Memorable Monday 3

Yesterday, I spent the afternoon sitting in the cancer ward waiting to hear my name called. I have been experiencing some pain in my right breast and felt some places that didn’t seem right to me. So I went to the hospital to see my OBGYN. I waited and waited and was finally seen. The midwife first examined me and I told her of my family history. Since my mother died of breast cancer at the age of 44, she felt that the Dr. should also come in. I explained that I was still breastfeeding and wasn’t sure if it was related to that or not.

The Dr. was very thorough and checked both of my breasts. But then said that he would like to send me over to the oncologist for a better examination. They asked if I had ever had a mammogram and I said that I hadn’t, so they called over to the oncology ward and gave an introduction for me.

I felt pretty confident that it wasn’t cancer but still, having your doctor tell you to go to the cancer ward is a bit disconcerting. I walked down the hall and registered with the oncology department with the help of a very kind nurse. She had no idea whether I had cancer or not but she saw me as a mother with a young child and treated me with the utmost kindness.

I felt my heart beating a little faster than usual and I worried as Violet heard the doctors talking about where I was going. She understands more Japanese than I do. And she heard them telling me that i was going to be checked by a different doctor, she wanted to know exactly where we were going. She knows about cancer because of all the family members we have lost to this disease. I didn’t want to lie to her but also didn’t want to cause her undo worry. So I just told her we were going to get my milky looked at by another doctor who would look at a picture of the inside of it. She was satisfied with that.

We sat there waiting and I couldn’t help but notice how the lights were darker in this ward than in the OBGYN ward. It was quiet and most of the patients that we saw waiting there were hunched over and seemed to be in a certain amount of pain. Some were young and some were obviously in there late 70’s or 80’s. The ones who made eye contact with me gave me sympathetic smiles and I could tell they were wondering how I was and what I was there for. Violet’s smiles and energy definitely seemed to lift their spirits too.

I figured that I was going to get a mammogram but was hoping they would let me have an ultrasound instead as I was concerned about radiating my breast milk. Just in case though. I told Violet that she might not be able to drink milkies after my exam for a bit. She looked worried and said she would like to drink some before we went in. A woman in her mid 70’s walked up and said “おいしそう“, which means, looks delicious. She went on to say how rare it was to see a girl her age drinking breastmilk and how wonderful it was. I felt encouraged and continued to smile down and my sweet girl.

Sitting there, waiting with her in the cancer wing filled me with so many memories. My mother was everything to me. She was my first friend, she was my confidant she was my hero. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, I wasn’t there. I was away at college and had to hear about it over the phone. How I wish I could’ve been sitting there holding her hand instead.

I was able to sit with her through some of her treatments and drove her to some of her appointments during spring and summer vacations. We would sit there holding hands and trying to make each other smile or laugh. I was scared and she was scared. She was brave, she was selfless and showed me how to endure the impossible. Losing her was the hardest thing I have ever experienced and I pray that Violet is spared from watching me die from a disease that ravishes the body.

We sat and waited, Violet holding me and smiling at everyone around her. Finally my name was called and I had my first exam by an oncologist. I told him I was breastfeeding and he immediately offered to do an ultrasound instead of a mammogram. I didn’t even have to ask. He checked both of my breasts and and looked as thoroughly as possible. I felt very well taken care of and was thrilled to hear him say that there was absolutely nothing to worry about. Violet understood the results at the same time as I did and immediately came over and rubbed my chest and said, “Milkies! You are ok!!!” And then she patted my hand and said, “I knew you would be ok, mama! I love you!”

Today, I am thankful for the excellent health care I have experienced here in Japan. Today, I am thankful for my healthy breasts. Today, I am thankful for today!

This PSA is so powerful and never fails to make me cry. I ask you all to remember to “touch yourself”. For your self, for your husband, for your children, for your friends. Set a date and check yourself every month. It’s easy, it’s free and it’s painless.

 

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The Day The Earth Would Not Stand Still

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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.

The morning after. Violet made a friend in the shelter and they had entertained the elderly people by running around and giggling.

The morning after. Violet made a friend in the shelter and they had entertained the elderly people by running around and giggling.

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.

