The Good Friday Earthquake: A Meditation on Life and Death
Life began here when I was five. My dad’s first assignment, weeks after my parent’s wedding, was Elmendorf AFB in Anchorage, Alaska. We lived on Kuter Court, a rectangular formation of housing complexes for Air Force families, less than a mile from the airstrip. Our section of housing was a sea-foam green color, the one directly across from us a bright yellow. The house has since been demolished. We visited a couple months after the neighborhood was torn down and all that remained were the flourishing raspberry bushes my dad had planted seven years earlier.
Bryn, Brock, Colt, Dane
The fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh Flint kids, respectively. Number eight, Nora, precede(s/d) Kate, Tripp, and Cash, respectively.
Born January 23rd at the Elmendorf-Richardson Joint Hospital. Child number three and by far the ugliest baby. Presently the funniest and probably most physically beautiful. Presently sensitive and finds her worth in how others see her.
Held since 1935, the Fur Rendezvous is a ten-day winter festival held every year to celebrate and represent the pioneering spirit of the Alaskan people. Among the games and attractions, the ice sculpture competition on the carnival’s outskirts offered intricately patterned castles, cartoon characters, and interactive photo ops. Art that was so easily destroyed and unavoidably temporary. Through the cloudiness of this frozen castle’s towering architecture, I could see only the red lights of the ferris wheel, electric against the black Alaskan sky. A continuous loop of ups and downs, each seat remained upright and intact, always finding its way back to the beginning.
North America’s largest recorded earthquake that took place near Anchorage, Alaska. A 9.2 on the Richter scale and killed 139 people in March 1964.
My mom knew the question would be asked, so she wore her favorite shirt to avoid it: “Birth Control is for Sissies,” written in bold pink, loopy letters on worn black fabric. She’s spent a lot of time in hospitals.
Begins the first Saturday in March. Held in commemoration of Leonhard Seppala, a musher chosen to represent all mushers in the All-Alaskan Sweepstakes races. Dogs and their mushers make a 25 mile journey across Alaska, facing inclement weather and the unforgiving spirit of the wild, often resulting in canine death.
Tripp was born January 16th, 2012. He died the 16th. Cash died Friday, January 11th, 2013. He was born the 12th.
Over 400 miles from Anchorage, Kodiak, a small town, is Alaska’s largest fishing port. In 1964, fishing boats were found miles inland, at least 15 feet above sea level several days after the initial Good Friday earthquake.
My parent’s second daughter. Her eyes seem grey upon first glance, but if you sit and listen to her talk for the hours that she does, you begin to notice the various shades of faint and deep greens around the iris. Your eyes will trail to the freckles that bridge across her nose then drop to her infectious, compassionate smile. Lilies, for which she was named, represent innocence and beauty. They also are said to symbolize that the souls of the departed have restored innocence after death. We received lilies after Cash passed.
Appear as an inviting, muddy beach along the Alaskan coast, but instead trap tourists during low tide where they remain until high tide, often drowning. My dad and I used to walk along the shore and collect the most colorful and vibrant rocks and stones we could find. When we were ready to go back home, we would place all of our findings on a large sea-weathered boulder in the middle of the beach where they would remain until the next time. I remember watching people running up and down the beach with no shoes on, unaware of the flat waiting for them just below the surface, waiting to swallow visitors up as it had in 1964.
Children eight and twelve. Bookends of pain.
In the days following Kate’s death my family mourned. In the weeks following Tripp’s death my family grieved. The months following Cash’s death, I was convinced my family had been broken. January is a hard month to face, but every year gets slightly less painful and significantly more hopeful. We are helping each other to overcome.
A small town near Turnagain Heights, a neighborhood where prominent Alaskan families lived before the earthquake. My family and I used to travel along the ocean to Portage Glacier, the mountain on our left side, too high to see the peak, and immediately to our right, the unending expanse of the Pacific Ocean. The water was the kind of blue that was so close to black you could almost feel the icy electricity. Fall in and you feel everything all at once and then nothing. Nearly thirty were killed here in a large-scale landslide and high-tide flooding that resulted from the Good Friday Earthquake.
My parents often considered not having more children after we lost Cash. They had two more—Neva and Cody. They are overcoming.
Number of years my parents have been married. How old I was when my mom told me she was pregnant with Tripp.
Ten is the number of children my parents have, thirteen is how many children my mom has birthed.
Where half of Anchorage, lost to the Good Friday Earthquake, remains.
31 residents of Valdez died in the Good Friday Earthquake and its subsequent tsunamis. Due to extensive instability and susceptibility to future tsunamis, the town was not rebuilt, but was instead relocated several miles west and rebuilt on more secure ground.
Waiting X Years
Unclear length of time it will take my family to rebuild.
