I Have the Right To
March 11, 2011
Ihad only one question on my mind as I walked toward my sixth-grade math class: Which bedsheet would make me look like a real Grecian goddess?
Later that night was the annual Bingo fund-raiser at our all-girls school in Tokyo, and this year it was a Greek-themed event. You’d never seen Bingo like this: the entire gymnasium and cafeteria filled up with students, parents, and teachers who pounded their fists on the tables in frenzied excitement.
Some of my friends were already wrapped in exquisite togas. I was twelve and loved any excuse to dress up, but was holding out until I found the perfect sheet. In the meantime, I wore my regular school uniform: navy knee-high socks and a white button-down shirt tucked into a thick polyester blue-and-green-plaid skirt.
I hoped Mom would let me borrow one of the nicer sheets that
shimmered in the light. She was chair of the silent auction and had been working on the Bingo fund-raiser for months. Maybe I’d even thread leaves into my blond hair like the wreaths worn at the ancient Olympic Games.
As I made my way into Mr. Martindale’s room on Friday afternoon, I noticed some girls giggling as they climbed under their desks, pretending there was an earthquake only they could feel. Nothing was moving.
In Japan, earthquakes were pretty routine. Sometimes we had one every week, and we had just felt one on Wednesday. I’d lived in Tokyo since I was six months old, so I barely noticed the small quakes anymore. But new kids at my school, the International School of the Sacred Heart, usually freaked out at the tiniest tremor.
Just before the bell rang, I was knocked to my knees. Windows rattled back and forth and books tumbled off the shelves. This was no pretend earthquake anymore: it was the biggest one I’d ever felt.
I squeezed under a cluster of metal-legged desks for safety with five of my classmates. My head banged against the hard bottom of the desk as I was tossed around like a rag doll. Mr. Martindale stood by the sliding doors and grasped the frame to steady himself. White geometric cubes rained down from the windowsill as the tree branches shook angrily outside.
I locked eyes with my best friend, Annie. I thought we were going to die. My eyelids shut like I was trying to avoid the scary part of a movie. I didn’t want to see how this ended.
When the tremors paused, the loudspeakers blared: “This is an emergency.”
“Get up,” Mr. Martindale shouted. “We’re evacuating.”
The clock at the front of the room read 2:54 p.m. Thumbtacks fell from the bulletin board, sending a poster of Albert Einstein to the floor. We hurried past blue lockers in the hallway and filed
out the side emergency stairs. Students streamed out of every door of the building, turning the hilly driveway into a sea of shivering white togas.
We always gathered outside for earthquake drills in case buildings collapsed. But it didn’t feel any safer there. Electrical wires swung like vines in the jungle. A gray building towering over Sacred Heart moved across the blue sky as if it were a cloud.
I stood on my toes while my class descended the giant hill leading down to the parking lot. I searched frantically for my older sister, Lucy, a freshman at the high school, and my four-year-old sister, Christianna, who attended the pre-K program. It was close to pickup time for the younger kids, which meant Mom was probably close by. I spotted her across the parking lot with Christianna, and I waved wildly. Relief washed over me. Thank God they were safe.
“Mom, I’m okay!” I shouted over the commotion, and threw my fist in the air with my thumb pointing to the heavens. Hot tears filled my blue eyes as I wove my way through a knot of cars, parents, kids, and teachers. I flung my arms around Mom. I wiped away the wetness before anyone saw. You didn’t show signs of weakness in Japan. Being stoic and humble were the most admired qualities.
But sometimes I couldn’t help myself. Lucy was a teenager—fifteen—and better at keeping things buttoned up. She had dark hair and hazel eyes and looked more like Dad, who is half-Japanese. I had the all-American looks from Mom’s family.
We found Lucy with the rest of her class farther up the hill. She was sitting on the ground in a daze, hugging her knees.
“This is so cool,” she mumbled.
Aftershocks forced us to crouch defensively on the hill. My sisters and I huddled together and listened to the crescendo of rattling windows to our right, looking fearfully at the large poles with dangling electrical wires to our left. Mom worried that cars parked
along the steep driveway would start rolling sideways if there was another jolt.
I just wanted to go home. The principal eventually allowed students to leave if their parents were with them, so we began our climb up the hills through the University of the Sacred Heart, which is next to our school.