Our home before the tsunami

Our home before the tsunami

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.

Violet and Daddy the evening of 3.11.11

Violet and Daddy the evening of 3.11.11

Waiting to go home

Waiting to go home

on the way to our house after the tsunami

on the way to our house after the tsunami

view from the bedroom window of or washed-out home

Gabe found one of our flash cards we used at school in the ruble

one of our English game cards we used at school in the debris

our house was one of the last ones struck by the wave. Everything piled up in front of our home and pushed through it.

Our house was one of the last ones inundated by the wave. Furniture, clothes, other neighbor’s books, toys, photos, paint, industrial chemicals, and all manner of debris was piled up in front of our home, broke through, swirled around and flowed-out.

the waves washed through our home

After the streets had been cleaned and cleared of debris two months later.

 

After the land was cleared

After the land was cleared

our community trash recepticleOur 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.

Our new home

We took this photo the first day we saw our temporary home. This is where we still live today.

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.

photoFor 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.

The Big Bad Cough and Mama’s Fears

Three weeks ago my sweet little girl started coughing. I had been coughing the week before that and so I assumed we both had caught the cold that was going around. Then on a Monday night she was trying to sleep and just couldn’t stop coughing. Her cough seemed to be choking her and she was waking herself up almost gagging on the sputum when she could finally cough it up.

I tried everything I could think of. I held her near the humidifier, had her sip cold water and stood in the steamy shower. The only thing that seemed to stop the coughing was to keep her awake. So at 3 am I decided to just let her stay awake. We played quietly in the dark and watched a little bit of Blue’s Clues. I was exhausted but too scared to let her sleep. I just held her close and let her nurse as much as she wanted and prayed that the cough would go away so she could get some rest.

At 5am I woke up my husband and said we needed to go the pediatrician as soon as it opened. We go to the hospital for pediatric visits here in Japan. So he dropped us off and luckily we were one of the first patients there. I looked around at all the other little sick children and worried that she would catch whatever it was they had too. She was so tired though that she just wanted to be held. I put her in her “pouch” (we use the Baby K’tan) and she snuggled up close to my chest and looked up at me with tired eyes and said “Mama I really want to sleep now. Is that ok?” I kissed the top of her head and told her to close her eyes and everything would be alright.Image My mind was racing with fear and panic. I had been going over her vaccination schedule and worried that I had missed something. She had not (has not) received her last DPT vaccine. I was terrified that she had pertussis. Although, I know it is not as dangerous for a preschooler as it is for an infant, I was still scared. I had made the mistake of reading too many stories about pertussis that ended fatally. My heart raced and my stomach was in knots.

She finally got about 45 minutes of uninterrupted sleep snuggled up next to my breast and I closed my eyes as we waited to be seen. The doctor called us in and she tried to listen to Violet’s chest without waking her but Violet stirred and started to scream terribly. She listened to the front and the back and said her left lung sounded a little weak. So she asked us to go across the hall for blood work and a chest x-ray. We had been through this last October and it was so traumatic for Violet. I was dreading it but I knew we needed to figure out what was going on.

We got to the blood lab and she was shaking and crying uncontrollably in my arms. The nurse held her arm out and Violet clung to my chest. I try so hard to be brave when these things happen but I was sleep deprived too and scared as well. Silent tears started to stream down my cheeks. I just whispered in her ear that I loved her and asked her to please not look at the needle but to look at me. She looked into my eyes and cried out in fear as the needle pierced her soft, milky skin.

When it was over she was trembling and kept trying to tell me she wanted to be brave. I told her she was brave because she did it. My husband and I are always trying to tell her that feeling her feelings is o.k. I wanted to express to her that being brave doesn’t always mean that you don’t cry. Even brave people cry sometimes. So she smiled through her tears and exclaimed “I’m brave, mama! I’m brave!” We both half laughed, half cried. Then we walked down the hall a little further to have her x-ray done.

She had just had an x-ray in October and knew that it wasn’t going to hurt but she still began to panic. I am still learning how to handle parenting in our gentle style when something has to be done. I don’t mean that I get angry when she cries or even impatient in a situation like this. What I mean is I struggle with getting the other people to wait and understand how she is feeling. In a medical office (in the US or here in Japan) the nurses and doctors often just want and need to get a procedure or test done. They see crying, fearful children every single day and I guess sometimes they get numb to it. I have often felt pushed aside or felt that my daughters feelings were not validated in situations like these.

