Two years ago, I was a new mom, sitting with my eight-week-old baby when my phone buzzed and told me that we were about to die. “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII,” it read. “SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
We lived on Ford Island in the center of Pearl Harbor. A place where the past tends to muddle the present. When you think of the Attack on Pearl Harbor, the brunt of the damage was done on Ford Island. This was where battleships were moored and planes sat parked neatly wingtip-to-wingtip on that December morning. Strafing marks from Japanese machine guns scar the concrete outside of my house and my regular morning run takes me past the desiccated wreckage of the USS Utah. You can’t forget history when you live in it.
In the midst of my shock wondering how it was that something was coming to imminently murder my son, husband and me, I thought about the people who lost their lives there decades ago. How they couldn’t have expected it. Then I thought, too, of the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki who were suddenly bombed and gone in an instant. Shadows on the sidewalk. I wondered how it would be to stop existing in a flash. Would I even know I was gone?
My husband, meanwhile, was pragmatic. When his phone sent the same alert, he said it couldn’t be real. He worked for Pacific Command and felt confident it had to be a false alarm. He also reasoned that if it were real, it would be on the news. So we turned on the TV.
There isn’t a weekend news broadcast in Hawaii. Or there wasn’t then. All we saw was college sports. Then the sports broke and we saw news of the same message of an inbound missile.
“I need to go into work,” my husband said.
He continued to tell me that it was fine, we were going to be ok. He started citing statistics and ballistic missile defense capabilities and how if a missile were going to strike it would have already landed, all while putting on his military uniform to head into a fortified base.
I sat with my baby, who was wearing pajamas designed to make him look like a dinosaur, and prayed.
After a minute I took him upstairs with me where my husband was finishing getting dressed.
“Can we go with you?” I asked.
My husband looked crestfallen.
No. He worked in a secure facility. Civilians weren’t allowed. If a missile was coming, it would head straight there. It was all going to be ok anyway. He was certain there was no missile coming, but thought he should go to work to lend a hand.
He left, and I was terrified we’d die apart.
Meanwhile some of my neighbors had gone to old WWII era concrete bunkers and tried to break in for shelter. Across the island people tried to shelter in storm drains and bath tubs. We all knew that if Hawaii was hit, nobody was safe. A few friends texted or called me to see if I knew anything. They thought maybe my husband had information. I relayed what he said, trying to sound calm. I was more scared than I’ve ever been before or since.
A few minutes after my husband left, I finally felt relief when Representative Tulsi Gabbard sent an all clear message on Twitter. Soon everyone was retweeting that message and others from government officials saying the warning was a false alert. My husband called too to say it was all ok and he was coming home. 38 minutes after the first alert was sent to my phone, a second one arrived to say that the first was in error. We could return to feeling safe. Or try to at least.
Today I look at my son and I can’t imagine a world without him in it. His precious blonde curls fall to his shoulders and he smiles the exact way I did as a child, where his upper lip comes to a devious point almost like the Grinch. The world would certainly be a darker place without his light. I’ve had a second son since then too. This baby is the epitome of fat and happy. A true Buddha baby, weighing over 20 pounds and only 5 months old. I’m so thankful that we’re all here and healthy. I’m amazed at how easily we couldn’t be.
Part of the reason the message was so terrifying was that it seemed so plausible. North Korea was launching test missiles. President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un were trading threats. As the closest American outpost to North Korea in the middle of the Pacific, it was totally believable that the rhetoric of these world leaders would cause our demise.
Two years have passed, and while I should feel safe and content, the missile threat broke the piece inside of me that believed nothing bad could really happen. I’m scared all the time now of the ways in which politics and our world leaders can coalesce into violence that can affect civilians. And as I watch the news with a closer eye, I realize that it happens every day.
There are bright spots in this world, like the perfect bounce of a toddler’s curls or a baby just learning to coo, but there is also darkness. And we must hold ourselves and the leaders we choose accountable.