Please excuse me. I've taken some time off for myself and have been absent. I've given myself some time to recover and relax. I needed this. Feeling more like myself again, I now have more to say. More than ever, perhaps. It's with this in mind that I say today's post will be long. It's also important.
May 8th marked the anniversary of the 41st birthday of a woman I never met. It also marked the 5th anniversary, if I can call it that, of her murder. I worked with her family for years as their interpreter as they struggled through the US justice system that found and imprisoned the man that murdered their daughter, niece, cousin and friend. To date, it is still one of the most difficult assignments I've ever worked on. To date, the family still grieves.
As May 8th neared I thought more and more about this woman. What would she be like if she were still alive? What would she be doing? All this was brought full circle as I stood and listened to a mother talk about the work she needed done on her house.
This elderly woman was at home drying her hair when her husband called out to her that he saw black water in front of their home. By then the earthquake had shaken their home but as they were both safe, she went on with her day. They live far enough inland, several kilometers from the Port of Ofunato, that they were among the many who never expected a tsunami to ever come to their neighborhood, street, yard and home.
She ran into the room where her husband lay. He no longer has use of his legs so she propped him up the best she could and ran out of the house, away from the street towards the back of their home thinking she would drive them to safety. Outside she saw two neighbors and they helped her get her husband into the car. They too jumped in. Then they saw the second wave. Their homes are 20 meters away from the river bank. The river runs a good 10 plus meters below the bank. The tsunami pushed up the river several kilometers inland and overflowed down the bank and onto the street. The four people in the car now had two waves to escape from. One wave was in front of their home, and the overflow from the other direction. The two waves collided and all four were soon engulfed in water as they sat in the car. Their car wouldn't start. Other cars nearby without occupants began to float away. The weight of the four in the elder couple's car kept their car in place. They sat there as the car filled with water.
After 30 minutes or so, the waves started to recede. Once the water went down from the floorboard, the elderly woman (whom I keep calling "mother") started the car and drove to high ground. I listen to this thinking how lucky she, her husband and her two neighbors are. Then came the real story.
"We just spent two million yen on this house," she says.
"Oh, really? What did you have done?" I ask, thinking the question is innocent enough to be safe as well as respectfully curious.
"We used to have two stories," mother replies. My gut tells me I have just made a huge error in asking for details.
"We had a fire last August," she continues and chokes up. I curse to myself.
"Our daughter committed suicide and the upstairs caught fire." She's openly crying now. I am silently verbally berating myself every way I know how.
"I'm so sorry," I whisper.
"We spent another one million yen on her funeral." Of course they did.
"I was so looking forward to spring," she says. Of course she was. Her daughter's suicide, the long winter and the spring that follows. Who woulnd't look forward to new buds and rebirth?
"And then this. I just don't believe it." She cries again.
It's at this point I'm reminded of two things simultaneously. One is a Japanese saying "What happens twice, happens three time." I equate it to the saying I've heard in the US, "things happen in threes." There's also another Japanese saying which literally translated goes "the third time makes you honest" which I equate to "third time's a charm."
I'm standing in front of mother looking for the right words. The idea of good and bad happening in threes is tempting to say but one misstep and I could end up implying there's another hardship yet to come.
While I'm trying to think of what to say I'm reminded of something this woman's father (the one who was murdered) said to me once. One night when he had enjoyed his beer, he told me his life story. The short version is, it wasn't pretty. That life dealt him a continual series of blows and nasty surprises is simply insulting in how it understates the facts. As I listen to mother tell me about her life over the past 50 days, moving from shelter to shelter, cleaning things on her own, her aching back, I hear the voice of the father who buried his daughter over and over in my head.
"My ancestors must have done something pretty awful for me to have this kind of a life," he said to me. That night as he drank he repeated those words over and over, sometimes blaming his ancestors, sometimes hoping his life's difficulties were atonement enough. Does mother, this woman here telling me about the two waves colliding into her car, who also buried her daughter, who rebuilt her home only to have it damaged again seven months later, does she believe she's atoning for her ancestors' sins, too?
This day, hearing this story from mother, I cried with her. Enough with keeping up my professional facade. I cried for mother standing in front of me. I cried for her daughter who took her own life. I cried for the woman I never met who was murdered. I cried for her father. I cried for those who are trapped by karma. I cried over stupid Japanese and English sayings about the "power of three", none of which were helpful in alleviating mother's pain. I cried for the fact I simply can no longer seem to find the right words when they are most needed. I can only sincerely hope my tears with mother that day were enough to convey how very, very, very sorry I am for what she had to endure.