We made it to the top of the second hill, grabbed our bikes from the rack, and walked them up the third hill. I thought about taking my handlebars and running, but Christianna wouldn’t stop crying while we wound our way through the ancient university gardens.
As we trudged through the eerily abandoned streets, shards of glass from broken streetlamps littered the cracked sidewalks. We arrived home less than an hour after the earthquake.
The color returned to Mom’s face when Dad finally called. He had had trouble finding a cell signal in central Tokyo, where he worked as CEO of Invesco Japan, a division of the American company Invesco.
“I’m okay, I’m safe,” he said. “But turn on CNN.”
In stunned silence, we watched thirty-foot tsunami waves wash over entire coastline towns ninety minutes east of us. People, real people, were drowning before my eyes. I couldn’t blink. News anchors reported that the quake had a 9.0 magnitude, the largest ever recorded in Japan. I grabbed Christianna’s hand, trying to soothe her as much as me.
Dad called again a few hours later. “I’m going to stay to make sure everything is fine with the business. Is it okay for some employees to sleep at the house tonight if they can’t get home?”
“Of course, whatever you need,” Mom said.
Mom grabbed everything she could find in the cupboards and cooked like she was feeding an army. A somber haze enveloped our apartment as news anchors switched between the tsunami waves and
dire concerns about radiation leaking from the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant. I staggered around the apartment, unable to form words.
It was amazing how much could change in twenty-four hours. The night before, our home had felt like a party after Lucy received her acceptance to St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire.
Lucy was three grades ahead of me and president of her class. She had that angsty I’m-too-cool teenager thing going. But when the St. Paul’s acceptance email flashed on the computer screen, Lucy cried and pleaded, “Can I go? Can I go? Can I hit accept?” She was so excited she literally ran out the front door and sprinted around the neighborhood at nine p.m.
Dad had attended the prestigious New England prep school as a scholarship student back in the 1980s, and he secretly hoped that we would follow his path. A huge smile spread across Dad’s face whenever he talked about his days playing baseball and basketball at St. Paul’s. He made lifelong friends there and still kept in touch with his basketball mentor, who taught him the importance of integrity and compassion. Dad was especially proud that the boarding school had started a Japanese language program at his request.
I wanted to be happy for Lucy, but I was devastated at this news. Lucy was my best friend, and the thought of her leaving me ripped a hole in my chest. I couldn’t believe that she would go so far away to boarding school. We had our typical sister fights: she tried to get rid of me during sleepovers with her friends, and I loved “borrowing” her clothes. But at the end of the day, our bond of sisterhood ran deep.
When we were younger, we’d wake up and spend hours together with our Barbies. We still loved playing hide-and-seek with the other kids in our three-story yellow-brick apartment building. Lucy had a secret hiding spot that she wouldn’t tell me about. All I knew was that I could hear her voice from inside the beige hallway walls.
Our life in Tokyo revolved around a few square blocks that Lucy and I could navigate with our eyes closed. Our neighborhood in Hiroo was filled with both Japanese and gaijin (foreigners) like us. Each morning we greeted the stoic guards at our school, who had watched my sisters and me graduate from strollers to bikes. I knew some Japanese, but we mostly spoke with them in broken English with hand motions and head nods. After school, Lucy and I rode our bikes to the local sushi shop, where the old lady knew my daily order: a toro and scallion roll, ikura nigiri, and inarizushi, marinated tofu skin wrapped around rice.
Almost every weekend, our family brought in dinner—usually udon noodles or hamburgers and shakes—and we played karaoke on Wii Nintendo in the living room. Mom had a beautiful voice and always belted out a song from her favorite band, Earth, Wind & Fire. I loved all music, from Taylor Swift to Run-DMC. Christianna, Lucy, and I had spontaneous dance parties that spilled from room to room, growing in energy and tempo. We liked to jump on Dad’s black lacquer coffee table, which he’d bought when he was a bachelor. It was low to the ground, and we used it for everything, from stage to dinner table to game station to dance floor.
“Come on, Christianna, let me twirl you,” I’d say, spinning her tiny body around on the table. “Now follow me.”
“Okay, Chessy,” Christianna squeaked, copying my dance moves.
Dad would cheer us on from the couch. Even though he worked long hours at his job, family came first on weekends. And Dad was a staple at our sports games and other school events at Sacred Heart, always clapping the loudest.
