The waves are rollicking and cold. All year I have been waiting to be in this water, waiting for these two weeks at the Connecticut shore. Don’t go too far, my mother has warned, and now I can barely see her, kneeling in the sand, helping my brother build a castle. Without my noticing, my little blow-up raft has drifted into deep water. The muscular tide is dragging me away. My mother, a speck, waves to me: come back or farewell. I am being towed to the place where ocean meets Sound; I will never see her again. A wave breaks over me, salt filling my mouth, and I wake to the sound of glasses clinking in cupboards, CDs rattling on shelves, the world gone all shaky, the mattress rippling. I am in my bed, in my apartment in New York, it’s a summer afternoon, and I have no idea what’s going on.
Earthquake, Jeff says, responding to my cries of alarm. These days he moves slowly, and by the time he makes it to the bedroom, one room away from where he’s been watching TV, the tremors have stopped.
Jeff’s lived on the West Coast, he knows about earthquakes, but the closest I’ve come to experiencing one is a B-movie from my childhood — Earthquake in ‘Sensurround’! — Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner scrabbling through rubble in the twilight of their careers. Here in New York we do not have earthquakes. We have blizzards, heat waves. We have blackouts and ice storms and transit strikes, all sorts of challenges large and small. But we do not have earthquakes.
Jeff and I turn on the news. A 5.8 on the Richter scale, the earthquake, which was centered near Richmond, VA, has damaged the National Cathedral and cracked the Washington Monument. The White House has been evacuated as has New York’s City Hall. The likelihood of aftershocks is “strong.”
My mother and brother, both of whom live nearby, call to make certain we’re all right. Crazy! my brother says. In L.A. we had them all the time. You’d feel it coming and get under a doorway. Once I even slept through one. But this was just weird.
After a while we switch back to TCM. Since he contracted pneumonia Jeff’s been spending most days watching old movies, whatever’s on, he’s not [End Page 589] picky. Sometimes I join him but today I’m exhausted from another night of interrupted sleep, Jeff waking drenched and clammy, the towels he’d been lying on soaked through with sweat. Today it took an earthquake to raise me; I was that tired.
Jeff’s pneumonia came out of nowhere, surprising us. Five years since his diagnosis, and for the most part he’d been doing fine. We were told this would be so. Chronic lymphocytic leukemia can remain indolent (his doctor’s word) for years. Or not. It’s difficult to predict and because this type of cancer is incurable, standard procedure is to delay treatment until the patient becomes symptomatic. Watchful waiting, it’s called. For five years Jeff has been going to the oncologist every three months to have his blood drawn and his lymph nodes examined. Steadily his white blood cell count has been rising, from 19,900 white blood cells per microliter at his diagnosis to 146,000 by the time of the earthquake. By way of comparison, a normal white blood cell count, I’ve learned, is between 4,500 and 10,000 cells per microliter.
For five years we’ve been living our lives in these three-month increments between oncology appointments. We try not to think about what’s ahead. We’ve gone to Tuscany and Barcelona; we’ve swum in the Bay of Biscay and danced in a plaza in the little French town of St. Jean de Luz to a cover band called The Closh that played heavily accented songs by The Clash and The Ramones. Always we knew the sword was there, just above our heads, though we did our best to ignore it...