Have you ever had something happen in your life that you knew would affect you and your loved ones for the rest of your days? It was 5 years ago, that our life was turned upside down and I wasn’t sure how anything was going to unfold from that moment on. I went to bed and life was just normal and then was awoken out of a deep sleep and in the blink of an eye, life was forever altered.
Let me start by saying that our son was lucky enough to be able to participate in a student exchange to Sendai Japan. He was originally only going to go for ½ a school year but after the information meetings, he told us he wanted to go for the entire year. Of course, as any parent of a 15-year-old would be, we were nervous but excited about the opportunity for him. I was nervous that he had never been away from home for that length of time, I was nervous that we hadn’t taught him how to sort his clothes before washing them, I was nervous that we hadn’t taught him how to manage his money well enough, I was nervous about how he would fare at Christmas time being away from his family; all very simple worries, but worries none the less. But what never even crossed my mind when we decided to support this experience was that he would be smack dab in the middle of one of the worst natural disasters to this day.
A couple of days before the BIG one hit, our son sent a text telling us that they had a 7. something earthquake but that things were fine. He had been there since August so by now we were used to hearing about the steady stream of earthquakes that Japan dealt with. The night of March 10th was different though; my husband was at work in Africa and I had gone to bed at my normal time. I was awoken with a text from our son that said “holy s&^%, THAT was a big one”! Anyone that says that text messages don’t have tones, has obviously never received one that sounds a bit panicky. Our son is very laid back but when I got that text, the hairs on the back of my neck stood straight up. I bolted up out of bed and quickly turned on the television and right in my face was a tsunami heading straight towards the town my son was in. I frantically started texting him; where are you? Get to higher ground! There is a major tsunami heading right to you! Find higher ground! WHERE THE HELL ARE YOU? Silence……..as I watched in horror what was unfolding right in front of my eyes. The first thing I did was call my husband in Africa to tell him what had happened. I told him I would let him know as soon as I heard anything, but we both knew that our family needed to be together if we were going to get through this. He told me to call our girls and ask them to come over so I wasn’t alone, I did and of course they rushed over. Next, I got on the phone and called the International student coordinator and asked him to turn on the TV, he did and was absolutely shocked at what he was watching. He knew that he had 2 students over there and we were panicking as to our kids’ whereabouts. All our family came to the house to wait together and to support each other – I am so blessed to have the family that I do. Sometimes you wonder if your family would drop everything to help if needed and I can emphatically say I know that our family would, because they have.
My husband had stopped to see our son in Japan 2 weeks before the earthquake when he was on his way back to Africa. Our son had taken him to his favorite spots so while my husband waited for flight arrangements to be made to get home, he was telling us “if he was here, he’d be ok, but if he was here it could be a problem”. I think it was keeping him busy – he said the worst thing was when he turned on the television and he saw our sons face along with hundreds of others come across the screen as missing and unaccounted for. That was tough for him and having to deal with it all alone was even worse.
Our international student coordinator was amazing. He was on the phone not only trying to find our kids, but setting up support for their friends at their schools as well as the Japanese students that were over here at the time. He reassured us that our kids were ok, his contact person in Japan told him that they were at the school and were safe. However, she hadn’t actually seen them and we weren’t prepared to take her word for it until we saw their faces. What we didn’t realize was how difficult getting to them was. Gas pumps weren’t working, streets were damaged, buildings were flooded, there was debris everywhere, etc. But since it was her responsibility to know the whereabouts of our kids, we were pressing her to find her way to the school, she was exhausted both emotionally and physically but continued to try to get to the kids, which she finally could do about 30 hours after our initial contact with them. I am so thankful for her and am forever grateful for her efforts to get to the kids. We were able to have a quick Skype with our son – it was dark, he was cold but he was ok and it was so great to see his face; he said that they were trying to conserve battery power so could only talk for a minute (plus with every aftershock, they were back up on the roof for safety measures).
After that, came the painstaking task to try to get them home, which did not prove to be easy. We asked our government what they were going to do to get Canadians out and got nowhere with them. Their suggestion was to tell the kids to get to Tokyo where they could catch a plane home. By this time the Fukushima nuclear plant was melting down and our kids needed to go through there to get to Tokyo. We couldn’t find them a ride and it would take them 4 days to walk to Tokyo so needless to say, that was not an option. I am not overly religious but I am a woman of deep faith and I haven’t had to make too many deals with God, but you can bet I did during this time. To make a very long story short, we were finally able to get our kids on a bus that the German Embassy had sent to get their citizens out of Sendai and they were taken to Tokyo to catch a flight home 5 days (even though it felt like 5 months) after the devastating earthquake. We later found out that they didn’t know the severity until they were on their way to Tokyo.
When our son got off the plane, the media was there and I have never been prouder of how he handled himself. He handled himself with grace, humility and passion. He came home exhausted and emotional and with only the clothes on his back and a pair of shoes he got out of the lost and found at the school. When he was asked how he was doing, he said he knew that his family would get him home, he never doubted that. Over the course of the next weeks he told the media that what we didn’t see was the beauty that came out of this tragedy. He said that he wanted to focus on the good that was happening there – the people coming together and sharing their food, blankets, water and whatever else was needed, they were making the best out of a terrible tragedy. He said that they are kind, humble, patient, caring people and he was thankful to witness this. He also said that while he was grateful to be home, his concern was for those that weren’t able to flee, those that lost their homes, lost their families, lost their pets, lost it all. Our son left for Japan as a teenager but came home as a changed man. He saw things that very few people have seen, he experienced something that most people will never experience, and he will be forever impacted by this event. It’s been five years and he shares bits and pieces when he is ready to but one thing I know for sure is that one day he will go back to Sendai Japan so he can have closure with a place and people that he grew to love. I however am so thankful that he made it home, it’s that simple. I know that there were multiple forces working to get him out of there (both physical ones and spiritual forces) and if you are wondering yes, I am making good on the deals I made with God to get him back.