(Scenes of bombing, injuries, death)
Next to the cyclone fence, chrysanthemums were in bloom. Mariko Abe stooped stiffly to pull out a few weeds around them. A plane passed high above her and she straightened up, her heart pounding. Then she gave herself a shake. “Stop this nonsense. It's been fifty years. Are you going to jump like a rabbit every time a plane goes by?”
She heard the phone ringing inside the house, and plodded across the grass, out of breath and wheezing. Fortunately, she made it in time. “Hello?”
Mitzi’s cheerful voice greeted her. “Mari-chan, how are you?”
Mariko smiled at the nickname. “I can’t complain. Well, I could but it wouldn’t help. How are you, my friend?”
Mitzi said matter-of-factly, “Well, my leukemia's in remission, but all my hair fell out. Now I wear a wig, but I hate it. Remember how I kept losing my nursing cap, sort of accidentally on purpose?”
Mariko chuckled. Mitzi continued, “Last month I joined a group that works for world peace. I know it’s odd for an old lady, but these young people are very nice. They want me to speak at the next Hiroshima commemoration and tell about what happened that day. Imagine that!”
The women went silent. Over the years, they had never stopped having nightmares about that hot August morning fifty years ago. Mitzi said hesitantly, “The group asked me if I knew of any other hibakusha –survivors- who would speak. I thought of you right away. What do you think, Mariko? Will you join me?”
“I don’t know, Mitzi. I don't have your flair for showing off.” She laughed wryly. “It's so un-Japanese-y. But that's not the real reason. I'll lose my health insurance for being hibakusha. You know that. And besides...what good will it do to dredge up all of those old memories?”
She sat down heavily on a kitchen chair and struggled to stay calm. “Mitzi, you must feel the same. Why were we allowed to live? The bomb gave you leukemia and I’m on dialysis. Half the time I have to have oxygen.”
There was a long silence. Then Mitzi said softly, “I know I'm asking a lot of you. These things are painful to remember. But we hibakusha are the only ones who've seen firsthand what the gembaku can do to human beings.”
Mariko smoothed down her gray hair. “I suppose you’re right.”
Mitzi continued, “You and I owe it to all those people who died. They can't speak for themselves. I firmly believe that's why some of us have survived. If we don't speak for the dead, they'll have died in vain. I guess that’s what they call bearing witness, Mari. Like the Holocaust survivors.
August 6, 1945
Even though the doors of the Taruya Clinic had just opened, the waiting room was nearly full. At the desk, Mariko sat in her nurse’s uniform, patiently listening to the callers’ symptoms and booking appointments. She absently smoothed down her nurse’s cap with one hand and wrote on the calendar with the other. Her forehead was beaded with sweat as a rusty metal fan lazily moved the heavy air around, not even bothering to cut through the heat.
The phone rang for the umpteenth time. Despite her discomfort, Mariko listened intently, as always. “Good morning, Nakamura-san. How long has Hiro-chan had the fever? Two days? Yes, bring him in.”
Doctor Fujita, a rotund man with wire glasses, hurried in from the exam room. “Nurse,
where’s the chart on Ohka?”
Mariko smiled. “Right where you left it, Doctor. On your desk.” The doctor huffed away, nearly knocking into Mariko’s friend Mitzi.
As usual, Mitzi’s cap was crooked and her shiny hair was astray. She looked around the room with a pleasant smile. “Kimura-san?”
A young man with a twisted ankle painfully stood up and limped towards her. Mitzi held out her arm to guide him. “What happened, sir?”
Kimura said sheepishly, “I fell off my bike.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry. I do it all the time! Let’s see what Doctor Fujita can do for you. I suspect he’ll want to X-ray your ankle first.”
A child sitting on his mother’s lap began to whimper. Mariko smiled tenderly. “Not feeling well, are you, Hiro-chan? We’ll soon make you better.” Hiro buried his face on his mother’s shoulder.
Mariko shuffled through her paperwork and sighed. She heard a plane passing overhead but didn’t look up. Since the Tokyo bombing, planes had been flying over Hiroshima several times a day.