Number of children my parents can and will have from now on. Amount of regret my parents have in the decisions that they have made. Times I have doubted my parents’ judgment. Number of siblings I would have if my parents second-guessed themselves with every hardship. Overcome yet overcoming.
I don’t know if it is “wrong” or “unnatural” or “unusual” for how often I daydream about dying. Specifically, a planned death, a suicide. But in my experience, it is a perfectly normal occurrence to ponder my tombstone; my entire life has been ghosted by the sensation that the end of my life was near. In conversations, in lectures, in private, my thoughts somehow drift to “What if I just killed myself right now?” This compulsion seems too frequent to be the work of ordinary intrusive thoughts but it’s not necessarily motivated by sadness either.
In my reverie, I stargaze at the endless multiverses of realities where I kill myself. I always envision myself hung by a noose somewhere beautiful, like a secluded forest or in an empty theater. Even dying naturally, I would want to pass in a place I can forget and feel at home.
Sometimes I dream my note reads, “Relief.” Sometimes I dream I wrote a lengthy note to each of my closest loved ones. Sometimes I dream I don’t have a note. That last option always makes me feel empty and morbid.
In less glamorous times, I consider it out of spite-
In bleak times, I consider it out of depressive states-
In the worst times, I consider it for comfort-
Most frequently I consider it because I wonder who would blog about it online. Who would lump me in national suicide statistics. Who would delete my phone number from their phones. Who wouldn’t remember my name when they saw my photo in the obituary. Who would regret something they did or said to me that they never made time to make up. Who would forgive the mistakes I’ve made. Who would speak at my service. Who would cry on the anniversary of my death years after the event. The coworkers, the mentors, the adversaries, the friends, the best friends, my dog, my family, my mother, faces, names, memories, art, hope…
I joke with the people I see. I donate my time to causes I believe in. I forget to make time for myself. I live for others.
Colorado Paint Mines
As we approach our destination, blackness swallows up the road behind and ahead of us, giving no indication of our surroundings except the small spectrum of visibility allowed by the truck’s headlights. It’s at that exhilarating point in the morning that is just barely dusk but can no longer be restrained by the obscurity of night. Looking around, it feels like we are in on a secret that nobody else is awake to share.
Pulling into the parking lot, there isn’t much to see. I look around and, as my four-year-old eyes begin to adjust, all I can see is the open landscape of eastern Colorado, textured slightly by the knee-high grass all around. “All right, bug, let’s get your boots on—you’re gonna need ‘em,” my grandfather says offhandedly as he steps out of the driver’s side and walks around to my passenger-side door. Opening my door, he grabs my boots from the back seat and starts to lace them up on my feet, humming “You are My Sunshine”. After several minutes, he taps my feet and yells, “Ready?!” as he pulls me out of the car and sets me gently on the ground. We gather our waters and lunchboxes—which contain pancakes, freshly scrambled eggs, and Club crackers—and make our way across the lot. I have no idea where I’m headed, but I know that as long as I follow Pappy he will get us to where we are headed. The crunch of gravel instantly softens to the swishing and snapping of dried grass under our feet as we begin to wade into the darkness ahead.
The depth of colors around me, covering the landscape under an opaque blanket of night, remind me of a time my Pappy and I took our sleeping bags and a lantern out into the back yard and slept on the gravel road behind the house. My grandparents lived in the middle of nowhere, roughly an hour away from the nearest city, accompanied by only a few neighbors a couple miles apart. On one side of the house was a small hangar for my Pappy’s airplane and on the other was a driveway that stretched from the front of the house to the back and into the woods that surrounded the house. I couldn’t decide where I wanted to set up our small camp, so I allowed my Pappy to take the lead and I followed each step of his, unable to make out much in the dark around me. We walked past the mowed portion of the yard, and through the overgrown weeds on the outskirts of the lawn, setting up our sleeping bags barely inside the tree-line. We arranged our beds parallel to each other, the lantern in between, and, pulling out our favorite snack—Club crackers with butter—we rested on our backs and drew shapes with our fingers against the midnight sky. Although I had later gotten scared and gone inside, feeling alone and vulnerable because my Pappy had fallen asleep, that night stands out as one where my Pappy and I did something new, exciting, and unconventional—a normal experience for us.
