2:30 p.m. The second Friday of the month, every month. The regular faculty meeting at the university where I work as an associate professor of English in rural Saitama, Japan, begins with Japanese-style timed precision.
I am the only foreign national among forty-seven faculty members. We assemble in the large formal conference room on the top floor of the university, take our routine table, pulling up to the ritualistic cup green tea placed at each seat. We rifle through the agenda and handouts while waiting at attention for the vice president to call the meeting to order.
Opening greetings, followed by sixteen minutes of what I used to know as order. In an instant, the most fixed routine in my life became the most broken day of my life.
2:46 p.m. A sway, a steady sway. The dean has the floor as the teachers begin to shift their focus from his words to eye one another, as if asking in a glance, “do you feel some…” Sway turns to jolt and momentum builds. No words are spoken, as I follow instinct and the lead of the others and dive under the desk.
Tea is spilling, scalding at first. I’m shaking. I’m wet, and shivering. I clutch the hand of the faculty member closest to me, (Mr.) Sakamoto Sensei, gripping out of the desperation for human contact. He has one leg trying to prop the door open behind us as protocol calls for securing an emergency exit.
The power goes out; my chills intensify. The only noises in the room are hushed yelps of shock, the sound of tea cups clattering, wall hangings crashing down and glass shattering around us. We’re thrusting back and forth under the tables, rocking as if we’re on board that ill-fated ship.
Seventeen years ago, I picked up from a high school post among the cornfields in central Ohio, and moved to a school in the center of the rice fields in Japan on a teaching exchange program between Ohio State and Saitama Prefecture. I have since felt hundreds of tremors over these years, including the Great Hanshin (Kobe) quake in 1995.
Typically, they play out a familiar script. A sway, or a light jolt, and remain steady-paced until they fade away. “Oh, huh. Earthquake,” was the extent of my usual reaction, until March 11, 2011.
2:47 PM. This is not the way I want to go. This cannot be the end. I am not going to die here. Not like this. Not today.
I am not with my family!
Is she panicked? Is she screaming? Who is holding her? I want her. I have an intense need to cocoon her in a tight, protective hug.
2:48 PM. The shaking is strengthening as my heart is weakening. My thoughts shift, “What was my last communication with Bob? How did we leave each other this morning?”
I’m reminded of the text he sent me from the train on his morning commute. He was sandwiched in with a rush hour, Tokyo bound crowd, unable to type, but managed to put a series of pictorial icons together which, in communication among couples, only I knew to read, “I’m glad I married you, and I love our family.” It was silly and sweet, and the pictures gave me a giggle. I opened it mid-morning and responded, “Best. Text. Ever,” which was intended to match his cheekiness because there was no actual text.
We were in three different places when the quake hit. My husband also teaches at a university, and he was on a research trip in Tokyo that day--over 30 miles from where I was--but fortunately in the opposite direction of the epicenter. Our six year old is in a Japanese kindergarten, three miles from where I work, and like any other “normal” day, I dropped her up and need to pick her up by car.
2:49 p.m. I have to get to her, hold her. I’m overcome with a feeling of power that nothing can stop me. I knew my husband was going to be OK. He isn't alone, meeting in a library with a member of his doctoral cohort, and I was confidant they’d know what to do. I also knew that he would be torn up inside not being able to contact us, which was unnerving. I was fraught for the three of us to be holding each other, to be rocking under cover in each other’s arms.
My mind doesn’t wander to a “bucket list.” I’ve been blessed by being surrounded by loving family and friends all my life, which has been full of fortune, adventure, and even touches of humor. I have no “but I didn’t get to…I still want to…” going through my mind. Only a basic need for the three of us to physically come together.
2:52 p.m. I voice it, crying, “I don’t want to die. Not now. Not like this.” My closest colleague and friend, taking cover under the table in front of me, calls back, “I’m scared to death too.” It’s his way of comforting me. He practices--even preaches--Zen and is the calmest person I know under any circumstance. This is his way of reassuring me that I wasn’t alone, and even though culturally I was the only one in the room, who was showing my emotion with inconsolable tears, they all feel the same, rather express emotions differently. Culture, country and language were not barriers. We all had to be family on that day.
2:55 p.m. Shaking subsides. We eye one another, as if slowly coming to, in semi-disbelief that it could be over. The vice president takes welcome command and releases us, instructing us to, “take a moment in our offices,” and we’ll reconvene in 10 minutes.