When she was 2 years old and receiving a vaccine, somehow I was pushed out of the office and had the door shut in my face. I had cried during her 9 month well baby check up because I felt they were being too rough with her at that clinic and was branded weak by an overpowering nurse. So for some reason on this day she decided I just needed to leave the room. I have seen other parents leave their baby/toddler with the nurse too. I don’t know if I have ever seen this at the doctor back home. I am fairly certain that I haven’t.

Violet was crying and I was struggling to keep her still for the vaccine. So the nurse grabbed her from my lap and forced me out of the door. It happened so fast and took my breath away so quickly that I didn’t have a chance to stop it from happening. The door was closed in my face and I was left there on the other side listening to my daughters terrified screams, screaming for mama. I stood up against the door calling out her name. Other parents stared at me but I didn’t care. I cried and cried out her name. When the door was finally opened I gave the nurse the angriest look I could muster up through my tears. I cradled my sweet girl and promised her that I would never let that happen again. I still have nightmares and suffer from guilt that I wasn’t more assertive. I have learned from that experience though and I have never again let a nurse or doctor take her from my arms.

Back to the most recent experience. When we were trying to get her x-ray taken I couldn’t get Violet to hold still and stand in front of the x-ray machine. She wanted me to hold her. Of course I couldn’t hold her during the x-ray. So I stood beside her trying to hold her in place. Two male technicians were in the room and they ended up grabbing her arms and holding her arms out to either side. One of them grabbed directly on to where she had just been poked with a needle for her blood work. I wanted them to wait and to let her calm down first. But again, it happened fast. And they had a remote that they could control the x-ray machine with. So all of this only lasted 10 seconds max. Still I felt like I had failed to let her work through her feelings and come to do it on her own. Maybe she never would have. I am not sure. How do other gentle parents handle situations like this?

I feel that my lack of ability to speak proper Japanese often impedes my ability to parent the way I want to in public places such as this. We left radiology and made our way back to the pediatric ward to wait for the results. She was too shaken up to fall back asleep and just nursed through her tears until she finally calmed her breathing once more. Forty-five minutes later we were called in to get the results. The doctor showed us the x-ray and pointed out the little white lines in her lungs that showed she had an infection.

Mycoplasma. Again. She just had mycoplasma in October! How could this be. Violet never had a fever this time around and so I didn’t know her cough was anything serious. The cough was much worse this time around though. Much more violent. We were given a 3 day dose of zithromax, an expectorant and bronchial dilating patches that go on her back. I was relieved that the diagnosis wasn’t more serious, in my mind I was fearing the worst. Pertussis or TB. We went home and had a little lunch and I held her upright on the couch as she took a little rest.

We ended up going back to the hospital 3 times in 2 weeks. On the second trip we were given a nebulizer for free that we get to keep at home. It is small and portable. I was so thankful to have it and it brought me comfort that we had something to give her relief during the night. I held Violet in a cradle position but more upright, while sitting on the sofa every night for 2 weeks. She slept for about 5 hours max each night and I slept maybe 2 hours. It was a long and exhausting 2 weeks. But thankfully she is finally not coughing anymore. We are sleeping in our family bed again and my body is trying to recover from the lack of sleep.

It was so hard to watch her struggle with this cough. She had a decreased appetite for those 2 weeks as well. Thankfully, she could still nurse whenever she wanted and I was never worried about her getting dehydrated or going without nutrients. Full term breastfeeding has so many wonderful benefits. Even though she was sick we definitely enjoyed our time at home together. We snuggled, we drew, we read,we laughed, we danced, made muffins and she ran around the house naked (one of her favorite things to do).

