Wednesday, August 14, 2013

For the solemn date of August 6, part 1

(Please excuse the time delay. Here is a post partly drafted last week on August 6, then interrupted by a 5-day trip to Paris. Just Miriam and me, up and down the Champs Elysées, the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, and the Seine. Oh, and the paths of Disneyland. But that's another sort of post.)

August 6th

When I lived in Japan for the summer of 1979, I learned to call this date "Hachi-gatsu Muika". Eighth month sixth day. I had found my way to Hiroshima for two months, by happenstance more than design. My tenth grade history teacher, the late Alice Schlossberg, had encouraged me to enter an essay contest about "Japan and the Japanese People Today". I was in her classes in Chinese & Japanese history and Asian religion. I credit Ms. Schlossberg with teaching me how to write, as in how to make distinct points, meaningfully connect them, and be cognizant you are doing so. (Her method was simple: In this essay test, you must make four points. If you make only three, your maximum score is 75%.)

The final stage of the essay contest involved an interview with Youth for Understanding, a student exchange program. I was named one of two winners in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area (a sabbatical year for my father had taken us to Bethesda, Maryland from Ohio). So, I was off to Japan at age 16, curious about what was to come.

Akebono-cho, Hiroshima. I joined my host family in their quarter of Hirioshima, a city full of pale concrete buildings and devoid of almost all traces of the buildings that had existed before August 6, 1945. The devastation of nuclear attack was just 34 years in the past in 1979, and the memory was clearly present, especially among adults. The events received mention now and then in conversation, just as the city had its markers of the tragedy: Heiwa Kōen (Peace Memorial Park); the A-bomb Dome (a building skeleton left standing); Peace Memorial Museum, also located in the park, which bears witness to the instantaneous loss of 70,000 lives and the lingering effects on 70,000 more; the Children's Peace Monument with its origami cranes; and the nearby rivers, where those suffering from the mighty heat and fire of the blast found some refuge. I remember people I met expressing gratitude for the water as if it somehow assuaged the anguish they felt in legacy.

On August 6, 1979 I accompanied my Japanese host father, a school principal, on his official duty to join the solemn parade in downtown Hiroshima. Other members of the family did not participate. I remember walking quietly past displays and other people, understanding little of the language and feeling regretful--and powerless--about representing the aggressor nation. Over and over, and not just on that day, the people of Hiroshima spoke of their commitment to peace and to the prevention of violence and destruction. I never had cause to doubt their sincerity. No other response seems possible in the face of what happened in Hiroshima.

Years later, the date of August 6th took on a second and infinitely more personal meaning. On August 6, 2004 my son, Simon, died at home of advanced neuroblastoma. He had endured cancer from the age of four and a half to the age of seven. His end came slowly and peacefully after the mix of dire struggle, tedium, and respite that make up a lengthy illness. For many months, at least the first year after his death, we found the need to do something to commemorate the 6th of any month. Often it was dinner out at the Old Spaghetti Factory, a family favorite in Salt Lake City's Trolley Square. Always it was a visit to the cemetery.

As the first anniversary of Simon's death neared in 2005, we sponsored an event with the Simon Craig Vodosek Memorial Fund. It was an open air concert at Utah's Hogle Zoo by a favorite singing group, Two of a Kind children's music. Jenny and David Heitler-Klevens, along with their twin sons Ari and Jason (about age 10 in 2005), performed their lively, creative songs ("I lead a double life--I am an amphibian"), reminding us of entertainment on car rides, with both Simon and Miriam in the back seat. At our request, they performed their moving rendition of Fred Small's Cranes over Hiroshima, a song that tells the story of Sadoko Sasaki and the thousand paper cranes she tried to make before she died at age of twelve of leukemia in 1955, a late-effect victim of the Hiroshima bomb. It was a lovely resonance with the sadness of Simon's death in a mostly light-hearted and invigorating evening.

Jason, Ari (or vice versa?), Jenny and David Heitler-Klevens
August 1, 2005 concert in memory of Simon (photo: Kay Beaton)

Kylie and Miriam with Jason (I'm guessing) and Jenny
selling CDs (Photo: Kay Beaton)
So, we've just passed the ninth anniversary of Simon's death. Add eight years (since the concert) to these children, and you get Miriam at almost fourteen, Kylie fifteen, and Ari and Jason at eighteen ready to enter Oberlin College (their parents' and my alma mater) in the fall.

And here's a very cool thing. Having noticed in an email update from Two of a Kind a few weeks back that the Heitler-Klevens family was headed for Europe, I popped them a message. They were in Paris when we were in Paris. Miriam and I met up with them for dinner just last week, on August 8. Ari and Jason, who still look so much alike that I need a yellow T-shirt and a white one to keep them straight, will have to let me know if I identified them correctly in these photos.

And so the years cycle.

Delightful addendum

Photos from this year's encounter, both taken on the plaza of the Centre Pompidou in front of the Calder sculpture. The photo credit in each case, I think, will be obvious.

Jason, David, Mary, Miriam, and Ari
August 8, 2013 Paris

Jason, Jenny, Mary, Miriam, and Ari
August 8, 2013 Paris

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