Faces of Death: The Nightmare Returns to Mexico City, Part 1

I don’t know if there’s ever a good or bad time to talk about death. I suspect there is room for both. But now, at least for me, the conversation seems more appropriate than ever.

Some weeks ago, on September 7th, a record-breaking 8.2 earthquake erupted off of the coast of Oaxaca, Mexico, crumbling buildings and devastating lives. The earth-moving wave reverberated deep into the country, sending a powerful shock 450 miles north into Mexico City — resurfacing fears of the traumatic 1985 earthquake that took some 10,000 human lives, and draped the nation in total economic and emotional despair.

I was at my apartment that same night, just before midnight on September 7th, in Mexico City, as the public alarm system began to wail of an impending seismic shake. I recognized the warning and knew how to react, thanks to a false alarm that was triggered the day before (September 6th), and to the helpful restaurant owner and staff who had advised me on what to do (I had just moved to Mexico one week prior and had no previous experience with an earthquake alarm. In fact, I was utterly impressed that such thing actually existed).

On this night — September 7th — at the trigger of the second alarm, my girlfriend and I quickly swept up our dogs and fled from the 6th floor of our apartment building and down to the park across the street, to where we didn’t have to risk any collapsing concrete. As we stood in the middle of the park, holding on to each other and waiting in terror for something to strike, the droning repetition of the siren, accompanied by a disconcerting robotic voice — ALERTA SÍSMICA, ALERTA SÍSMICA — assaulted our senses.

About 30 seconds of this assault and then darkness came: a ball of light exploded in the sky, the entire street fell dramatically black, and the world started to sway forcefully under our feet in a way that I had never, ever felt before. The back-and-forth movement was so forceful that I almost dropped down to my knees to save myself from falling hard. We managed, however, to stay upright.

Very fortunately, on this night, Mexico City escaped relatively unscathed. (The same, regrettably, cannot be said of our southern neighbors — specifically those in Oaxaca). Here, as we all stood out in the street in our pajamas, with our dogs and children in our arms and by our sides, shrouded in bedtime blankets and comforting hugs, waiting for the electricity to come back on, we knew that we had successfully eluded death’s grip.

We were safe. A sigh of relief and a swift return to sleep shortly followed.

12 days later, on September 19th — on the very 32nd anniversary of Mexico’s nightmarish 1985 earthquake — we weren’t so lucky. We were hit again, hard. This time the epicenter of the quake, as many had feared mere days before, struck just south of the city and wreaked a haunting and all-too-familiar havoc.

“THE NIGHTMARE RETURNS,” newspaper headlines screamed the following morning. Entire buildings collapsed. Hundreds dead. Countless still stuck under the wreckage, maybe even still alive. Families and friends drenched in tears.

These stories and images propagated outward and took root firmly in our collective imagination. The unsettling 32-year-old trauma of 1985 had returned to reignite a familiar fear in those old enough to remember, and to sow a new sense of dread in a young generation who had only known it by name. The illusion of safety and control we have over our lives had been ripped away and its ugly reality had been revealed. “VUELVE LA PESADILLA,” indeed.

A car is crushed after a building nearby partially collapsed. Colonia Roma, Mexico City. Photo by me (9/20/2017).

The earthquake alarm in Mexico City, which I had been so impressed by just a few weeks before, had completely failed this time around. The earthquake hit and then the alarm sound, compounding the terrifying shaking with a primally unnerving siren. Now, if anything, this alarm system, and any sound that even slightly resembles it, has become a real source of heart-racing terror verging on PTSD; a true adrenaline-inducing fear of death that has morphed into a nightmare more terrorizing than how I felt during or shortly after the actual earthquake.

And I am, by far, not alone in describing it as such. The first topic of conversation in the days and weeks following, seemingly among everyone in Mexico City, is “where were you during the earthquakes?” Each response is unique in its specifics — I was at school, I was on my lunch break, I was at my apartment, I was in the bathroom. But, as the unique circumstances may differ for each person, the experiential feeling and emotional aftermath is widely shared.

I work in a university and have come into contact with dozens and dozens of people following the temblors who repeat virtually the same refrain: I wasn’t hurt, nobody I know personally was hurt, but every single loud sound from a car alarm, ambulance siren, or even a minor rumble from a passing truck sends a wave of terror through my body and I start to panic as if it’s happening again. Although it is experienced, without doubt, to varying degrees, this reaction is unequivocally shared among scores of people, as if originating from some centralized collective nervous system.

Juan Ramón de la Fuente, distinguished psychiatrist at UNAM and former Mexican Secretary of Health, agrees, in a piece published in El Universal, that this personal experience has been transformed into a shared episode — one of shared emotions and shared behaviors. Although, he writes, that each person grapples with the traumatic episode and its aftermath in distinct ways, our feelings necessarily intermix with — and affect — one another.

In order to show how this post-earthquake panic and dread has manifested, which has undoubtedly transpired in similar ways for many others across the affected areas, I will relate some personal accounts of my reactions.

Sometimes the provocations are weak and evoke a brief — although powerful — response, while other times they come on a little too heavily.