On Sundays our family walked together to church in Omotesando, and I devoured curry doughnuts at Andersen’s bakery on the way home. I loved those fluffy dough balls so much I dreamed about them in anticipation: they were soft and crunchy at the same time and filled with curried minced meat, potatoes, and carrots.
Our life in Tokyo was perfect. This was our home, where we—all five of us—belonged.
And Lucy was leaving all this behind, leaving me behind to attend St. Paul’s.
On the day of the earthquake, nobody was leaving. The subway and train systems shut down in Tokyo, and hotels were mobbed with businessmen and stranded tourists. Dad waited until nearly all his employees had found a place to stay and then began the long trek home with several others past the Hotel Okura and through the streets of Roppongi.
I emailed my best friend Annie to see how she was doing:
Are you guys ok??? Are you home?? Im sooo worried!! :( I hope you all got home safely . . . Lots of aftershocks . . . we r watching cnn and all the tsunamis and lots of fires. ohmygosh. Sooooo scary . . . all covered in black debris. Email me back when you are home or safe!! I hope you all are ok and prepared for the other shocks. :(
Annie wrote back a little while later:
Omg I’m not okay!! :( everyone is so frantic here!! My house is so BAD I’m Serious!!! Everything fell!! I’m so sad n scared. please help! I’m not even sleeping in my house!!! :((((
I wished I could bring Annie and my other friends home so we could protect each other; safety in numbers. My friends at Sacred Heart were my second family. But now we were separated, and I couldn’t comfort them. I watched the devastation and loss of life on
TV. All these people were dying, and there was nothing we could do to save them. I felt terrified and helpless. But mostly I was numb.
Lucy moved into my pink butterfly canopy bed so Dad’s employees could sleep in her room. We curled up together and listened to the wooden shoji screens shake with every tremor. I tried to lie perfectly still, as if that would stop the aftershocks, and prayed, “Please don’t get bigger, please don’t get bigger.”
Mom was supposed to host a baby shower for my piano teacher on Sunday. She loved throwing parties and knitting together new friendships. I always looked forward to our massive Halloween bashes, when Mom and Dad would lead dozens of kids on candy hunts through the neighborhood. I learned from Mom the importance of building community, and I tried to welcome new girls to Sacred Heart and invite them to my birthday parties and sleepovers.
I was excited about the baby shower, but in the hours after the earthquake, no one could think about celebrating life to come when there was so much death and destruction in the country we called home.
Sacred Heart closed school indefinitely. Dad heard from friends in the US military and Japanese government that the nuclear crisis was far worse than it was being portrayed. Mom and Dad huddled together and came up with a plan. Instead of our family heading to Okinawa for spring break at the end of the month, Dad enlisted the help of a friend to get Mom and us girls on a flight out of Japan. Dad needed to stay behind to take care of the business.
We tearfully said good-bye to Dad in the driveway. I flung my arms around his waist and refused to let go. Yeah, he was the head of a company, but he was our dad first. He should have been coming with us. The earthquake had already done so much damage; why did it need to tear apart our family, too?
Mom promised we’d return to Japan in a few weeks when things got back to normal. We were just taking a short trip to our
vacation home in Florida. We’d spent every summer and winter break in the United States, hopscotching between family and friends in New England, New York, and Florida. Lucy dubbed us “vagabums” because we lived out of suitcases. I tried to convince myself that this was another journey to America. But the feelings of doom would not recede.
I passed out on the long flight, exhausted from the fear that had been marathoning through my body for the past three days.
Suddenly I was jarred awake. I looked over at Mom, who was trying to buckle in a wily Christianna before we began the descent into Chicago for our connecting flight. We walked into the terminal and camera flashes blinded us. Journalists pushed microphones into our faces. Somebody mentioned that we were the first flight from Japan to land in Chicago since the earthquake.
Before I said anything, Lucy told me my teeth—newly without braces—were now stained yellow from the curry udon I ate on the plane. I kept my mouth shut.
loved playing in our apartment in Hiroo with Lucy, Christianna, Mom, and Dad. I’d dance around in my school uniform before heading to International School of the Sacred Heart.
enjoyed taking trips around Japan, including visiting Aunt Fueko (above). We wore matching robes during a visit to a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn (first image, above).