Three years have passed since the day the earth would not stand still. Three hundred-sixty-five suns have set, since the day the water left the ocean, destroying everything that stood in its path. Thirty-six full moons have brightened the night sky, since that dark night when we huddled on the floor of the hospital gymnasium, wondering if the ground would ever stop shaking.
How did this happen? How did the days creep by at such speed? Time has a funny way of doing that. It keeps going, even if you don’t want it to.
When I think back on that day, March 11, 2011, I am still filled with such raw emotion. I don’t often let myself sit in the memories of that day because if I do, my mind goes to a dark place from which it is hard to escape. The “what ifs” play over and over in my mind and if I’m not careful, I find myself mentally paralyzed by fear. Fear, that has taken me so long to manage in order to allow our daughter to go to school and my husband and I too work in different locations. For so long, I couldn’t stand the idea of physical separation from them. I needed to be near them. It was the only way I felt safe. Fear, that still visits me in my dreams but not nearly as often as it did. Fear, that returns with each earthquake. Fear, that I have yet to overcome but have learned to breathe through and release. It is that fear that keeps me from sitting with these memories for too long.
That day, I lived through an actual nightmare. You see, I suffered from reoccurring nightmares about the Thailand tsunami of 2004. I wasn’t there but it haunted me. They were very vivid dreams about my family being washed away in a wave. I would wake screaming and shaking and often crying out loud. Those dreams haunted me randomly but always at least a few times a month. They were exhausting.
I knew that living in Japan posed a risk for experiencing such a natural disaster but it wasn’t something I thought about on a daily basis. After Violet was born, I became more cautious and more nervous about what I would do in such a situation. When we had strong earthquakes, I usually wanted to evacuate to higher ground. I remember after one such earthquake, packing up the car and driving up to Rias Hall (which is on high ground) to wait it out. We were the only ones up there but my husband and I felt it was the right thing to do.
On March 11, 2011, I was home with Violet, who was one and a half years old. Thankfully, I had extended my maternity leave and had not returned to work. Gabe was at work across the bay. When the shaking started I ran over to Violet. I picked her up immediately. I stood frozen for a moment, wondering what to do. It became clear, very quickly, that being inside was far too dangerous. I threw open my front door and ran outside. The ground was shaking so violently that it was very hard to balance. I just focused on holding Violet close to me and covering her head. All that I could do was put one foot in front of the other. It might sound crazy, but the thought that it was the end of the world actually crossed my mind. I wondered if the whole earth was shaking or if it was just in Ofunato. I kept glancing down, thinking that at any moment the ground beneath my feet might split open and suck me in. It was terrifying.
I tried to remain as calm as possible but I felt that my heart was beating out of my chest. Violet of course felt my fear and began to cry. We huddled together with some elderly women from our neighborhood and they all tried to help me calm Violet and protect her. The electric wires in the near distance sparked loudly and a fire erupted in the sky. We all let out a communal shout as we looked up at the sound. Then we quickly huddled together again.
After several terrifying minutes the ground stopped shaking but my body did not. You know that feeling you get after you step off a boat or stop skating? Your legs feel like jelly and everything seems to be moving. That is what those first steps felt like after the earthquake subsided. I wanted to collapse. I wanted my husband. I wanted him to hold me and tell me it was just a dream. But it wasn’t and he wasn’t there. I’ll never understand why I started walking back to my house. I was obviously not in my right mind. I didn’t even think about a tsunami. The shock of the shaking left me feeling confused and clouded my judgment.
Thank God, my friend happened to be in the area during the earthquake and her clear thinking led her to drive by my house to check on us. She informed me of the impending tsunami and we quickly fled to higher ground.
My heart raced as I fumbled with my phone to try and call Gabe and then tried to call her husband as well. I was able to reach Gabe and tell him we were going to the hospital and he said that he would meet us there. We waited and waited as the walls shook around us and the lights above us swayed like a ship on rough waters. Soon people started to arrive with wet hair and wet clothes. It was then that I knew the wave had come. I felt my heart sink wondering if my husband had made it to safety. The hours moved by so slowly that it was as if time had frozen. Everything around me seemed to be moving in slow motion but inside, my heart raced.
