What do you tell your child when you’re pretty sure you’re about to die with her? How do you comfort your child when you’re terrified yourself?
Last Saturday morning, a ballistic missile alert was sent to Hawai’i residents like me. Thankfully, it turned out to be a false alarm, but during the 38 minutes before the state sent out an all-clear alert, we thought we were under attack. At the time, I was home alone with my 9-year-old daughter, Abigail. I knew in the back of my mind that if we did have a nuke headed towards us, odds were we wouldn’t survive it, but inaction wasn’t a possibility. My body wanted to move. I also knew that due to my medical disability, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, that I wouldn’t be able to get very far if I decided to evacuate. I use a cane which only leaves one free hand, and I couldn’t figure out how I could gather my daughter, my service dog and supplies—so my body made the decision that we would shelter in place. I woke up my daughter, found our dog, and then we hid in the bathroom and waited for the end. As I recounted about the thoughts racing through my mind in an essay for the Washington Post:
I spread the quilt out on the floor, hand Abby a pillow, and calmly ask her if they talked about duck and cover in school. I realize that I don’t know much about duck and cover because I’m only 36 years old and I grew up in a world without nuclear threats. I fake the confidence and teach my fourth-grader how to pull her knees up to her chest, lean her head down into them and cover her neck with her arms.
I’ve received messages from parents from all over the world in the days since my essay was published. Mothers especially wrote that my family had experienced their greatest fear. Some people called me naïve for even bothering to shelter in place, arguing that there was no point. Some people called me a horrible mother for not being prepared for a nuclear disaster. (Never mind the fact that there’s not a lot a person can do if they’re hit by a nuclear warhead.) My friends on Oahu shared their stories as we decompressed in the days following, and there were differences in how we reacted: Some parents had their kids hide in storm drains and sewers, some gathered their families together and prayed, others did what we did and filled their bathtub with water and waited. But the one thing we all had in common was that we grabbed our children and held them with all our might. Even after the all-clear, it took some time before I could bear to let go of my daughter; when I did, her first question was whether her friend’s birthday party was still on for that afternoon. Later that afternoon, I watched as the little partygoers ran themselves ragged, jumped in the bouncy-house for hours, laughed and tackled each other with joy. I couldn’t tell if they were discharging major amounts of stress, or if the whole terrifying experience just didn’t touch them in the same way it affected their parents. Nearly a week later, I’m fairly convinced it’s the latter. Abigail has had no nightmares, and when I ask her if she has any questions or wants to discuss what happened, she says she’s fine. And I believe her. I believe that she asked the questions she needed to ask when she was scared, and that the answers I was able to string together satisfied her, and that’s the best possible outcome we could have had. Now that the adrenaline rushes and the relief have both dissipated, what remains for me is a new, deep well of gratitude that we’re all still alive, that our beautiful aina (land) is still here. I also carry the knowledge that there are parents all over the world, right this second, who are protecting their children from war. My privilege, growing up as an American, is a privilege that many families do not have. There is no good that can come of war-mongering and weapon proliferation. It is up to us, the parents, to fight for peace.