The phone rang again and Mariko said to herself, “It’s endless. They line up at our door when we open, and we have to chase them out at night. We should probably expand this whole--”
Suddenly there was a blinding flash, and five seconds later a deafening BOOM! Everything went black. A minute later, daylight returned. The walls of the clinic were
flattened. A few tattered bandages and shattered medicine bottles lay scattered about on the linoleum floor. Everything else was gone.
Dr. Fujita stood up slowly, trembling. His clothes hung from his body in shreds. Next to him, Mitzi found herself on her hands and knees, blinking. The flash felt seared into her eyes, even when she closed them.
A few feet away, Hiro-chan and his mother had completely disappeared. Only faint outlines of their vaporized bodies remained on the floor. They were the lucky ones. Kimura-san, the young man with the sore ankle, lay face-down, groaning in agony. His entire back was red with burns.
Mitzi sat up and gasped, “What happened?”
Her words fell literally on deaf ears. Dr. Fujita shook his head. The explosion had shattered his hearing. Like a sleepwalker, he stooped and picked up a random metal lump. It looked like one of Dali's melted clocks, and the hands stood at 8:15 a.m.
Mariko had been thrown a good twenty yards away, and the left side of her face was bloody from flying glass. Mitzi picked up a bandage and pressed it against Mariko’s cheek to staunch the bleeding.
Mariko winced and backed away. “Oh, that makes it worse! Mitzi, are you all right?”
Strangely calm, Mitzi answered, “I think so. A little wobbly but still standing.” The two nurses bent over Kimura-san. His breathing was shallow and his skin was deathly pale. Mitzi draped a shred of a blanket over the young man as he took his last breaths.
Mariko murmured, “Rest now, Kimura-san. Sleep in peace.”
The rest of the day was a blur of trying to treat the wounded people on the ground around them. Some were moaning in pain but most were hollow-eyed and silent. The supplies soon ran out, and the nurses had to pass by many pleas for help. Their hearts ached, but they had no choice.
Mitzi shook her head and sighed heavily. “We’ll have to triage the ones who are beyond hope and help the ones who have a chance. Be strong, Mariko. We’re all they’ve got.”
They applied salve to burns, straightened twisted limbs, and helped the patients drink what little water remained.
As they paused to catch their breath, Mitzi said, “I’ve never seen anything like this. They firebombed Tokyo but this is very different.”
Hour after hour, the women tried to offer comfort to the sick and dying. A folk remedy to ease the pain of burns was sliced cucumbers. All around the city, medical workers used the cucumbers and whatever they could find. The stores ran out of cucumbers within an hour. Regular pain medication was a distant dream.
Mtizi was desperate to find her husband, who had gone to his bank job as usual. Word came that the Hiroshima branch of Chase Bank had been decimated, but the one in Teruya Village was still standing. She prayed that he had gone to Teruya first.
Mariko’s uncle lived in Teruya, so they were able to catch a ride on a vegetable truck close to his house. To her relief, Mitzi eventually found Tom-san, who appeared to be fine. Later they would discover that he had radiation sickness. He died two months after the bombing.
Like so many survivors, the women were haunted by the faces of suffering, and the ones they could not have helped. The worst moments had been having to choose who would live and who would die. As young students they had argued the same concept, “life boat ethics” as it was known, little realizing they would have to wield that power.
And the stench of ash and burning flesh would never leave them.
May 5, 2005
The summer sun beat down on the crowd that filled the vast brick plaza of Boston’s City Hall. Mitzi spoke in clear tones into a booming PA system. “As you can see, we’re pretty old. There are fewer and fewer of us hibakusha left. We live with chronic diseases that aren’t covered by health benefits. I might lose mine for telling you that I have leukemia. But I have to take the chance, for all of you. You are our future.”
Walking slowly, Mariko joined her. She leaned into the humming microphone. “I may not look very sick to you. Just old.” The crowd laughed.
Taking a deep breath, she continued, describing that terrible day when the world changed in the blink of an eye. “Since then, I’ve lived with guilt and memories of the ones we couldn’t help. We both have. But we want you to hear our stories before we go. We have a saying - Kuri kaesa-nai. It must never happen again.”