Occurring on a daily basis, often multiple times per day, are the weaker and briefer episodes. In one instance, a day or two after the second earthquake, I was sitting at the kitchen table reading. My girlfriend, who was on the couch a few feet away, stopped what she was doing and stared at the big plastic jug of water we had on the ground. She, in a slightly unsettled tone, which was about to tip over into the realm of panic, asked me: “Ronnie, do you feel that? I just saw the water move.” My initial, internal, split-millisecond thought was, “Oh fuck, it’s happening again and we’re going to die.” I, at the time, didn’t feel anything and never ended up feeling any movement. My body, though, responded as if it were a real impending terror.

Another brief, weak moment: I’m walking down the street somewhere, and I start to feel everything wobbling, like the earth is moving under me. I stop for a second to see if it’s happening again, or if it’s just in my head. It never is moving, but in that moment, I’m almost positive that it is (I’ve heard this same confusion of earth shaking-while-walking sensation corroborated independently by a few different people, without me first telling them of my experiences). Tied to this, of course, is a fleeting moment of panic and fear of death.

To the reader who hasn’t experienced anything like this, those examples may sound extremely insignificant and trivial. However, as they happen regularly throughout the day, they begin to add up. Once I could go through a day without any true fear of catastrophe — lucky me. Now, this is a thought and feeling that often, at random, hangs over me.

Onward to the more serious reactions. As I mentioned above, which was also the subject of the linked op-ed , certain loud sounds provoke an even more extreme panic — where, for me, that type of reaction had never previously existed.

In the middle of one night — perhaps around 3am or 4am — while my girlfriend and I were fast asleep, we were jolted awake by that ominous earthquake siren. In a instant of extreme and terrified panic, we flew out of bed and tried to get downstairs as fast as we possibly could. I struggled to find my glasses in the dark, to no avail. I didn’t have any clothes on either, except for my boxers, and had absolutely no time to waste groping in the dark for something else to put on. Each second was vital for us to get outside safely. Taking too long could mean that we could get stuck in the stairwell as it strikes, and possibly fall severely down the steep steps or be crushed to death. My girlfriend started yelling at me — as one of the most sane and reasonable of responses — to grab one of the dogs and hurry the fuck out. I grabbed one of them, and quickly yanked the blanket off of the couch as I passed by and draped it over myself. We furiously ran, gripping the railing and practically leaping down the stairs. We got halfway down when suddenly…

We realized it wasn’t the earthquake siren. It was just a car alarm.

Embarrassed, we trudged back upstairs to the apartment. The following morning, in a move to try overcome the real terror we felt during the episode, we made fun of ourselves about how ridiculous we probably looked to anyone who might have seen us fleeing nearly naked to a car alarm.

But a few days before this happened, on the morning of September 23rd, we were awoken by another earthquake alarm. This one, though, was real. In a moment of similar panic, we did practically the same thing as I just described, but made it all the way down the stairs and outside, where we waited in terror with our neighbors. This time, very luckily, we felt nothing. The earthquake didn’t reach us.

However, not all was well. The mere sounding of the alarm provoked at least two heart attacks that killed two elderly women in the city. The hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions, of people who relived another moment of panic and terror that same morning, with its attendant emotional and physical consequences, is impossible to know.

Nearly a month has passed since the last earthquake. In the middle of writing this piece, I realized that much of my initial post-quake fear had dissipated. Unrelated to the event, we since moved into a new apartment, in a new neighborhood, on the second floor. This new environment didn’t carry the same negative associations, and we have since felt much more secure here. That comfortable illusion of safety and control, we might say, has been recalibrated and is now slowly settling back in.

Or so I initially thought.

A couple of nights ago we went to the movie theatre to see the new Blade Runner. About 30 minutes into the movie, our seats started to shake. At first, slightly. And then, vigorously. My gut sank deep. Oh fuck, it’s happening again. My girlfriend reached over and grabbed my hand hard. “Ronnie, did you feel that?”

I paused, unsure, but hoped with all my being that it wasn’t true. I waited before responding. Timidly, without even fully believing myself, “I think it’s just from another movie.”

She still gripped my hand. The shaking stopped.

Freud famously wrote, in his reflections on war and death (1915) following the beginning of World War I, that “It is indeed impossible to imagine our own deaths.” Our unconscious minds, so he thought, even in the face of others’ deaths, still persist in believing in our own immortality. For Freud, “whenever we attempt to [imagine our own deaths] we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators.”

Sigmund Freud (1915), original cover.

And here, as I reflect on my own death, I realize I’m still a spectator. It doesn’t seem quite real; although it happens to others, it doesn’t happen to me. I can sit here and think about it, write about it, and, in that act, overcome it.

It’s only in those moments of heart-stopping terror, of deep dread caused by those forces far more powerful than me (in this case, earthquakes), that I have come closer to closing the gap between being a spectator of death and becoming death’s lifeless subject.

All of this — this meditation on a traumatic event which transcends your living significance, and rips away that comfortable distance, that illusion of safety we tend to carry around with us — is a preamble of sorts to my coming writings on death. Particularly, I will be looking at how death is personified and portrayed across a few cinematic works originating from different parts of the world and ranging from the early 20th century to the 21st. Hopefully, through these reflections, I can learn something important about death, and feel more comfortable with life’s inevitable course.

Or perhaps not. Regardless, the act of wrestling with the subject might allow me to believe in the accommodating lie that I am able to conquer it.

Top photo: Begnt Ekerot as Death. A screenshot from The Seventh Seal (1957), by Ingmar Bergman.

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