I stood with my daughter in the doorway of her 10th floor apartment in the District of Columbia, holding hands, staring deep into each others' eyes, murmuring a Hail Mary. We’d been in the process of moving her into her first studio. Only seconds earlier, I had been doing what mothers do: cleaning her kitchen, organizing her food, offering a litany of detailed instructions on how to keep a studio apartment neat, cozy and acceptably hygienic. Only seconds earlier, she had been doing what patient, loving daughters do: nodding and noting my remarks as if she did not already know these things and more. We were deep into the ritual and its comforts when her building quite abruptly lurched and swayed like a tipsy drinker trying to step off the curb.
Being in the District of Columbia, our minds immediately suspected some explosive event but, being from San Francisco, our bodies knew from prior experience that an earthquake had interrupted our work. My passionate child became livid at the geographically misplaced act of nature and sneered, “What the heck!?!?! This is D.C. for heaven’s sake.”
The building stilled, as if it’d plopped onto the curb to rest from exertion. We moved quickly from the kitchen to the hall doorway, to tuck ourselves as we’d been taught repeatedly on the shaky West Coast into the protection of the building’s sturdier framed areas. Of course, we’d never done this together on the 10th floor of a building we both knew was not built to the earthquake standards taken for granted in the tremor prone territory we knew. With the door ajar, our backs against the door jam, we held hands as the building rose and tried again to move forward.
This time, the building was no longer tipsy, but slovenly drunk. It shook as it stumbled and wobbled, creating the sort of clambering noise that warns of an ill-mannered or even dangerous intruder. I watched as Carol’s bicycle flopped about on a wall rack several feet away. The floors and walls, solid only moments before, now groaned with pained, jerking movement.
We steadied ourselves by holding hands and, as if it might help, we took short breaths but the wave continued. I began a Hail Mary and looked deep into my precious daughter’s eyes thinking “this might hurt a bit” as my heart filled with longing to protect her from the possible pain. I knew that, if the floor began to break up before we made it to the stairwell, we could be caught in a falling jumble of debris with surely fatal but potentially slow injuries in store. “Lord,” I mumbled fervently, “if this is it, bring us home quickly I beg.” And I clutched my daughter’s hand determined that, no matter what, we would finish this upheaval together.
The only thing I hate worse than pain is my children’s pain. Simple vaccinations at the doctor’s office often caused me considerable stress not because I don’t like shots, but because the needle was going into my child’s arm. I often idiotically longed to take the shot for them, to spare myself the greater pain of watching them hurt and afraid. But I knew my instinct was misplaced – that their shots, like so much of the pain and displeasure they would encounter in life – would contribute to their better health and the well-being of the wider community. My job, I came to understand, was to help put their pain in perspective, to provide kindness, love and support even in the darkest moments.
Over time, I have gotten better at being kind, loving and supportive. This, after all, is what God’s given me as I traversed deeply painful events in my own life. As Christ and his Mother and the Saints all demonstrate for us, a good and worthy life is not a pain free life. In fact, so often it is our pain that turns our face and heart toward God in longing.
As I stood with my daughter in the 10th floor doorway of a quaking building, I was acutely aware that just that quickly our time on this trembling earth can end and our passage to the Lord begin. I was humbled to be in that moment with my beautiful daughter, to hover together in acute, pressing uncertainty what the next moments would bring – longing for normality but, more, wanting to make a final journey with the same love and support that God unsparingly showers upon me.
As the second wave of the historic East Coast earthquake subsided, my daughter and I broke from the doorway for the stairwell intent on making our way out of a building which surely could not have taken many more waves of jarring and jolting. But, like a drunk passing peaceably into a deep sleep, the building came to rest.
Standing on the sidewalk, several minutes into normalcy, my eyes teared watching my daughter gab excitedly with random strangers suddenly friendly in their relief. The grip of uncertainty had loosened, but not without leaving a profound sense of fragility and knowledge that it hurts a bit on the way to the kingdom.