Friday, 13 July 2007

Mom, I'm Okay

On January 17, 1995, it was so cold that the pipes to our washing machine froze. There being no room for it inside the house, it was just outside the kitchen in what we called the washing shed, a gravel-floored lean-to cobbled together from corrugated aluminum siding and bits of leftover lumber shortly after the war when building materials were scarce. The door to the washing shed was fixed together with a piece of rusty wire, and wind whistled through it. Rain fell through the holes in the roof, and toads took up residence there, no doubt attracted by the abundance of mosquitos, cockroaches and slugs. All in all, doing the laundry was never very pleasant, and during the winter it was particularly nasty. On this occasion I hurt my hand attempting to thaw out the pipes -- unsuccessfully -- and I was in a grumpy mood, what with that and having spent much of the previous night trying to soothe a coughing baby. When I considered having to hand wash a dozen stinking cloth diapers and a tubful of half-frozen, sopping-wet laundry, I felt like going out and kicking down a fence.

On the plus side, my husband had dropped our four-year-old off at her nursery school on his way to work and my bronchial baby had finally gone down for a nap, so at least I could get a little work done. I found my briefcase, pulled out a handful of mock examinations and settled down to start proof-reading them when the telephone rang. It was my cousin in Los Angeles, and she sounded frantic.

"Are you guys all right?!" she practically screamed.

"We're fine," I said bemusedly. "Except I think I've sprained my wrist because the pipes to the washing machine have frozen and I've got a dozen dirty diapers and --"

She interrupted me.

"But there're buildings on their sides and whole neighborhoods on fire! And people stuck under their houses and highways that have collapsed and --"

For a minute I almost wondered if one of us was hallucinating. We'd had a similar conversation exactly a year earlier when she and her family had experienced the trauma of the Northridge Earthquake in L.A.

"Where did you say this was happening?" I asked.

"In Japan!"

"Well, it's not Tokyo, then. Believe me, we're fine here."

"Just turn on your television and you'll see!"

I did, and I could not believe my eyes. Kobe had been struck by an earthquake measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale. The death toll was already estimated to be in the thousands.

All morning long, I moved through my chores as though in a dream. Our baby was barely six months old, and when I turned on the television and saw mothers with babies her age sitting on blankets on the ground in the freezing temperatures, their faces bruised and stunned, my heart went out to them. I couldn't get over the fact that I'd been so upset over our burst water pipes and non-functioning washing machine; I knew those women would happily trade places with me.

I taught a small group of women English in my house and we had a class scheduled that day. When the last member of the group, Tanizaki-san, showed up, the others immediately expressed their concern; I had not realized that Tanizaki-san's son had just begun college in Kobe. She smiled and reassured everybody that he was fine.

"But how do you know?" one of the women cried. "My sister-in-law lives there and all of the telephone lines are down! No one can get through!"

Tanizaki-san told us she'd had a strange phone call from her son early that morning. His voice sounded strained and a little distant, and she was groggy what with having been woken up, but she'd heard him say "Mom, I'm okay. We might be out of touch for a while, but I want you to know I'm fine" -- and then the connection went dead. She'd been trying to reach him ever since, but there was no dial tone.

"So I turned on the radio," she said, "and found out that the earthquake had struck at 5:46. I was upset, but I knew he was okay."

It took Tanizaki-san several days to get in touch with her son and find out what had happened. He had been woken up by the earthquake when his bed flew across the room and slammed into the wall along with his desk and chest-of-drawers. He had spotted the telephone in the midst of a pile of debris on the floor, picked it up, and phoned his mother. Miraculously, the lines were still functioning.

All of us women -- every one of us a mother -- were mightily impressed by the consideration and presence of mind of this boy. Thrown across his room in the wee small hours of the morning, he thought to call his mother and tell her that he was fine. Imagine what those days would have been like for her if it hadn't occurred to him to do this?

My children have grown up hearing this story, and they know that when it comes to thoughtfulness, Tanizaki-san's son set the gold standard. Whenever I tell this story -- and they can pretty much recite it word for word along with me, to give you a good idea -- they know what the moral is: If you are ever in a similar situation, for God's sake call your mother if you can. Save her nerves a little wear and tear.

There's another moral too: If you've got a baby with a cough, a load of half-washed laundry and a washing machine with frozen water pipes, remember that it could be a whole lot worse.

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13 comments:

Kim Ayres said...

For a brief moment I thought this was going to be about a psychic link betweeen mother and son. Somehow it seems even more probable than the phone call... :)

Merry Jelinek said...

That is the definite gold standard for children not worrying their parents!

It's funny, we always have more energy to wallow in our own misfortunes when they are lighter than they could be... and the world has a way of putting us in our place when we do... (I'd have been quite miserable with that laundry room, myself)

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- Half a dozen people I told this story to insisted that this must have been a psychic rather than a telephonic connection. The phone lines to Kobe were down for a very long time -- over a week as I remember.

Merry -- Although I HATED that laundry shack of ours at first, I remember it so fondly now. A few months after we left, the house was torn down to make way for a completely unnecessary road. Neighbors of ours from Japan came to visit us in Scotland and told us that our house had been demolished and I embarrassed myself by bursting into tears. I still remember that house as the place where my babies took their first steps and grew from toddlers into children who could read and write. And now it is gone forever, wretched laundry shack and all.