2:56 p.m. Many of us remain outside the conference room door. We’re in a semi-circle, not saying anything specific, but being near one another. Teachers are checking their cell phones. The power is still out, phone signals are gone, but Internet access one phone provides information on the quake: 9 magnitude, Miyagi Prefecture.”
2:57 p.m. Speechless, our faces drop. We’re stunned. Certainly we were the center of the trauma. The realization that the epicenter was approximately 150 miles north on the coast registered with us that there’s a truer disaster area, and tsunamis are inevitable.
2:59 p.m. I dash to my office, ignoring the collapsed wall-to-wall bookshelves, the desktop that rolled off my desk and into the window, the picture frames and coffee mugs smashed to the floor. I try to call my husband on my cell. No signal. I pick up my office phone to dial the kindergarten. No power, no phone line. I scurry back upstairs and find teachers coming together in awe of the rubble they found in their offices. We’re still shaken up, we are dominated by a feeling of fear, panic still heightened, and we are physically nauseated by the rocking feeling.
3:05 p.m. We reassemble in the fourth room floor, in the dark and cold, despite the dropping temperatures, the windows are wide open, serve as an emergency exits.
3:07 p.m. Another jolt. An aftershock? We shake, we’re back under the tables. Sirens, a fire alarm. It feels almost as strong as the first, but not as long. More sirens, followed by evacuation orders from a citywide public broadcast. I had been anxious to exit the building during the initial quake, but was morbidly reminded that we were on the top floor. If the university collapses, the higher we were the better.
3:10 p.m. The building evacuates. Students, faculty and staff are coming together in the campus courtyard. Hard hats are being distributed, preparedness and order is impressive, but my mission is to get to the parking lot and peel out to get my daughter. Timidly, I ask a colleague if I can get in a car. Knowing, he just nods and waves me off with empathetic concern.
I was the first out of the lot, and I don’t stall to question my judgment. Driving through torn roads, I see smoke coming from the surrounding farmhouses. “Surely the result of gas heaters jolting,” I said to myself. Local residents line the rural streets, staring, wandering and seeking out each other and answers.
Bumper-to-bumper under dangerous conditions, I listen to the broadcasts: “Stay close in line with other cars. Do not use the emergency break. Ride with your foot over, but not touching the gas pedal, and pull over to the side of the road, onto the grass or into the rice field, if an emergency or fire truck comes through.”
3:30 p.m. Still trying to get through to Bob; phone lines are down. I pull into the kindergarten lot. I pick my daughter up, embracing her like a solider home from war hugs his wife.
Ashley Hana, unlike Bob and me, was born in Japan and has had earthquake drills every other week since she started school. She followed protocol. Each six-year-old is assigned to a four-year-old in the way we used to have “buddy check” growing up. She was holding a little boy, “Gara Chan,” during the quake. It turns out that being in a big girl role made her a strong girl when she needed it most.
We edged along the slow-moving flow for the four-mile drive home. She was going over her what-to-do-during-a-disaster chant and wondering what state of chaos our house is in. I’m faking my Mama’s Just Fine Face, still reliving the hour, and feeling crippled by the communication line to our other unit member being out.
Cell phone lines still clogged, I send a text. I know it’s not going through, but hoping it’s in queue for when service resumes. Yes, it’s a series of icons, but not sent in the jovial mood Bob used to send me off on my day a chunk of hours earlier on that same day. I hurriedly use pictures to represent that I have Hana and we are home safe.
3:55 p.m. We make it inside. Hana Chan (she goes by her Japanese middle name here) puts on her Miffy bike helmet, and helps me assess the damage and clean up. It’s a healthy distraction for her: recovering and accounting for her Barbie and princess doll collection strewn about from the toppled dollhouse.
Announcements blare through our neighborhood. “Wear helmets. Change from slippers to shoes to protect yourself from broken glass and fallen items. If you see an elderly person in the streets, and please take him in.” The preparedness is comforting, but not my focus. I am overcome with the relief that we are together, but the unsettling feeling of not being able to hear Bob’s voice, to tell him that we are OK is insurmountable.
