In the short version of this story, I would simply tell you it was a false alarm. That next time we’re grabbing beer and surfboards and going out catching a wave. I would be self-deprecating and joke and confess that, as it turns out, I am terrible in a missile crisis.
But in the long version of the story, I would tell you that when the alert came across my phone, I thought it was a drill – even after reading the all-caps THIS IS NOT A DRILL. I would tell you that I was at the cycle studio where I teach morning classes, after my first class and before the next, in that beautiful in-between morning light when you know the day is new, and when I enjoy my tea and smoothie while creating a playlist. I would tell you that I called my husband, not yet hysterical, but yes panicked, begging him to take the kids to safety, envisioning them in the middle of the valley, between two gorgeously green ridges. They were working the loi (low-ee) that day, the ancient Hawaiian art of farming taro root. They were waist-high in mud, they were catching crawfish and pulling weeds.
They were totally exposed.
I would tell you, in the long version, that I became singularly focused on my children. My children. The thought would make me sob out loud. Through the chaos, I could see only their faces, hear their voices. I worried they were scared, I worried they would be alone…if….
I heard things through my phone, my husband’s voice saying, “We found a culvert in the middle of the field.” A client was saying, “The sirens are going off at Ewa Beach!” A friend was wondering if the studio was still open. My husband’s voice eventually brought me back. “You have ten minutes to get here.” What was to happen next was implied but not spoken. I had ten minutes to drive to them before the missile hits.
I would tell you, in the long version, that this is when I became hysterical.
After a quick consultation, my husband told me to shelter in place, not to drive to him as he originally instructed. He thought better of the plan after I explained that I was in the Jeep – no doors, no roof. In the long version, I would tell you that my husband called again to tell me his boss heard from headquarters that it was a false alarm.
“It’s not happening,” he said. “You’re okay. We’re okay.”
In this long version, “We’re okay,” means “We’re not going to die.” I sobbed again.
The false alarm was declared, officially, and miraculously, we all carried on. My husband took the kids out of the culvert and back to the loi. They spent the morning in the mud as intended. I taught my spin class, punctually at 9 a.m. I joked that it was a nuke-free zone and to channel the adrenaline into the ride. It worked. I met a friend for coffee. I drove home under a cloudless Oahu sky. I showered. I hugged my dog. I felt guilty that I hadn’t even thought of her. I called my friend and joked about the morning’s “excitement.”
But when I heard the car pull into the driveway, I flew out the door. I held my boys, kissed their faces, their cheeks, their heads, squeezed their hands. I held my husband tight. My family. Finally, together.
The next day, on a boat with friends, the boys played “nuclear missile” with a football, tossing it into the ocean and diving for it. The parents looked at each other. Should we stop this? Someone told them to play something else. They snorkeled instead.
My friend recounted her experience while on the boat. “I called my family, told them I loved them. I said my goodbyes.”
It occurred to me only in that moment that it didn’t occur to me during the scare to call the people I love. I didn’t even think of the people I love. I was away from my kids. There was no room for any other thoughts. My children are going to die without me, my children are going to die feeling scared – those were the only thoughts, on loop, that Saturday morning.
Tuesday morning came, after the long weekend, and I biked with my boys to school. I walked my kindergartener to his class and hugged him goodbye. He didn’t look back. But my second grader, clutched my hand, couldn’t let go.
“Mommy, I don’t feel well.”
I took him home after complaints of stomachache and tears when I tried to leave him. Once home, he played, he laughed, he read. He was fine. I asked him what was wrong. I asked him to tell me what was really going on.
“I’m afraid to be away from you.” He brushed his sun-kissed hair off his face, and, cupping his sweet, seven-year-old face, looked down at the checkers board that sat between us. I felt my heart break, knowing he left a bit of his innocence in the culvert.
“We need a plan,” I thought. I called my husband at work. “Ask around the office, find out about different scenarios – missile, missile with nuclear warhead. Find out if we’d survive either, and if so, how. Our kids need a plan.”
He came home and we discussed his findings. We would survive, he said, if they hit Honolulu. But if they hit the windward side, where we live…well... This was always followed by, “but the odds of them hitting us…”
The next night, at dinner, we discussed the plan. We told our boys what to do if they are at school, if we’re at the beach, if we’re on the North Shore, if we’re in town. We run through “emergency” sequences, hypotheticals, and I do my best to assure them their teachers will know exactly what to do in case an emergency ever happens when I’m not there.
“Like the last time?” my kindergartener says.