As we continue down the self-made path, a combination of close proximity and a barely noticeable increase in morning light allows us to make out large shapes ahead, white against their indigo background. The massive, curved tops of these forms give way to concave middles that then melt into the earth, almost as if the bottom had tried to crawl away from its upper body. I watch as sapphires give way to cobalts and as the horizon to our right hints at oranges and yellow along its borders. “Oh, looks like we need to hurry up! The sky doesn’t get to paint itself, we do!” My Pappy’s muffled explanation excites me as we pick up our pace. We jog past a small creek, a sign that says, “Colorado Paint Mines: No Trespassing,” and continue until we reach a barbed wire fence that stretches in both directions as far as my periphery allows. Pappy slings the lunchbox from his shoulder over the fence and gets down on all fours. He motions for me to do the same and, as we routinely did, I flatten onto my stomach and he pushes me across to the other side. With about a foot between the earth and the rusted barbs of the fence, he army-crawls toward me in a deft and well-practiced manner. His head clears, and then his arms, followed by his upper torso and then his upper legs. As he pulls his right leg under, his jeans catch on the fence. Watching the blood fall from his suspended lower legs, I stop breathing and close my eyes, imagining all of the colors I had seen that morning to nullify my Pappy’s visible pain. “It’s okay! I’m okay, bug, don’t worry.” He gets his pants loose, wipes off his leg, and, holding me in his lap, shows me the small and deceptive cut on his calf. “See? Nothing to worry about.”
My Pappy and I had a lot of early mornings when I was little, and early mornings usually consisted of breaking a rule or two before breakfast and having a big cup of adrenaline as our dose of caffeine. One particular morning, I woke up with the sun in my eyes, streaming through a small window above me on the left. Panicked, I tried to sit up but I found that there was a belt across my lap, restricting my movement. What seemed like fog appeared across the window, but when I realized that I was the one passing through them very quickly and not the opposite, I immediately knew where I was and relaxed. I turned my head to the right and saw my Pappy navigating his small airplane through the early morning atmosphere. I could smell his coffee, strong and bold, and the pancakes he had saved for me on the floor next to me. I watched the clouds and the pastels in the sky as they passed by and could faintly hear him humming “You Are My Sunshine”. I unbuckled my seatbelt and jumped up, walking carefully to the passenger seat up front, and begged him to do our favorite trick. He pretended to ignore me for several minutes and then, without warning, took the plane into a nosedive; as we approached the treetops, he began to ease up, flying low and close to the ground. My Nana never let us carry out this particular maneuver because it was too dangerous, and so we had stopped. He turned and winked at me. “Don’t tell your Nana.”
Once we pass the barbed wire, the large curved shapes I had seen earlier begin to grow closer and larger, and in the growing light they have earned a halo around their edges, which then reflect the pinks, reds, greens, and oranges above. We quickly run up the hill of grass out of which the large paint mines protrude, and set up our breakfast on the top of the large rock. Eating our pancakes, eggs, and Club crackers, we watch as the massive and smoothly curved paint mines absorb the light from the sun, which peeks above the horizon. From its center, different shades of oranges, reds, lilacs, and vivid pinks seem to bleed into the sky, reaching for the West into which the deep blues and blacks are disappearing. Amber gives way to honey yellows that quickly become golden clouds emanating from the skyline. Pappy and I lift our fingers up and pretend to draw pictures with the changing colors. He says, “I’m glad they were so kind as to save this whole place for you and I,” winking at me before letting out a laugh. We sit for a while, until the whole sun is entirely in the sky, then we shake out our empty breakfast containers before packing up our lunchboxes and making our way into the vibrant miniature valleys between the paint mines.
On our left, the white curved tops of the formations are visibility cut off by a green layer of clay that is similarly separated from a pale yellow, then pink, and finally a faint red that creeps into white again before reaching the ground. I stand on my tiptoes and brush my fingers against the red, trying not to laugh as I smear the color onto Pappy’s light denim jeans. He looks down at the back of his pants and reaches to his right, his hand returning with a lavender pigment as he covers my arm with the clay. After several minute, we stop and look around at the different colors offered by our surroundings while we pull out the containers from breakfast. I reach for yellow and green while Pappy opts for purple, blue, and red. Our personal spectrum also includes white and red and orange, which we accumulate over the hour that we collect clay. As the sun gets higher, it begins to get warmer, and so we decide to make the trek back to Pappy’s truck. Retracing our steps, Pappy manages to crawl under the barbed wire without getting caught again and pulls me safely through. We pass the “No Trespassing” sign once more and continue through the grass, which barely grazes my shoulders, until we reach the gravel parking lot, our feet crunching on the ground one last time.
