On 11 March 2011, 2:46pm local time, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck the Tohoku region of Japan. Almost instantly, I received news of friends’ safety via Facebook, all reporting that they were shook up but things in Sendai were okay. Shortly after, the unimaginable happened. A 10 metre tsunami slammed into the port of Sendai and along the coast, swallowing everything in its way.
On that day, my dear friend Y was working at Sendai Airport and the only thing I could do was sit in shock waiting for more news on the situation. The media flooded the web with images of the disaster, but it was unclear what was really happening and what were just rumours. As I frantically clicked away looking for signs of hope, I saw a photo of Sendai Airport engulfed in water. I felt as if someone had punched me in the stomach and then kicked me in the chest while I was still down.
For those of you that know this story, Y’s story has a bittersweet ending. Several days later, which felt more like weeks, I finally heard from her. Daijyoubu desu. I’m okay, she reported via text. I was relieved to hear from her but seconds later another message arrived and I was saddened to hear that after the long and frightful journey home, she found that both of her parents were missing. My heart, having only just lifted, sunk again.
Thus, we began the frantic search for her parents. During the search, I started to hear back from other friends and extended family, including my godson and auntie. Feeling hopeful, I scoured the list of survivors day after day, looking for Y’s parents. After a fortnight of tirelessly searching for her parents, Y was finally reunited with them. She found her parents’ bodies in a neighbouring town. Their bodies lay only one body apart from each other at the makeshift morgue set up in Rifu’s Grande 21, which was utilised as a venue for the 2002 FIFA World Cup. She reckons that the body in between them was that of the taxi driver who tried to take them home, using a shorter route along the beach.
Three months after the disaster, I stood to face to face with Y. I squeezed her tight and tried desperately to fight back the tears. It was a miracle that she had survived. She had finally made it through the worst part, and I didn’t want to bring her back to the nightmare. We only had a few days together. During that time we cried and we laughed, and then we cried some more and we talked a lot. I think it was important for her to finally be able to talk openly about what had happened. And now I’m finally writing about it as it has taken a while to sort through my own emotions.
I think I share the same feelings as many others that have ties to Japan. For a long time I felt I had failed my dear friend. In a way I had survivor’s guilt. Of course I knew that there was nothing I could have done to stop what had happened or much that I could to help the survivors, at least not in the way I wanted to. But something continued to eat at me for months. Dealing with loss has never been my strong suit…
The thing is, Y never complained about what she went through during the days she was trapped inside Sendai Airport. She never once blamed anyone for the tough months that followed, the lack of running water and electricity, the shortage of food. There were no shows of extreme emotion when she found her parents, she simply did what had to be done and mourned quietly. I have so much respect and love for her. She continues to have sleepless nights and I know it will take time to truly heal from all of this, but I just wish I could make all the pain go away.
Just before Y’s parents were killed, she received a text from her father. It was blank as he never had time to complete his message. Her phone is pretty old and in need of an upgrade but for now, she wants to hold on to it for as long as she can. She told me that she knows one day people will forget and it’s that fear of losing the memory of what happened that makes her uneasy. I appreciate her fears, but just because the pain eventually fades with time it doesn’t mean that you forget.
Y’s story is not the only one that I have to tell. Many of my friends lost their homes and are doing their best to get through the recovery period. My godson’s father continues to send updates on the rebuilding of his hometown, Natori. There are so many stories that have yet to be told. I still get a lump in my throat when I think about the events of 11 March, 2011. However, I’ve decided that because life is so unexpected I must live each day to the fullest and hold myself accountable for all the things I want to accomplish before the end.