My arms and legs extended in total relaxation as I lay soaking up warmth and listening to the echo of the water. The oldest of four, I’d enjoyed the freedom of alone time in the bath for a few years by the time I was eight, and it wasn’t unusual that the rest of my family might be occupied in other parts of our house on Ames Avenue in Palo Alto. I was so absorbed in the experience, maybe because it began in such a small personal bubble, submerged and closed off from everything, that I don’t remember whether family members were even home during the event (later, I learned they were).
With no apparent transition, the water went from soothing to sloshing. I sat abruptly. Miniature tidal waves lapped at my chest while I froze in place, trying to process what was happening. “Earthquake” didn’t cross my mind. In school they taught us guidelines for how to respond, but what it would feel like to be in a big quake was beyond my comprehension. My heart thumped so hard that I was only aware of the water’s movement, and not the earth shaking it.
We weren’t especially religious, though my family occasionally went to church, and I’d attended a church-run preschool. Imagination filled in holes in my vague understanding of Heaven and Hell. I thought about religion often in relation to my grandpa, who’d died of cancer in my lifetime, my brother’s leukemia, and kids we met through Touchstone, a support group for families of children with life-threatening diseases. I was keenly aware that children aren’t immune to horrible things, and this dictated how I interpreted what happened. As the bath rocked me to and fro, it was a supernatural experience. I could’ve started believing in ghosts, or aliens, or become a religious fanatic. Without the experience to understand it, my mind leapt to the most logical conclusion it could piece together: God was angry, and the world was ending (years later, I learned that my mom screamed, “IT’S THE APOCALYPSE!” at my four-year-old sister).
The world is ending. I’m going to die. I have to get out of here. These thoughts were screaming in my mind as I scrambled out of the tub, dripping wet, and ran like hell out the bathroom door, around corners, and down the long, carpeted hallway toward the front door.
Blinding heat rushed to my head, my chest was pounding and I can’t remember now if the earth was still shaking then – adrenaline had kicked in and it didn’t matter. I still didn’t understand what was happening as I grabbed the knob, burst through the door and out into the street.
I stood, a fleshy white spot on the dark asphalt, taking in the unexpected calm. Here, it didn’t feel like the world was ending. Everything was still. Up and down the street, I could see others had come out, too. Most of their faces were far away and fuzzy, but, like me, they stood quietly, looking around.
The dense, eerie silence crept through my veins and slowed my racing heart. Neighbors milled about along the road – dazed, but unhurt. I looked down at my body, confirming my continued existence, and relief and clarity washed over me. I was naked in the street, with all the neighbors there to see it, but I was alive.