Walking in the front door at home, before we begin to wash off the colors of the morning, Pappy carries me to the bathroom and flips on the light as he sets me down on the counter. From his backpack he produces the containers from earlier in the morning. He hands me my own box as he uncovers his own, and, as we do every time after we went to the paint mines, he begins to paint my face. He brushes reds, purples, pinks, oranges, and yellows across my face and I begin to remember the colors we saw in the sky earlier in the morning. The depth of blues in the morning had transformed into every imaginable shade possible until becoming a uniform shade of its previous blues. I let my finger drag across his face in the form of an exaggerated red smile, and the remainder of his skin a pasty-white. Around his eyes large blue circles and smaller red circles on the apples of his cheeks. He covers my face in yellow clay, drawing a red smile and big pink shapes around my eyes. Passing by the bathroom door, my Nana glances at us and attempts to scold us as she laughs. “Now what have I told you two about using that clay as face paint?! You guys are ridiculous,” she sighs in resignation, walking out of the bathroom and into the kitchen down the hall. Pappy and I add the finishing touches to our masterpieces and turn our heads toward the mirror behind me. Pappy laughs as he sees the clown looking back at him. Proud of myself, I try to decide what it is painted on my face. I consider that he couldn’t decide and just painted me with sunglasses and red lips, but then yellow flowers cross my mind and I’m unable to decide. Seeing that I can’t decide what it is that he has drawn on me, Pappy smiles, kisses me on the forehead, and says, “You are my sunshine.”
Nearly 7 years after that morning, our last visit to the Colorado Paint Mines, my mom’s brother and sister came to stay with us at our home in North Carolina for a several days while my dad was out of town. The first night they arrived, everyone was already asleep, and so I didn’t see them until the following day. We woke up, had breakfast, went to the zoo, and for dinner we had several pizzas, pulling out board games shortly thereafter. I took a shower and went to bed around 9 o’clock, worn out from the time we spent walking outside in the sun and warm weather. I must have only been asleep for an hour when my mom gently woke me up, the only visible light reflected in the tears on her face.
“Hey, bug, I need you to come downstairs for a minute. I have something to tell you.” Confused and unsure, I sat up as she grabbed my hand, walking me through the hall and down the stairs into the living room. My aunt and uncle, sitting on the couch in the living room without the TV on, seemed nervous—almost as if they were worried. My mom walked me past them into her room on the left, and, sitting on the end of her bed, pulled me onto her lap. She put her arms around me and looked at me for a couple of minutes, saying nothing, but continuing to cry. “Baby. Last week, your Pappy died.”
Seconds of empty silence were followed by tangible heat—in my face, my hands, my chest. I searched her eyes for seconds, minutes, hours. Instantly my body went limp as I collapsed into hers, and for what felt like years my body release all the grief it could muster as the heat poured down my face. No matter how many tears, no matter how close to choking on them I was, the heat never left. On the end of her bed, my mom rocked me back and forth for hours, holding my head, gripping my back as my chest heaved, clutching my arms as they limply fell side to side. My hair matted to the tears on my face and dried against my skin when I had no tears left to offer, scratching my cheeks, nose, and lips. I cried for so long I had the uncontrollable sharp intake of breath every five seconds that made my head twitch to the left, my body jerk, and my eyes close as if I was about to sneeze. My eyes had no tears left to give, so my body compensated by showing me it too was grieving. My mom laid back and hummed the familiar tune, “You Are My Sunshine”, as my head twitched sporadically for another hour on her chest, both rhythmically heaving up and down with our recovering heartbeats.
My Pappy was killed by an oncoming 18-wheeler, which had swerved into his lane in order to avoid heavy debris. He died in a head-on collision, meaning that his death was instantaneous and, consequently, almost painless. I have tried to imagine a painless death, but all my mind can conjure up was the day at the paint mines, Pappy’s leg stuck on the barbed wire fence, blood streaming down his leg while he tried to assure me he was okay. There are many years between the paint mines and my pappy’s death that I don’t remember, a time that blurs together in my mind. It has become a fuzzy picture of colors created by unending moves across the country with my family. I hadn’t seen my Pappy for nearly 3 years before his death because of my family’s frequent moves, and so it came to feel as if my relationship with Pappy had reached an unfair and abrupt end. It felt as if I had begun to draw an image in the morning sky with my fingers, but the wide array of reds, and oranges, purples and pinks, had become a sudden and uniform afternoon blue—the kind with no clouds, no feeling. It was the mundane kind of atmosphere in which I always felt as if something was missing, like colors, stars, or a blank face on which to paint.
Walking around the paint mines, I absorb each color and memorize their every shade because I know that not every color I see will be here the next time Pappy and I visit. He reminds me that sometimes the rain washes away certain colors, and what remains may be either a lighter or deeper shade of its antecedent, or it may be an entirely new spectrum, which can either disappoint or surprise. Sometimes, through the top layer of clay, we are able to find what color will manifest itself next, whether it’s orange or midnight blue or the brightest yellow. Although the surface of the clay breaks down and the rain washes away some of our favorite hues, these gaps and breaks in the clay offer some solace in new prospects. Under a sky blue—the kind that streams through airplane windows and makes you squint—may be a rich, deep sea blue, connected by our fingers, gliding from star to star. Other times, through a faint pink layer of clay, there might be a red so crimson that I begin to think of barbed wire fences, and I start to ache as I wish that I had stayed outside in the sleeping bag, holding out until the morning colors bled into the night.