4:37 p.m. The power back on, I am able to use my land line. I jump for the phone, and dial the wife of the friend Bob is with. She lives in Tokyo, and informs me that the impact and damage was less than it was in Saitama, where we are. She’s able to exchange an email with her husband, Paul and Bob are together, and they are fine.
4:40 p.m. I turn on the TV and see footage for the first time. I’m sickened. I start resetting timers on heaters, the bath and toilet functions--everything electric in the house.
Hana’s hungry and asks about dinner. I go through the motions and start the dinner shift. I’m jumpy. There’s broken glass, I’m reluctant to use the gas range. I pour a bath once I detect the hot water has resumed.
5:30 p.m. After shocks continue, some stronger than others, as Hana calls them off one at a time, counting them off the way kids count off landmarks on road trips. We sit down to dinner. Saying Grace gives me pause, as every word of every prayer I’ve ever learned takes on a deeper meaning.
6:38 p.m. My cell phone rings for the first time. Bob’s voice on the other end. We’re quickly cut off due to the overloaded tower signal, but we had 17 seconds to know we we’re all in tact and grateful. There are no trains running at the time, as they were wandering the city streets of Tokyo with the millions of Tokyoites evacuated from office buildings.
7:53 p.m. Bob gets through again. He got a hot meal at a restaurant with Paul. They didn’t know what they were going to do from there. Paul lived quite a distance away within Tokyo, so they want to scout out a hotel together, although perhaps hundreds of thousands are hoping to do the same.
We go to bed assured that Bob was not alone. We hope he finds a room, or a way to shelter rather than waiting on a train station platform.
9:00 p.m. – 1:00 a.m. I lie awake while aftershocks shake the bed constantly. Next to me, Hana is sound asleep, still in her helmet. I stay in bed as it’s the most peace I can find by just being next to her warmth and smell, much the same way new parents lose sleep because they would rather marvel at their miracle’s slumber.
2:00 a.m. I get up and head downstairs to the couch. I turn on the TV, and I’m sucked into the public service announcements on screen, the reports, the updates, the footage and the predictions for the future. I hope for answers.
4:00 a.m. I check the Internet and I have a series of emails and Facebook messages, checking in on me. I’m comforted that loved ones are reaching out, but at the same time, I’m lonely and starving for adult conversation and physical contact.
4:30 a.m. I am able to see my parents via Skype, and I articulate my experience for the first time. She is my Mother. She asks if I want to come home. The idea of a car, train and airplane were too much to fathom, but wanting to hug her? Yes, I dream of that.
7:13 a.m. My cell phone rings, and I hear Bob’s voice. Trains still hadn’t resumed service, however, the subway was open to limited areas late last night. He and Paul rode as far as they could go, then walked an hour at 11:00 p.m. to reach Paul’s house. He was just coming to, from the same aftershock shaken night I had, having put Paul’s ten-year-old daughter out of her room.
We lose the connection again. Cell phone towers are clogged by everyone trying to reach their loved ones in the disaster stricken area.
3:00 p.m. Trains resume service, but only to the border of Tokyo and Saitama--not quite as far as we live. Trains beyond that are promised, but few, far between, and packed beyond belief. Bob boards a train around 5:00 p.m. and arranges for a friend to pick him up by car from a station he can reach. It’s a 90-minute drive.
5:30 p.m. He calls en route. Bob is with Tony, heading north on congested roads. There are no train options for all the eager commuters taking to the streets.
Knowing that he is on his way, and that the journey is coming to the end, I allow myself to respond to my fatigue. I’m exhausted from having ventured out into uncertainty, attempting to provide a healthy play venue for my child. We only found closures everywhere. Finally, Hana and I go through the established motions of a nightly routine.
9:00 p.m. Hana and I collapse into bed. I’m out solid for a good two hours, interrupted only once by feeling Bob enter the room. I’m half asleep, a needy, jet-lagged feel of sleep. Aftershocks continue through the night, but all three of us are in the same house, in the same bed, aware of each other’s physical presence, finally resting our hearts.
7:00 a.m. I am already downstairs, starting the day. I hear my family wake, stir and come down the stairs. Reunion. A new day, a new chapter. With beaming enthusiasm, Bob exclaims, “family hugs!” There are no cell phone icons to depict that joy, that relief, that reminder of our greatest gifts.
*A version of this blog post originally was published in The Anchora, the Delta Gamma magazine, Spring 2011.