I would tell you, in the long version, that this was the part where I had all the answers. Where I felt confident my boys would be safe in the event of a missile hitting Hawaii – with or without me – in schools that are not prepared for nuclear events. I would tell you that I felt confident as I told my kids over dinner I would be there to pick them up after the emergency was over.
In the long version, I would explain exactly how to survive a missile strike on an island without fallout shelters.
Instead, I smiled to my boys, “The last time wasn’t a real emergency, just a mistake. Mistakes happen, right? You don’t have to worry about a thing. You’re safe.”
In the long version, I’d tell you about the preparedness meetings now held at the elementary school, the run on bottled water at Costco, the solar powered generators at Home Depot. I’d tell you about the hushed recountings of “where were you whens…” and the endless discussions about probabilities, likelihoods, and presumed targets.
In the long version, I would say we’re still having nightmares, still crying when we talk about our kids, minutes to live, calling loved ones, goodbyes.
Instead, the short version: It didn’t happen. It was a false alarm. So instead of counting minutes, we rinsed mud from clothes. We counted taro patches. We surfed. We drank beer. We sailed with friends, we played in the sea and the sun all day, daring the world to come get us. We toasted our lives together, our life in Hawaii.
In the short version, I would tell you we survived.
It’s a surreal feeling to know you have 10-15 minutes left to live. In those minutes, I wasn’t thinking about the number on the scale, what was in my bank account, the clothes I wish I had, or who read my blog. You know, the trivial things that sometimes take up space in my head day-to-day.
In that small chunk of time, all I cared about was telling people how much I loved them.
On the other side of the mistake missile messaging, my perspective has changed so much. I find myself caring less about stuff that doesn't matter in the big picture. I have called my parents more, spent less time mindlessly scrolling social media, and made it a point to be totally in tune with my husband and have meaningful conversations over dinner instead of watching T.V.
If there was any good to come out of this awful scenario, it’s that I feel like my priorities are definitely in check.
I learned two big things from the missile scare.
First, I was not prepared, and it seemed as if no one else on this island was prepared either. No one ever really thought we’d receive a missile alert! Now people are getting prepared. We’ve learned our lesson.
I also learned that everyone reacts differently in a crisis situation. What I learned about myself was that when put in a crisis situation I am a fighter and I was much calmer than I’d ever imagined I would be. Kwame, my husband wasn’t around. He was out surfing and missed the whole thing. It was just me and the girls and so I guess that left me in charge. I used my 15 minutes to gather a few supplies and get my kids to the safest possible area within reach. I was focused. I didn’t call anyone during those 15 minutes. I went to the neighbors to see what their game plan was and followed them. I sent Kwame a few brief text messages just letting him know our whereabouts and about the alert so that in case he was able to get to his phone maybe he could seek shelter.
It wasn’t until after we learned that this was a false alarm and I started answering calls from family that I began to get upset. I was really upset later in the day and cried on and off as I thought about the morning’s events.
A ballistic missile threat isn’t the ideal way to wake up, but it certainly makes you feel the most alive you’ve ever felt. Your brain shifts into clear focus on what you need to do to survive and who matters most in your life. Because of human error, I went through a fast and furious course on learning under pressure. There were so many shouldas, couldas, and wouldas that my husband Patton and I went through after the scare, but the overarching theme for us is that second chances are a gift….and so is grace.
The man who hit the wrong button sent people into an incredible panic. People drove at speeds over 90 miles per hour to get to their families. Parents hid their children in manholes in hopes of protecting them. All across the islands, people called their loved ones to say goodbye. The man who hit the wrong button created mass chaos and has received death threats because of it. His life and ours will never be the same.
The man who hit the wrong button also created action. Families held meetings after the false alarm to plan and better prepare for the real thing. The man who hit the wrong button helped us deepen our relationships and mend broken ones. Strangers were kinder to one another. Faith was strengthened. Lives were LIVED to their fullest that day. The man who hit the wrong button brought to life the quote, “Your life is made of two dates and a dash. Make the most of the dash.”
Second chances aren’t always pretty. They come with deep wounds, fears, and memories we’d like to forget. But in the midst of absolute struggle, a strength and purpose arises. It comes with a renewed awareness that tomorrow is never guaranteed. We are human. We make incredibly huge mistakes, and we will all deal with them when we meet our maker. As for me, 1/13/2018 is a part of my dash and I choose grace and gratitude for the way I woke up that day.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY KAIT HANSON