Image

Image

The night before Violet was to return to nursery school I started having severe panic attacks about her getting sick again. I heard from a friend that TB was becoming more prevalent in Japan and we did not vaccinate her for that. My heart raced and I couldn’t catch my breath. My husband and I scoured the internet for information on TB in Japan and the BCG vaccine. My mind often gets the better of me and what ifs start haunting my mind. Ever since the Tsunami I find that my worry and panic are at a higher level than they used to be. When it concerns my daughter’s health and safety especially. Gabe and I finally arrived at the decision that she was safe to go to school but that we would definitely get her vaccinated when she was 100% well again.

My mind still plays tricks on me though and I go back and forth as to whether or not it is necessary. It is so hard to live and raise a child in a foreign country when you are not fluent in the language. I kick myself for not studying harder. I feel ashamed and feel that i have let her down. Also, I really dislike my tendencies to panic and worry. I am trying to rest in the peace of knowing that I cannot control everything. I can only do my best to make well informed decisions. Being a mom is hard work! It is the best job I have ever been granted but it is definitely not easy.

How do you deal with worries about illness for your children?

What are your favorite cough remedies?

What are your feelings toward vaccination?

Fear

Fear-a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined; the feeling or condition of being afraid.

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.
H. P. Lovecraft

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.
Marcus Aurelius

You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.
Eleanor Roosevelt

Before I became a mother I would not have thought of myself as a fearful person. I enjoyed all manners of thrilling things from haunted houses, scary movies to roller coasters. After becoming a mother I find myself being fearful of many many things. Being responsible for someone’s health and well being is a stressful albeit enjoyable, job! When Violet was a newborn, I felt nervous that she would stop breathing or be smothered by blankets. I worried if she was getting enough milk. I worried if she was too hot or too cold. After the first few weeks that all subsided and I felt comfortable with being responsible for her. Then when she started eating solids I started having fears again. I worried she would choke, even if it was just pureed food. I only gave her a teething biscuit one time because it broke off in her mouth and she started to choke on it. She was able to cough it up by herself. One of my uncles told me that when I feed her I should pray for peace. I started doing that and found a lot of comfort in it. I still get worried when she is eating though. She is 3 now and it is not uncommon to hear me say “That’s too big of a bite sweet heart. Spit it out please.” I don’t know why I have such a big fear of her choking. I have never known anyone in my family to choke to death or anything like that. I suppose it is fear of not being prepared for how to handle the situation.

When we experienced the 9.0 magnitude earthquake on March 11, 2011 I experienced a fear like I had never known before It was real it was raw it was barely manageable. When the ground was violently shaking below our feet and it was almost impossible to stand upright, I feared that the earth would tear in two beneath me. The thought actually crossed my mind that it was the end of the world. That may sound crazy, but it was such severe shaking. When the tsunami came, it was as if my nightmares were coming true. I suffered from anxiety for months and my hair started to fall out. Amazingly, my breasts never once ceased to produce enough milk for my then 17 month old daughter. The fear and anxiety seemed to fade as time went by and the aftershocks came less frequently. Then out of nowhere last week on Dec. 7th we had a 7.3 magnitude earthquake that shook the ground for about 1 minute. A minute seems short but when the ground is shaking it feels like an eternity. Thankfully, I was at home with my husband and Violet when it happened. After a few seconds of shaking I started to think that it was all happening again. I asked my daughter to roll into a ball on the floor between my legs and then I covered her with my body in a duck and cover position. My husband then covered over my body. Violet was very obedient and calm through the whole thing. They have frequent earthquake drills at her school and so she is used to the routine. My husband and I assumed there would be a tsunami warning due to the length and amount of shaking that occurred. It wasn’t long before the all too familiar sirens started to wail striking fear and panic in many residents. Fortunately, there was no severe damage done with this earthquake and the tsunami that did come was small and didn’t cause any damage either. I felt shaky all night. The tsunami warning was lifted after a couple of hours and life went back to “normal”. People who were on low ground evacuated and stayed at their assigned evacuation centers until around 8pm. We were lucky to have been at our home which is on top of a mountain. We turned on a movie and had family movie night. The sound of the movie blocked out the warning sirens. My heart felt like it was beating out of my chest all night. We all went to bed together at the same time that night. It felt safe that way. My nightmares returned that night. Running, screaming, separated from each other, kind of dreams. I woke myself up screaming and crying in my sleep several times that night.

