The Big Earthquake meant a forty minute walk home for me and my son. I needed to get home to check on the rest of my family. Did my husband live? What about my precious son?
In the Tokyo streets, everything looked eerily normal (except that since the trains weren’t running there were so many people walking that the sidewalks were packed). Incredibly, every building was perfectly intact. The cars and buses passed like on any other day.
Relief. Euphoria. The delightful anti-climax of normalitude. Life as usual.
To have brushed with death, and survived was almost surreal! Everything was the same, as if nothing had happened. And yet, it had.
I saw the world with fresh eyes. The sky was blue, the clouds where white… it was perfectly banal and perfectly amazing all at once. I’d never taken note of how mind-blowing the usual was before. The sunlight was a deliciously warm sensation on my skin. How did the buildings withstand such a powerful tremor? I puzzled over what I’d once taken for granted. I was seeing the world again, but as though for the first time.
Life after almost death. It was like being on a mind-bending drug.
But. What about my husband and eldest son? Did they make it alright too?
In the last blocks from our apartment building, I stopped in front of a little restaurant. I wanted to find out the state of the rest of the city. The flickering neon illumination from a television lit the faces of the crowd gathered in the opening of the sliding doors. I needed some hint as to the well being of my husband and child. In simple Japanese, I asked one of the on-lookers about the news.
A huge wave had destroyed many towns in the North. My chest felt hollow. Deaths. Many.
Death was never so poignant as in that moment when I felt so happy to be alive and so fearful for my family. My empathy was beyond measure. What about my child? What about my husband?
In the apartment, I discovered that the city’s phone lines were all overloaded. Even cell phone companies couldn’t deal with the strain on the system. And, I still didn’t know where or how my husband and five year-old were.
I spent the night alone in the dark apartment with my little son. No electricity. Dozens of aftershocks shook the building throughout the night. We were feeling land-sick from the regular shudders of the earth settling unhappily into place. And, alone.
The abridged story is that twenty-four hours later my little family was reunited. We were all fine. We were lucky… for now. But, we already knew that a reactor at the Fukushima nuclear power had melted down –and we didn’t know how long we’d be fine.
Now, fortunately, I’d been in Japan’s previous “worst nuclear” incident. So, unlike most people, I had some experience with nuclear disasters. In 1999, I was living about five or six miles from the Tokai-mura nuclear plant where a nuclear incident killed two people and sent excessive radiation into the atmosphere. The trains were stopped from going through the region and all of us living in the area were asked to stay within our homes with the doors and windows shut.
When it came to the Fukushima incident, I was prepared. I promptly had a complete and total freak out. (Remember “gambaru” isn’t in my DNA.)
I had experience with how the Japanese government handles radiation exposure. I’ve been measured with a Geiger counter. I have even received “damages” money from the company in exchange for not suing them later if I ever wind up with a radiation-related illness. Great, right?
Anyhow, it was valuable training. As a mother, my primary concern was protecting my children, keeping them inside shielded from the radiation (reserved water stored in the bathtub, rolled towels blocking airflow at window seams) and then getting them as far from the radiation as possible. In other words, out of Japan. While other people naively strolled the streets, my family was hunkering down inside enduring the myriad of aftershocks. And, that was even before we knew MORE nuclear reactors could melt down and that there was going to be another explosion. Leaving Japan wasn’t as easy as you might assume.
First, I had to convince my husband (who initially thought I was hysterical and overreacting… ok, in fairness, I was hysterical but I was not overreacting.)
Rogue citizens where driving through the streets at night with megaphones telling us that the danger was far greater than the government and news was revealing. The city wasn’t being evacuated… because how do you evacuate nearly 21 million people from the Tokyo megapolis? Where do they go?
When the French embassy contacted my husband and all of the French expats to say they should leave the country at once, that the French government was bringing in a plane to evacuate all French citizens… my husband acquiesced. Immediately.
We had to get out now. A second reactor was definitely going to explode. No one knew what would happen. Images of mushroom clouds and Chernobyl passed through my head.
