Moments after the earthquake ended the sound of rumbling and rattling slowly blended away and left behind a quieter chorus of car alarms and people shouting up and down the hallway outside my office. I crawled out from under my desk, sat stunned, cross-legged on the floor, and then reached up and pulled my phone down into my lap. The phone lines were not working. I knew they wouldn’t be, but I tried anyway. I couldn’t imagine what was happening at my home at this moment.
I was given a hint a few heartbeats later when a message arrived from my wife. “Cone home,” it said. The word “Cone” carried with it a gravity that I can barely attempt to convey. This was from Andrea. Even in texts, she does not misspell words.
I threw my coat on and was out the door and in my car less than 30 seconds later. The roads were packed. Traffic lights were blank and unhelpful, emergency vehicles raced past in both directions passing each coming and going on the highways in total chaos and confusion.
I pulled into the driveway and didn’t even bother with the garage door opener. Every house on the street was hung with strings of lifeless grey Christmas lights. Neighbors shouted to neighbors in the half-black morning. I turned the key in my front door and entered a dark room. There was movement in the corner. My wife and three small children were huddled together on the couch staring at the door.
“There was an Earthquake!” one of my daughters announced between sobs. “It was awful.”
My son tiptoed around a painting that had fallen face-first into the center of the room and he wrapped his arms around my leg in eerie silence. I pat his head. “Okay boy. It’s okay. Let’s find some flashlights.”
It took about an hour to return some semblance of order. The kitchen, now carpeted by shards of broken glass, was quarantined. Other rooms were likewise inspected and then solemnly closed off. We would have to deal with them later, it was a bit overwhelming. The children were sent to their rooms with flashlights to find warm clothes, and everyone froze from time to time with their arms out to their sides, bracing in doorways, as we rode through the clockwork tumble of aftershocks.
We were going to go to my parents’ house with the children; they still had power. And we would stop at my office on the way so I could shut things down which had been abandoned in my hurry to leave. Perhaps later, when power was turned back on and Andrea and I were possibly alone without children underfoot, we could reconvene and do something about the mess. Maybe.
We sent the kids to get into the car first, and then packed our own bags and headed out. But as I was climbing into the car, Clara suddenly jumped in the backseat. “Oh no! I forgot something!”
“Just…” she scrambled over her sister and out the back door of the car hands first onto the cold driveway. “It’s right inside the living room. I’ll be right back.”
We all sat in the car and waited as the strange little girl ran to the house and then a few seconds later ran back holding a red and white box cradled in her arms. When she was finally settled back into the car between her brother and sister, she passed the box up front to her mother. “I thought I would bring the candy canes I bought at the store yesterday. There are a hundred and ten of them!
I sighed, “Wait, what? Clara, the last thing we need right now is candy.” I rolled my eyes at my wife. People do funny things when they are panicked.
“No Dad, not for us. I thought maybe we could give them out to people that are having a bad day.”
“Who?” I started driving slowly through our neighborhood.
She pointed out the window, “Um… everyone? I think everyone is having a bad day. And I know when I’m having a bad day, I like to have a candy cane.”
So, when I stopped downtown at my office the children rolled out of the car with fists full of candy canes. Several of these were handed to a few worried faces that were bustling through the parking lot. two more were given to a man and woman that were standing just inside the door discussing road closures.
Later, as we were leaving, we descended a set of stairs and came across a very small girl standing alone in the long tiled hallway. She looked shocked. Her hands were clasped tightly in front of her and her big eyes turned to look at us and blinked.
“Where is your mom?” I asked.
Slowly, and without speaking, she turned to look at the bathroom door nearby and then back at us.
“Would you like to have a candy cane?” Lydia said quietly as she stepped forward.
Again the girl said nothing. She looked at Lydia, then at me, then at the bathroom door, then her eyes came to rest on the approaching candy cane.
Lydia knelt bend down so her face was lower than the smaller girl’s and smiled. “Here. Have a candy cane.” She slowly slid the candy cane into the girl’s pink-gloved hands.
We all smiled what we hoped were disarming smiles and I swept my children along towards the door. But when we were just about to the door, Gideon quickly turned back as if he had forgotten something, as if there was something he needed to do or he would always regret it. He happily bound back to the little girl who was watching us leave, and he placed a hand lightly on her shoulder and with a deep breath he cheered, “Happy Christmas!”.
She blinked. He gave her a thumbs up and returned to the door. She blinked again and looked down at her candy cane.
We left, back into the noise and distraction of the outside world, hand in hand, laughing quietly to ourselves at the absurdity of everything going on around us, and with about 80 more candy canes left to share.
Was it a bad day? Well, I don’t know. I’ve had worse.