Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Partly Cloudy Night 42° Partly Cloudy
News >  Features

Tsunami brings life to nightmares

Cheryl-anne Millsap The Spokesman- Review

Like the rest of the world, I was caught off-guard when the tsunami swept over southern Asia, scarring lives as deeply as the landscape.

I have always been a little afraid of the water. I love to look at it, and when I know I’m safe, I enjoy being in it. But in the back of my mind there is always a tiny fear. Last summer, walking along the Oregon coast, I glanced at one of the tsunami warning signs that dot the shore. On my left was the vast expanse of Pacific Ocean. To my right was a steep cliff. It occurred to me that I wouldn’t have anywhere to go if I tried to outrun a giant wave.

I wondered if I would gain sudden superhuman strength, like the people who lift cars or bend metal when there is an emergency, and run like the wind. Could I pull myself up the overhang, hand over hand, reaching from one scrubby tree or bush to the next, or would I be thrown against it and splinter like driftwood?

I think I know now.

When my children were small, and the weight of keeping them protected and safe was the anchor that held me in place, I had nightmares about water.

In those dreams, I would lose a child to dark, swirling, pools. They would slip from my desperate grasp and disappear beneath the surface. I would wake crying, curled into a tight ball, my skin clammy with a cold sweat.

One nightmare haunts me still.

In it I was driving, with my young children in the car, through a storm; a pounding, relentless rain that caused the creek that ran beside the road to rise suddenly over its banks.

I felt the car move, caught in the flood or the slippery mud, drifting toward the rushing water. I was powerless.

The car came to rest tipped a bit, half in the creek and half still on the shoulder of the road. Water was pooling around my feet as I tried, terrified, to get my babies out of their car seats.

Suddenly, a car pulled up behind me and my husband appeared. He waded into the swirling, rushing, water and pulled the car doors open so we could escape.

Then he stood there, holding a flashlight above his head in the way rescuers do, as the water crept slowly up to his waist, then his shoulders and finally over his head, until all that remained was the light. Finally that too was only a wavering beam that shone weakly through the torrent. And then it was gone.

I woke up sobbing. Even now, just thinking of it makes me whimper under my breath.

I told myself the dream meant nothing, but I spent the rest of the night huddled in a chair, wide awake.

In real life, just as it did in my nightmare, the water usually wins. The best we can do is to learn to swim – or pilot a craft – to keep moving across the surface so we won’t disappear.

I’ve scoured the internet, avoiding the images of bodies, looking for the vacation-gone-terribly-wrong videos and photos that documented the tsunami that rippled across the Indian Ocean.

In some, the water appears to move slowly, deceptively gentle. It is only the aftermath, the debris-strewn path that it leaves, that gives any clue to its power.

Other images captured the full fury of the waves rushing across the land.

In my dream there was a dark sky, earth-shaking thunder, jagged bolts of lighting flashing across the clouds and the sound of rain pelting the windshield to tell me there was danger.

There was no warning for the victims of the water in Thailand, India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. The sea just rose up to swallow what it could and carried the rest away to spit out, broken and battered.

This summer I will go back to a place that holds the same potential for disaster; a ribbon of land near an underwater geologic time-bomb.

I will sit on the sand and read, or take long solitary walks along the shore sandwiched between the ocean and the steep slope.

I will look at the horizon and marvel at the depth, and breadth, and the power beneath the swells. And, deep inside, I’ll acknowledge my fear.

What has changed is that, now, others who used to be so cavalier about the sea, who were so sure of their ability to ride the waves, to rise above the flood, will feel a flicker of apprehension as well.

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox

Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.