Danger of a complete meltdown and major nuclear contamination felt imminent.
We were now in panic mode, scared for our lives and our children. I had never known such terror before. I experienced an emotion that does not normally exist. Something deep and hollow, yet sharp and shattering, and… urgent. Very urgent.
We decided to get out of Japan the very next day… if we could find a flight on such short notice.
Next, I needed to get permission from the Japanese government to leave because I was there on a very competitive government research grant (I’ll explain that later when I’m not afraid I’m about to die) and I didn’t want to violate the conditions of the grant in case it was possible to return to Japan to fulfill my life’s dream. And all the while the tremors kept shaking the city.
The government approved immediately. More tremors.
There was one more piece of business to deal with before leaving. I had a modeling contract to do a T.V. commercial for a very prestigious international product. (I had to bring in some extra money because we were living on eggs and rice). Unfortunately, getting permission from my modeling agency to break the contract was impossible. In Japan you honor your contract at any personal expense or inconvenience (or death?). It was impossible. Big tremors. Francis would have to go with the children. He refused to leave me. We were screaming at each other. “Go”, “No”. There was nothing left in us emotionally. I felt hollow, empty, like a brittle shell of a person… just hyper alert, hyper vigilant. All that was left were nerves.
Then, within hours, all the other foreign actors broke their contracts. Apparently, they weren’t as concerned by the Japanese value of honoring one’s word as I was. (In retrospect I’m thinking death or honor, why did I hesitate?)
Finally, 2 days and hundreds of mini-earthquakes later, we were buying tickets… or trying.
Because of the phone situation, we had to go through skype to my mother in the States who used a landline to the airlines. The stress on her face.
What was our destination? Out of Japan.
Where? At that point it didn’t matter too much where we went as long as it was out of the range of the Fukushima power plant. And BEFORE the next reactor exploded. When would that be? It could be any second.
We usually live in the States, but that was out because we’d rented our house. So, our first choice was France because we could stay with family.
Tickets to France cost $10,000. Per person. One way!
Scratch that plan.
Let’s just say that at that point my husband and I were both having a total FREAK OUT.
My mom was buckling under the pressure. The ticket prices were rising more quickly that she could relate them to us. It was like bidding at the stock exchange on Wall Street.
(You know those movies in which innocent people are beside themselves because they don’t know if they’re going to live or die and there is a looming threat that creates unbearable tension? You are on the edge of your seat because of the suspense and a pin drop could make you jump? My husband says I should use “The Walking Dead” as an example, I was thinking more like “Silence of the Lambs” but, whatever, you get the idea. Well those movies don’t even come close to capturing the emotions we experienced.)
When you are in a situation like that and you are responsible for two completely innocent and helpless children and have brought the love of your life into the situation, you discover the true depth of love, and find an appreciation for life that you didn’t know you were capable of experiencing.
We believed our lives depended on getting those tickets out of Japan. Buying plane tickets to get out of Japan before another reactor melted-down had become a high-stakes auction. And we didn’t have the funds to compete. And the earth kept shaking.
In the end, we maxed out our credit cards, borrowed money from my mom, were given money from my aunt and we managed to get four tickets… to Thailand. And they weren’t on the same plane. But that is a long story.
Monday, March 14th as the second reactor exploded in Fukushima and another earthquake rattled the glass ceiling in the Narita airport, my five year-old and I boarded a flight not knowing if the rest of our family would make it to Thailand. They had an overnight layover in China with no VISA. And our flight attendant told us that the Tokyo airport canceled all flights shortly after our departure.
Somehow, we did all make it to Thailand and you can ask me about how we got there, and the Thai earthquake and the mudslides when, one day, we meet.
Eventually, weeks later, we managed to get a flight to France through Egypt and, well yes, it was the Arab Spring. And we were flying through right at the time of the uprisings there.
It felt like the end of the world was upon us.
But the world didn’t end…only my dream did. And we went back to Texas.