Saturday and Sunday we stayed together and went about our normal routines. Monday, we had to return to work. When I woke up that morning I felt the panic rising in my chest. My heart felt like it was beating extremely fast and I felt like I couldn’t catch my breath. I worry about making Violet feel afraid when she sees me feeling afraid. She still mirrors my emotions. I don’t want her to think that repressing our feelings for the sake of others is a good thing. But I also don’t want to cause her undue worry and stress. Children are so much more resilient than we adults are. In the car as we drove to her school I started having a panic attack. I couldn’t hold back my tears and I was breathing very deeply and slowly. I always sit next to her in the back seat so she was very aware of what I was doing. She looked up at me and said “mommy are you crying?” I thought for a moment about what to answer. Finally I replied “I’m just feeling a little anxious today.” She reached out and grabbed my hand and patted it with the other. She said “Don’t worry mama, it will be ok.” Her gentle spirit helped me to focus. I decided to be honest about my feelings with her and I feel like it helped us both. Every day since then I have struggled with anxiety and fear. I feel like I had let myself believe that another massive earthquake and tsunami could not happen again. After Friday’s 7.3, I realized that that was a false assumption. The fact is, none of us can say whether or not another big one will happen in our lifetime. I am trying to realize that my fears are valid but am also trying to not live in fear. I am not afraid of dying. I am afraid of dying and leaving my loves behind. I fear losing my child or my husband and being left here to survive without them. I am trying each day to let go of my fears a little more. Deep breathing and focusing on love has helped me a great deal. Parenting is a joyful experience but it definitely leaves your heart more exposed than you ever imagined it could be.

Have you experienced anxiety in your life?

What are some of your fears that you carry around as a parent?

What do you do to manage those fears?

Thanks for reading!

Breastfeeding through a disaster

Violet and Daddy at our evacuation center on 3.11My husband and I and our daughter live in Ofunato, Japan. As you may or may not know, Ofunato was deeply affected by the earthquake and following tsunami on March 11, 2011. It was the most terrifying experience of our lives. Here is our story.

It was a normal day just like any other. Gabe, my husband, left for work and we parted with a kiss as usual, but a hurried one. Those with small children know how hectic mornings can be. Violet and I returned to our bed to have our morning nursing session and a quick snooze before leaving for a playgroup.

We went by bus and arrived back just in time for a nap. Violet fell asleep on the walk home and I laid her in our family bed. That day I decided not to nap with her because I wanted to put on a pot of beans for dinner. So I got up and cooked in the kitchen. Luckily my noisy cooking woke our sleeping angel from her nap earlier than usual. We were playing in the kitchen when the ground began to shake. We are used to earthquakes in Japan but still I picked up Violet and quickly turned off the gas stovetop. The shaking became more violent and showed no signs of relenting.

I panicked. I opened the front door and looked around. I tried to remain calm but my heart was pounding out of my chest. I decided that it was safer to go outside in case the house should collapse. We ran out without shoes or coats on and carefully made our way to a parking area of a nearby business. I saw many of my other neighbors gathered there. They held out their arms to me and Violet, whom had buried her head in my chest. She was screaming inconsolably and I began to cry as well.

The shaking was so violent that we all had trouble standing. The women formed a circle around me and Violet and surrounded us with their bent over bodies to protect us from any falling debris. Overhead an explosion occurred at the local power center. A collection of power line towers had been shaken so hard that it sparked and caused a fire. We could see the fire and hear the explosion as well. We all shouted out in fear and tucked our heads in as far as we could.

Finally after 5 minutes that seemed like hours, the shaking subsided. We released a communal sigh of relief and stood there in shock. Violet continued screaming and I was trying to comfort her in any way I could. She buried her head in my chest and reached for her milkies. The wind was blowing pretty strong and we didn’t have coats on or shoes. We were getting cold and I was ready to go back to my house.

To this day I don’t know why I thought it would be safe to return to my house. I should have known about the impending tsunami regardless as to whether or not I could understand the city wide announcement. I began to walk back to my house and just as I arrived at the front, a car drove up with a woman wearing a surgical mask driving it. I was in a state of shock and at first failed to recognize my friend of 8 years, Junko Mino. But that only lasted a second. I heard her voice and her words loud and clear. She said, “Stephanie, a very large Tsunami is coming. It probably won’t come up to your house but we should leave.”