Gabe did arrive that day. He came back to us. He ran for his life to live another day with us. So many husbands and fathers did not arrive that day. So many mothers, wives, sisters, brothers, daughters, sons and friends were not able to embrace the ones they loved that day. Some families waited and worried for days or weeks even, to embrace again, others waited and still wait to this day to be reunited with their loved ones, but theirs will be a reunion in the next life.
Our lives will never be the same again. Our hearts will always grieve for the ones we lost that day. For the lives we lived in the days and years before the waves destroyed our worlds. We grieve for the memories, both past and those that could have been, that it robbed so many of us of.
Three years later, life has found a new normal for many of us. We get up and we go to work. We play with our children and we visit with friends. But for so many, life is like living a daily nightmare. The mother whose arms will remain empty, the husband whose heart tortures him by continuing to beat rather than let him go and join his beloved. The daughter who wakes without a family and knows she is on her own now. The sister who lives without her truest friend and the bride-to-be whose wedding will never come…. For these people, life has continued to move on while their hearts remain in that day. We grieve with them and our hearts long to take away their pain.
For so many, guilt continues to plague their hearts, mine included. When I think about how quickly we were rescued from the shelter, I feel both incredibly thankful and unbelievable guilty. The fact that I had food and water and place to sleep while so many families, for months, did not, still breaks my heart. When I look at a picture that was recovered from our home after the tsunami I feel so grateful to have that memory back on my wall but then I immediately feel guilty for feeling that joy when so many of my friends have lost all their pictures and memorabilia that they carefully kept for generations. It is easy to give in to the guilt. The guilt of experiencing joy, the guilt of feeling depressed when so many have lost so much more.
For those of us in temporary housing, life has settled and we are feeling a new sense of community again. I will say that for the elderly in particular this is especially important. In Japan, your community is your family. People take care of one another. People still come out on the streets daily to talk with one another. After the tsunami, all of that was lost and for so many even if they still meet some of their former neighbors, it is difficult for them to communicate more than just a hello anymore. There is so much between them and yet a river of grief, envy, guilt or sorrow divides them. So, the new communities that we were all placed in are that much more important.
Three years later, there is talk of moving on and rebuilding. But for so many, the thought of starting over again is almost unbearable to think about. Even if the housing is small and cramped and cold in the winter and hot in the summer, it is home. It is a circle to belong to.
There is an elderly woman in my community who lost her family and her neighborhood. She is about 80 years old and she lives alone. She was able to make a connection with her new neighbor in temporary housing. They talked daily and walked outside daily. When her neighbor moved, it was so devastating for her. She came out every day looking for her friend. My neighbor had to remind her that she had moved. The pain and sorrow on her face as she remembered broke my heart. She couldn’t understand why she had left or where she had gone. My neighbor tried to comfort her and tell her that the rest of us were still here with her, that she was not alone. But she just sat there on the bench looking out at the parking lot, waiting for her friend to come back. For her and so many like her, the thought of leaving this new community is just too hard to think about.
Our family of three continues to live in temporary housing along with hundreds of other families. We still struggle with the painful memories and terrors of that day but together and with the amazing support of our family and friends both here and abroad, we are healing. We remind ourselves that it is ok to feel sad sometimes. It is important to feel our feelings and breathe through them. We watch our town and neighboring towns slowly coming back to life and it fills us with hope. We watch grieving friends begin to smile again and it fills us with love. We watch friends who lost their homes, rebuilding and starting a new life together again and it fills us with joy. We gather and we remember and it fills us with peace.
Today, I still have nightmares. I still wake up crying in my sleep. But thankfully, they don’t come as often as they first did. I still dream of my family being lost in the wave but I also dream about all the true stories I have heard of losses on March 11th. I wake and remember and try to forget. I snuggle in a little closer to my husband and daughter. I breathe them in and remind myself that it was only a dream. The real nightmare is over.
Life will never be the same again, but it will be life. And the life we are given this day and the next will be a blessing, a gift that I pray we can cherish. My prayer for us all is that we can find at least one thing to be thankful for each day. And that with each breath we are granted, we might breathe peace, love and light. Today is your day, live it as is it were your last. Breathe as if it was your first.
For further reading about our experiences on 3.11 read my post “Breastfeeding through a Disaster”
Our thoughts from 2012 on the first anniversary of the disaster are posted here.