Carolie said...

Wow...you've brought me to shortness of breath with your story. What a thoughtful son, and what a terrible tragedy the Kobe earthquake was. Yes, you sounded miserable, but what a way to put all of that into perspective! I wish some of the self-involved and miserable wives around me would find (get smacked with) that sort of perspective.

On the very mundane side of things, it's very funny to me how humans imagine places where they aren't as smaller than they actually are, as when your sister called you in fear for your life. When I lived in Manhattan and visited North Carolina, invariably someone would say to me "oh, you live in New York? I know someone in New York! Do you know Susie Smith?" My mother wept when I moved to Dublin in 1990, as in her mind, I was moving into the very center of the violence in Northern Ireland, and she actually wanted me to buy a bullet-proof vest.

Even recently, I had a friend e-mail me and tell me that she'd given my contact details to one of her friends who was visiting Tokyo, and could I meet this friend for dinner? Ummm...I live in southwestern Kyushu, which is like asking someone in South Carolina to have dinner with someone in Vermont.

Mary Witzl said...

Carolie -- A lot of people from the States who visit the U.K. seem to think that since it is so small they will be able to 'do' England, Wales or Scotland in a day. Wales is the smallest of all three, and it would take months to see it all even superficially. My sister wanted us to meet her in London when she came here, and it is a gruelling six-hour drive IF the traffic isn't too heavy. And I can't tell you how many times people arriving in Tokyo asked me to meet them at the airport when I lived in Kyushu! I got so tired of explaining.

I do know one funny story, though, about a boy from the Midwest who had been accepted by one of the larger eastern universities. His mother kept telling him how happy she was that he could meet her dear friend Mrs Tannenbaum's son who was also starting college there; she was sure they would meet and become firm friends. The freshman class was, of course, huge, and he tried to tell her this to no avail. So he was amazed when he found out that his roommate was in fact Mrs Tannenbaum's son, and no, his mother had had nothing to do with it.

Brian said...

I remember how a lecturer friend from Liverpool , on exchange at Wagga , asked me where would be a good place to stay overnight on a trip south to to Albury , a whole couple of hours down the highway .
We in Australia suffer from the tyranny of distance ( both inter- and intra- nationally ) and I still wonder at how he survived the trip I took him on to Tumbarumba where I was adjudicating a drama festival -- there and back in one night , his first night in Wagga in fact ! But he did see his first kangaroo that night on the road back to Wagga .
When he later returned to Liverool he bought a caravan , and was widely regarded as an intrepid traveller when he took the family in it to Scotland .
I wonder how he would have enjoyed a trip across the Nullarbor-- or up though the Red Centre .

patterjack

Carole said...

Perspective is everything. It is the rare person who can, in the midst of dirty diapers, frozen pipes, and aching tiredness, still consider themselves lucky even though others are going through something far worse. Good job. So much of this part of your personality comes through in your posts. Good job.

Mary Witzl said...

Brian -- I like your expression 'a tyranny of distance.' And I like the idea of a Liverpool man being seen as an adventurous fellow simply for taking his caravan up to Scotland. Though, in fact, some of the caravan parks here do seem to call for a stoic type of traveler.

My husband is always amused by people who find European travel arduous. He travelled across the Sudan in a truck once and feels that even some of the rougher European travel experiences would be sheer luxury by comparison.

Carole -- The next day, when I had to tackle those diapers, I had to keep reminding myself how lucky I was to have my family still intact and a roof over my head. But we had the television on almost all day and the stoicism of those earthquake victims was a very good example.

Brian said...

The Tyranny of Distance is a book by the historian Geoffrey Blainey -- I should have acknowledged the phrase , though it is now in common usage in Oz.

patterjack

Katie Alender said...

When I have a particularly bad day, I force myself to enumerate the things I'm thankful for, because it never hurts to remember that there are people out there who would love to have my problems.

I grew up in South Florida and went to film school in North Florida, and in my class of fifteen, there was a guy from Los Angeles. Every once in a while, I would remark that he had the same sort of bearing as a guy I'd gone to high school with, who had moved from Los Angeles. Finally one day I said, "I just can't believe how much you remind me of Ben Rogers!" and the guy said, "Ben Rogers?? I know him!" -- they'd been close friends in elementary school and junior high.

Mary Witzl said...

Brian -- 'The tyranny of distance' is a great expression whoever coined it, and one I should have known.

Katie -- Although counting your blessings sounds corny, I am a great believer in doing this. I also think it's important to bear in mind that we are all vulnerable to natural disaster and disease, though of course the poor end up suffering more.

I was once interviewed for a job by a woman who looked just like a former classmate of mine from Tokyo. It turned out she was his sister. (I wrote about this in my post 'Serendipity.') I'll never get over the look on her face when I said, 'You know, you look just like a guy I used to go to school with...' and then mentioned his name.

Mimi and Tilly said...

I was in living in Tokyo too when the Kobe earthquake struck. I was horrified by the pictures shown on tv as the whole aftermath of the earthquake unfolded over the following days/weeks. That lady's son was so thoughtful.

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