I quickly went to my front door and grabbed shoes for Violet and myself and also thankfully, my diaper bag was by the door (though it only had 1 diaper in it). I am notorious for carrying a large bag which hardly ever closes because it is stuffed with so much stuff. I am one of those moms who always thinks well I should bring 2 extra sets of pants and at least 8 diapers. But on this day I had sized down. Only my wallet, one diaper, left over homemade baby food from lunch, a hat and my cell phone.

We made our way back to Junko’s car in probably less than a minute. I jumped in and we were on our way. She told me that she just happened to be driving by our neighborhood at the moment of the earthquake. I truly believe that she was there for a reason. An angel was sent to save us that day.

There are so many what-ifs that run through my mind on a daily basis. There are so many ways in which our story could have ended at that moment when the water left the ocean. But she was there and she saved us.

She asked me where I wanted to go and I said to please take us to Ofunato Hospital. That is one of the highest points in town and Gabe and I had discussed in the past that that would be our location of evacuation in case of a tsunami. I felt confident that he would find me there. I tried to call him on my cell phone but the lines were too busy. Finally I got through just before all of the cellphones in our area were knocked out completely. I got through and found out where he was, where he was going and told him where we were headed. He was only 15 minutes away ,at most, by car. But that did not account for all of the traffic or all of the people trying to get to safety.

Junko made a brief stop at her parents business to make sure they had fled to safety and then we were back on our way. I tried to reach her husband several times by cellphone but could never get through.

Finally we arrived at Ofunato Hospital and she drove away to be with her family. The aftershocks continued to come. I didn’t know where to go. Inside, the hospital was darker than usual. They were running on generators. The building was shaking but I figured it was safe to stay inside.

I waited and waited to meet my dear husband. As we waited I held my daughter close and did the only thing I knew would make her feel safe and calm her crying. I nursed her. I nursed her there in the middle of the foyer. They were setting up triage there and in the front walkway. I nursed her standing up in the middle of it all just trying to keep her and myself calm.

I met a former student of my husbands who was there with her 1 month old twin baby girls and also her mother. They were waiting to meet their husbands as well. The babies were sleeping peacefully. They tried to reassure me that Gabe was coming, that there was nothing that would keep him away from us. I waited and waited.

People started arriving with wet clothes and hair and it occurred to me that the wave had come. Someone else recognized me and asked me where Gabe was. I told them the last place I knew for sure he had been. The look on their face told me everything I didn’t want to hear. I began to cry.

The mother of the twins and her mother tried to console me and told me to be strong for my daughter. So I nursed her again, this time to calm myself down.

Another hour or so later I saw one of my neighbors running through the door. She ran up to me and said she had found Gabe and that he was there at the hospital. She told me to stay there and she would go get him.

Finally, I saw him. He was running through the door to us. I ran and Violet came off my breast and looked for her daddy. We embraced. It was the most beautiful embrace of my life. We were together again. He then told me that we lost everything. He had returned to the house to try and get our computer and hard drive but heard the water coming and so he ran up the hill away from the water and watched another house slam into ours and water rush over it. He said “It’s all gone.” I looked him straight in the eyes and said “I don’t care. I have you!”

We spent the night that night in the hospital gymnasium. Though it was March, the chill of winter was still in the air. They brought in blankets for us all to sleep under and on. We formed little groups that, though we didn’t realize right away, were clustered into neighborhoods.Our neighbors shared the snacks that they had brought and offered more blankets for our daughter.

The ground shook all night. The lights above us swayed. With every earthquake we considered evacuating the building until shaking became more normal than stillness. At that point we just huddled together and waited it out.

We had little food or water and no diapers. They were handing out adult diapers or feminine pads. I shoved pads into Violet’s diaper that was already soaked. She didn’t have any extra clothes so I had to use the wet diaper as a barrier between the pad and her only pair of pants.

