Friday, September 30, 2016
Calling Up the Dead
I’ve often pictured what happened to my son as not just a wave of pain that swamped his soul but a veritable tsunami. Like those who try to withstand actual tsunamis, we didn’t see the enormity and power of the oncoming disaster till it was too late.
So when I heard about the Wind Phone in the coastal village of Otsushi, Japan, that lost more than 400 people in the 2011 tsunami, it spoke to me across the miles. It’s an old-style rotary phone that sits, unwired, in a glass phone booth that a Japanese man put up in his garden to talk to his dead family members. Whenever he felt like talking to them, he’d go into the booth and make a call. Eventually, tsunami survivors from all walks of life began coming to the booth to call up their dead. Japan's public NHK TV made a documentary that included audio recordings of people’s calls from inside the booth, which were later woven into a remarkable radio piece for NPR’s “This American Life, called "Really Long Distance."
Driving home from work the other day, I heard the rough recordings in Japanese, with lots of pauses, cries, and sniffles, followed by English translations and cultural explanations by the matter-of-fact bilingual narrator. The story starts with the piping voice of a young boy greeting his grandpa with the news that he’s going into third grade. It ends with a teenage girl who’d never spoken about her father’s death giggling nervously about what to say before breaking into sobs. In between were outbursts by old farmers not known, as the narrator pointed out, for their expression of feeling. I was crying so hard I had to pull over to the side of the road.
What these tsunami survivors said into the Wind Phone felt like the most private of utterances, yet oddly familiar:
- Where do I begin?
- Why did it have to be you?
- Where are you now?
- I want to hear your reply.
- I’m sorry I couldn’t save you.
- I’m building a house for all of us.
- Come back.
I and my fellow suicide survivors have said similar things out loud or in our minds, at the grave or at home. We need to call out our anguish. Some of us need to keep the dead person’s number on the list of favorites on our phones—even three and a half years after their death, as I do. We need to hear our voices trying to connect, even if the dead can no longer hear them.
There is such power in the human voice. Hearing the Japanese calls made me want to hop on a plane, find that phone booth with a view of the sea, and join the confederation of mourners who are drawn to it, who all share the trauma of sudden loss in the face of disaster. To affirm my solidarity as another type of disaster victim, though maybe a disaster that could have been foreseen and averted. And to set up phone booths around the world where suicide survivors and other bereaved people could gather and speak to our dead. We could recognize one another, bring together our voices, and be heard in the grief that transcends language.