Saturday, April 2, 2011

Home, Neighbors, Cake & What's Coming - tohoku earthquake part four

After faking his own death Huckleberry Finn hides in a tree outside a church window, looking in on all the townfolk crying at his funeral. 'I never had any idea so many people cared about old Huck Finn,' he says as the tears well in his own eyes.


Of all the scenes of all the movies, all the passages in all the books I've ever read, this was the one that came to mind as I stared at the screen of my laptop soon after returning home on Sunday.

The population of the shelter was about half what it had been the first night. In the morning air I felt a mix of restlessness and lethargy; the aftershocks had all but ceased, and though they'd probably keep the gym open for anyone wanting to stay, I knew it was time for us to go home - utilities or no.

First, however, we'd accept three rations of breakfast bread plus a sponge roll cake from the men in the windbreakers still working on all our behalf.

We weren't going to be able to fit all our futons and blankets and kids into the car at once without raising a few Child Welfare & Social Service eyebrows; I'd have to make two trips. The futons, much more relaxed and manageable than my sugared up son, would go first.

At home I found the electricity had come back. Five minutes later, with the old Model T laptop warmed up and my inbox overflowing with the thoughts and prayers and hopes and pleas of countless good people, I turned into Huck Finn in a tree.

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My older son got right back to playing with his cars and trains; he didn't seem to even notice that half the apartment was now scattered all over the floor. Our younger boy, who just a few days ago had taken his first real steps, clung to his mommy as if he knew something bad had happened and might again at any time. My wife flipped the TV on, watching the images of devastation we now knew all too well while listening to vague reports of problems at the nuclear power plants fifty miles to the southeast. I set about putting our apartment and our life (so it felt) back in order. 'Maybe we should leave the dishes and the rice cooker on the floor for now,' my wife said. 'The microwave the TV and the hot water maker too.' Grudgingly, I had to agree it felt safer that way.

Across the street Mrs. Shishido tidied up her yard, picking twigs off the grass and sweeping leaves from the front walk into the gutter. She wore a white mask over her nose and mouth, common in Japan to fend off the germs and allergens of the season. 'Konnichi-wa!' she said, turning from her chores as I walked over. She was never short of words, and I hoped today would be no exception.

'Everything all right?' I asked. 'Yes, we're okay, how is your family?' And for the next ten minutes I stuttered through a conversation like none I'd ever had, in any language.

Mrs. Shishido was surprised the power had already come back on (I'd had no idea what to expect). She also said the water would be back on by Friday, maybe Thursday, and oh by the way we can expect a huge aftershock sometime in the next three days. 'Really?' I said, hoping she was just screwing with me. 'Oh yes,' she answered, a look in her eyes that I would soon be familiar with though I would struggle to understand. In her eyes was a look of resignation, of acceptance of something bad we can not control or predict and so we might as well just get on with the business of daily existence.

As she told me about a place I could get water - someone with a well was allowing people to come fill up their jugs at their outdoor tap - stout and hearty Ms. Ito came shuffling over from next door. 'Strongest earthquake I've ever felt,' she said. 'Strongest by far.' Ms. Ito was eighty-something, and smiled like she had faced the worst the world could give her and had come out on top. With neighbors like this, being home was a tremendously comforting feeling.

'Kevin-san,' Mrs. Shishido said, pointing at my face and then hers. 'You should wear a mask. Protect yourself from the radiation.'

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It was long past dark when I headed out on my bicycle, eight or so plastic bottles of all sizes in my backpack. The people had put a sign at the edge of their driveway: 水. As I filled up two young men got out of their car and walked over, each with a large white bucket. Behind them came an older man carrying nothing. I asked him if he lived there; he didn't, then told us how there was a long line for water at a house fifty meters up the road. There were others too, he explained, offering their well water to anyone who needed it.

With neighbors like this...

On the way home I rode by the supermarket, normally open until 11pm. The hand-written sign on the door said they were selling bottled drinks and certain daily necessities and nothing else, and would be closing early every night for the forseeable future. All up and down the street, the restaurants and convenience stores and shoe and eyeglass and book shops were dark as vacant warehouses. The entrance to the gas station was roped off but there were no signs indicating a fuel shortage.

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'Happy Birthday!' My older son beamed as if he'd remembered it himself. My wife gave him a long, tight squeeze. ('Let go!' he squealed, squirming.)

'Sorry, I didn't get you a present,' I said as I dug out the pancake mix. (I want to help!' my son barked.) 'Oh it's no problem.' Which of course was true. Her smile told me, if I didn't already know, that she had everything she wanted right there among the dishes and appliances and face-down-on-the-floor picture frames.

Her 40th birthday would be memorable at the very least.

She'd spend the day playing with our boys and keeping an eye on the news, by now almost entirely devoted to the growing concern about the situation down along the southern Fukushima shore. I sorted our clothes, putting away anything that could pass for clean - then emptied two large plastic drawers of my clothes onto the floor and went out to fetch more substantial stores of water. I began the wonderful, consuming task of responding to the literally hundreds of messages and facebook posts from both before and after I was able to say 'Hi we're okay.' I stared at all the tea cups and glasses and semi-fancy souvenirs arranged safely on the throw rug underneath the kitchen table and decided - without knowing quite why - to pack everything away in boxes, as if we were about to move out.

We celebrated with home-made pizza that night (okay frozen pizza crusts from the supermarket topped with chopped vegetables and tuna from a can, baked in the microwave), and afterward sang Happy Birthday around a sponge roll cake decorated with leftover cookies and slices of a single kiwi fruit. This indeed is the stuff of memories.

Like a kids' movie miracle the water came back on, making the those two big drawers of water in the bathroom seem not so much a waste as a luxury. Still, I'd dump it into the washing machine rather than down the drain. Meanwhile my wife, showered and sporting fresh pajamas for the first time in days, thought her birthday just couldn't get any better.

She'd fall asleep right along with the boys, back home on our own tatami floor and loving it. I, on the other hand, would be up until the wee hours trying to make sense of the stream of conflicting reports on the seriousness of the nuclear reactor situation while texting back and forth with a couple of friends who had already packed their families and some clothes in their cars and begun heading west.