The lights stayed on all night so it was hard to tell when the sun went down. Many people shared snack food with us and one person offered some baby food that they had. Another mother sitting with her 2 children and elderly parents looked over and offered a piece of raisin bread to Violet. She teared up as she handed it to me. She said her youngest was at nursery school that day and she was still waiting to be reunited with her. She gave us an extra blanket too. A few hours later we were blessed to watch that tearful and happy reunion.

In spite of all the food we were given Violet wouldn’t eat. She nursed though. She nursed all through the night. My husband went without food so that I could eat what little food we had to make milk.

We were asked to move to another location for the night but we heard from other refugees that the next place did not have any blankets left. So we stayed at the gym. My husband had an asthma attack and went to seek treatment in the hospital.

There were patients flown in from neighboring hospitals and nursing homes. Some of these patients had severe handicaps and were lying in stretchers. One man in particular shouted through the night. His voice sounded like a crying siren. To this day I can hear it when I think of that night. His voice was haunting and alone. I did not sleep and would not be able to for 42 hours. By midnight Violet had been awake for almost 12 hours. I knew she needed to sleep but was too afraid or nervous to do so.

I nursed her whenever and for however long she desired. It kept us both calm. It even seemed to make my husband calm just watching us do something so normal. Finally sometime late into the night, she slept. I lay there awake,cold and frightened.

At midnight someone from the city office came around recording the names of the people taking shelter there. I was thankful that he was someone I knew from my husband’s job. He knelt down beside me and gave a comforting smile as he looked down at my nursing Violet. I gave him our full names and address, though he knew our names, to follow with procedure. He smiled again and went on to the next person.

As I lay there nursing and holding our daughter on the cold hard floor and looking over at my husband finally able to sleep because he was given asthma medicine, I felt so blessed to be together when so many were still missing.

The lights stayed on and someone had a transistor radio running constantly to keep up with the news. We were expecting other waves. Someone came in and delivered a one page paper from the local newspaper. It had 2 photos of the damage and fires that were burning all over. It looked like the end of the world to me. I couldn’t believe the images before me were my town.

The news on the radio stopped and the DJ started playing classical music. It was very soothing. The last piece that was played before the broadcast ended for the night was “Brahmas Lullaby”. It sounded more beautiful to me than it ever had before. It was as if someone, some angel up above, was singing us all to sleep and we would all awake to find that this had all been a terrible nightmare.

The next morning we sat up and Violet nursed on and off. There was another little boy around her age there and he wanted to play with Violet. So the two of them ran around the gym and brought smiles to the faces of the elderly there.

It wasn’t long before people started trailing in looking for missing loved ones. some people were calm and just looked around and quietly left. Others walked around in a frenzy talking loudly to people asking frantically if anyone had seen their loved one. It was heartbreaking. Thankfully we did see a few joyful reunions.

Sometime late that morning a hospital staff member brought in bottled water and rice balls. Everyone was allowed one bottle of water and 1 rice ball. We gratefully took our portions and savored every bite. Everyone was very calm and orderly. No one rushed the box of food and water but instead waited to see who would finally go first and then gradually lined up one by one to receive their allotment. I was somewhat surprised to see everyone behaving so cordially and respectfully. But in a way, it seemed the natural way. We had been in Japan for so long that we new that typically Japanese people are always concerned about the group and people try to maintain order within that group.

The morning turned to afternoon and we were thankful to see that my husband’s bosses had come looking for us. We were greeted with hugs and smiles of relief. It was obvious that they had stayed at the office all night and that they didn’t sleep a wink.

My husband works in the city board of education which is located in city hall. I am certain that all the employees that night were working round the clock trying to organize relief efforts not to mention worrying about their own families and friends.

Our bosses informed us that all able people were being asked to move from the hospital gymnasium to the concert hall down the hill because injured people were being brought in from neighboring cities whose hospitals had been destroyed. So we went back to our spot in the gym and collected what little we had and joined the line up for the bus that was taking everyone down there. When we arrived it was sometime mid to late afternoon.

The building was opened in April of 2005 and as you can see from the picture above, it is made entirely of concrete. It is somewhat dark even when the lights are all on. On this day they were running as little as possible so it was more dark than usual.

We walked down to the bottom floor where they were having people stay. We searched around for a spot to call our own, not knowing how long we would be there. We found a little spot around a corner that was near a big glass window offering some light into the room.

