you felt as a pre-teen. Much of your pain sounded like a fabulous fantasy for those of us who grew up in more mainstream homes. But then, perhaps no one is mainstream.
Thanks Janie, coming from you a wonderful compliment!
I love this post by you Toby. It makes me think of my Mom being in Hilo when that tidal wave hit in the early 1940s – she survived due to her school bus being 10 minutes late because the driver overslept – otherwise her bus would have had her at school right in the middle of where the wave hit. Our family lore has often referred to this – and continues to – just the other day my son said, “Remember, if Grandma’s bus had been on time I wouldn’t exist!!” Same for me, my other three siblings, their children – quite a ripple effect (no pun intended!). Thank you for posting your thought provoking ideas!
I didn’t know your mother lived in Hawaii and the Hilo tsunami is famous! Thanks for sharing your story too. we are all affected by this tragedy.
When I lived in Hilo one of my teacher friends had survived the great tsunami there, despite the fact the wave filled her room with water. Her best friend did not. When the earthquake hit Haida Gwai in BC last night, we got the warning down here in Bellingham WA. Then I saw the word Hawaii and called my son on Oahu. I could hear the sirens in the background going off. He said they were warned, but he’s in Manoa and safe. My friends with family on Haida Gwai are okay.
So glad to hear good news, Janet!
Great story, I went through much of the same being the last of 8 kids, different circumstances. Best to your future as your past is just a goodbye.
I sell happiness now, I work my second career after 27 years in broadcasting as a creative director/production company. I am now Full Circle IT/Social Media and I am on 4 domains with a NFL pro sports and cartoon rats brandcasting for SmartTV.
I had a pony when I was a kid too. Gave her teeth a nice spark from an electric fence and me too when the hay touched the top wire. Daisy was her name. Stay up on a hill, warm and dry…as you wish.
Hi Gary, thanks so much for popping in to comment and share such a personal anecdote. I love it that you’re living your dreams–me too! I wish Keiki, my pony, and Daisy, much rascally romping in heaven.
Thanks so much for these thoughts, Toby. This blog and you’re writing are, in a word, excellent!
Hi Donn, thanks so much for the encouragement! I wasn’t a Christian then, had no “godly” influences…but my life has shown over and over how God reached out to me and revealed something important when I needed it as a young person.
Thanks for sharing, Toby. I know that if I had to face it, I would feel like your child-self did. My husband and I saw tsunami warning signs in Newport Beach CA last year and were surprised to be reminded that the area was a tidal wave warning zone. (Having watched The Day After Tomorrow enough times I ought to know, right?)
My parents took time to speak with the beach boys in Phuket when they visited a few years ago, and the boys reckoned the only reason they – and the tourists they could alert – survived was thanks to their brethren up the coast alerting them by phone before they were overwhelmed, which gave the Phuket teams enough time to move their areas to safety.
I survived a terrorist attack whilst on holiday in 1988 and have always maintained that if I was to experience something like that, I would prefer it to be on holiday when all I had to worry about was me and the few items I had with me at the time, rather than all my worldly belongings in my house. I dare say though that if I lived on the coast, I would have a different view.
Going to share this wonderful post with others, thanks Toby.
Wow, that’s intense! thanks for sharing, and commenting.