Walrath: Cherry Blossoms

May 15, 2018

Cherry blossoms speak of the beauty and fragility of all living beings. But to me they also speak of war, and the mothers and fathers who cannot protect their children while living in its midst.

Last spring, I visited Hiroshima while in Japan for an arts residency and to observe the implementation of their radical dementia strategy. With the world’s highest proportion of elderly persons, Japan is working to make the entire country dementia friendly, tolerant of those who wander, of those who live in a different space and time.

There I met Mutsuhiko-san, a hibakusha - a survivor of the bomb that American forces dropped on Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945, at 9:15 in the morning, Tokyo time.

We sat opposite one another in soft stuffed chairs with a low table between us in a small interview room of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Our translator was on one side; a cherry blossom filled window on the other.

On the table sat a map of the city with an irregular orange center ringed with yellow, and contour lines radiating outward. When the bomb detonated, everyone in the orange zone evaporated.

In the yellow zone, people who were outside died of internal injuries from the bomb’s force passing through their bodies. If inside in this zone, as Mutsuhiko-san was, a building’s walls might offer just enough protection to survive the bomb’s force.

Mutsuhiko-san was nine years old at the time, and he remembers every detail. His mother was serving breakfast, his younger brother was sitting beside a window, and his baby brother was lying on the ground. During the blast, Mutsuhiko-san’s eyes were glued to his mother, his anchor. He said, “The image of my mother as a wax doll is forever burned onto the film of my heart.”

I, too, have three sons and these words burned onto my own heart as ephemeral pink petals drifted from the trees outside the museum window,

Memories, even fleeting ones, have the power to connect us across space and time and help us see how we’re linked to events we may not have caused, but from which we have benefited.

It’s a lesson that comes back to me now as violence once again flares in the Middle East – and where, once again, mothers and fathers do their best to protect their children while living in its midst.