There were no more blankets available. There were two small propane heaters not nearly large enough to heat a concrete space of that size. Everyone looked worried and unsure. I sat down on my husbands sports coat and started to nurse Violet. People smiled at us and commented how great it was that I was still nursing my toddler in such a time as this. I agreed that I was indeed thankful.

My husband went off to check on the food and water situation. There was slim to nothing available. The taps were running but at that time we weren’t sure if it was safe to drink the water. I looked at my husband and said “We have to get out of here.”

We didn’t have a car, we didn’t have any money and we couldn’t call anyone to come and get us. It was then that we decided to hitch to the nearby mountain town of Sumita where we had lived for 3 years before moving to Ofunato in 2005.

The woman who had rescued Violet and I from our house, Junko, and her husband, Mark and their boys live there. So we decided if we could get to Mark’s house we could contact our surrogate Japanese parents who lived in Tono (another mountain town about 1.5 hours inland from Ofunato). Gabe decided to walk around and see if he could find some cardboard and a marker to make a sign. I sat there on the cold floor nursing and rocking our daughter who kept asking repeatedly to go home or when we were going to go home.

A few moments later something amazing happened. Our friend Mark, whom we were trying to get to, rounded the corner searching every face looking for us. It took me a moment to realize it was him. He had grown his beard out and I was not really expecting to see him there. When I finally realized it was him, I broke the silence of the concrete room and shrieked out his name “MAAAAARK!!!!”. He looked over surprised and relieved to see us. He grabbed us tight and we sighed in relief. He gently asked if I knew where Gabe was and I told him he was there looking for things make a hitch hiking message to Sumita. He laughed and I felt a huge weight lift off my shoulders.

The whole room was staring at us. We quickly reverted back to our Japanese manners and used our quiet voices. He told us that he would take us back to his house and we could stay with them for a while till we figured out what to do next.

We drove away in his car watching our destroyed town fade away in the rear view mirror. As I right this I still struggle to believe how blessed we were to get out of the shelter so quickly when others had to stay for months and months.

Once we were there we took a nap in a bed and Violet and I finally slept. It was amazing. Power was out in all the neighboring towns so we ate and visited by candle light and warmed around the propane heater. We felt much safer and we were so thankful for our friends.

The next day Mark went out to find a spot where his phone would work so he could contact our families and let them know we were o.k. After someone posted on Facebook that we were alive our Japanese parents, the Yoshida’s, found out where we were and surprised us at Mark’s front door. They took us into their home and we stayed with them for 2 months.

The days and weeks moved by so slowly and we continued to have aftershocks up to 6 and 7 magnitudes. I was unable to sleep at night but was comforted by breastfeeding my daughter on our little mat throughout the night. Food was scarce for a while at the grocery stores but we never went without.

Once the mail service started again, the Yoshida’s family and friends started sending food and clothing for us. We were overwhelmed by the kindnesses we were shown by so many people from all over the world. Though I was suffering from a form of PTSD, amazingly my milk never dried up. My hair started falling out and my period returned 2 weeks after the disaster for the first time since Violet was born. My milk never stopped coming and my daughter never had to do without nourishment.

When my daughter was first born I never imagined that I would breastfeed as long as I have but I am so thankful that I did and still am. I never could have imagined that she would survive on my milk alone again at 17 months old. I never would have imagined the comfort breastfeeding brought me during the disaster. It gave our family a sense of normalcy amid the chaos. It stopped my heart from beating out of my chest with fear during the violent shaking of the aftershocks.

When I felt the world was crashing down all around me, I could hold our daughter in my arms and feel her relax and that calmed me like nothing else could. When I had no control over fixing the problems that surrounded me I felt confident that I could nourish my child and that she would not go hungry. Extended breastfeeding saved us. It saved me from slipping into deep depression and fear. It calmed me, it calmed my daughter and my husband who supported me through it all, It saved me.

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From day one Violet kept asking to go home. I had no idea how to tell her that we no longer had a home to go to. She was so brave and resilient through it all.

From day one Violet kept asking to go home. I had no idea how to tell her that we no longer had a home to go to. She was so brave and resilient through it all.