This summer I felt my first earthquake while sleeping in a teepee. A loud boom erupted in the distance. My first thought was that train cars were connecting on the railroad on the other side of the Jefferson River where I was camping, but it didn’t make sense that railcars were active in the middle of the night. The mountainous landscape was dry and sparse, a synchronous description of the activity along the wide river’s valley.
The earth rocked beneath me—really deep beneath me. Later, I would learn it was a 5.8. Zipped inside a puffy sleeping bag, I shook like a cocoon in a breeze. I sat up and said, “Earthquake”. It was more of a statement than a warning. My two daughters, and Charlotte, our French exchange student for a month, formed three-fourths of a ring on the ground and I wanted them to know the cause of the rattling. For them, I wanted to pretend that I wasn’t afraid.
I was, of course, very afraid.
I waited for them to respond. Aileen, my oldest daughter, twisted her head to look at me.
“Did you feel that?” I said, probably a little too emphatically. My heart was racing. The other girls hadn’t moved.
Aileen nodded, sleepy-eyed. I waited for her to react appropriately, to tuck her head beneath her arms or something like that, to show that she was just as scared as me.
“I have to pee,” she said.
I groaned inside. Then came the dreaded question.
“Will you go with me?” she said.
I wasn’t excited to go to the outhouse in the middle of the night with my sixteen year old, but I did it anyway, because I knew she was afraid. A mother intuits her child.
My sleeping bag completed the fourth part of the ring. I had taken the girls to Lewis and Clark State Park for a night under the stars. The next day we would tour the caves that snake through the depths of limestone rock like secret passageways to a hidden world. It was supposed to be an adventure, and with a bright waxing moon in the sky it would become a night-day mix-up, a transversal of daylight’s stretch stopped within the gaping mouth of limestone that continued to a nighttime world.
I walked with my daughter to the outhouse. Rain began to fall in quiet, little drops on my shoulders. After we climbed back into our sleeping bags, two aftershocks waved through before I was able to fall asleep. Meanwhile, the rain pinged the canvas walls with a softness that only happens in summer. Lightning flashed overhead.
It wasn’t perfect. I was afraid of entering the caves the following day. Despite knowing I had no reason to worry about a teepee catastrophe, I imagined being deep in the caves during another earthquake. The worst part was that I imagined bringing the girls to their doom.
After an unrestful sleep, I had to make a plan in the morning. Do I go? Do I not go? Do I let them go without me? Certainly, they were old enough.
But what if they were inside the caves without me and an earthquake struck?
While waiting for hot water to boil on a propane burner, I chose the ultimate job required of parents–—I sacrificed. A hiss formed the background noise while I consciously solidified my life’s prerogative: I was willing to die for my children.
Like the fourth arc in the ring of life, having a clear initiative transcended the fear. I felt complete. I wonder now, how many times have I initiated out of fear rather than love? How often have I disappointed rather than embraced? Is it really that hard to sacrifice?
That morning, with the hot morning sun burning our skin through our shirts, I walked into the dark mouth of the cave with my daughters. It was day. It was night. I walked into the cave with my daughters because it was the right thing to do.