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Kuniko Katz's essays, articles and letters to the editors

September 11: Sarah Lawrence College, Sept, 2002

“Come on up, we are here!” I heard a young boy’s excited voice somewhere in the stairwell but couldn’t tell exactly where it came from. “Where are you?” I asked looking around, “I can’t see you.”
“Here, here. On the top floor,” the voice responded and I realized that I was on the wrong floor for their apartment. I hastily climbed the stairs and saw the owner of the voice standing in front of the door with his mother.
“You took an awfully long time to get here,” he said. He must have been standing there from the moment I buzzed the doorbell at the entranceway downstairs.
“I’m sorry about that.” I apologized and bent forward slightly to introduce myself. His cute black bobbed hair and huge round eyes reminded me of a Japanese doll.
“What’s your name?”
“Ryu,” he answered shyly.
“And how old are you?”
“Five,” he barked and quickly ran inside the room as if to say “Enough interrogation, already!”
“Oh, Ryu-chan,” his mother said smiling apologetically and invited me into their apartment. “Please forgive the mess,” she said. Boy, I thought stepping inside, she isn’t kidding. The toys were everywhere on the floor and the entire living room looked like a playpen. I had to walk very carefully so that I didn’t step on anything.

After I sat on the sofa, I offered my condolences to Ryu’s mother, Yoshiko H., and thanked her for agreeing to talk to me. Yasuko smiled and said softly, “It is very nice of you to come.” She had shoulder length light brown hair that matched well with her fair skin and pretty face. On the table between us, there were two cups of hot green tea and a plate of Japanese sweets.

Sipping the green tea, I didn’t know how I should begin the conversation. Although I was there to ask her about her husband, who’d died on September 11, I didn’t want to sound too inquisitive. It was only yesterday that we’d spoken on the phone for the first time when she’d called to say that I could visit her anytime.

Before she did that, I’d asked my friend Masako, who happened to be her neighbor and from whom I learned about her husband, to call her. I told Masako that I had wanted to meet and offer my condolences but not knowing her personally I was hesitant to do so. Now that I had an assignment to write something about September 11, I felt it was a good opportunity to meet with her. I asked Masako if it would be possible for her to introduce us. Soon afterwards, Yoshiko called me.

I looked at Ryu playing busily in the center of the room. He was making buzzing noises while moving his toy plane up and down. “Does he know what happened to his father?” I asked Yoshiko, feeling relieved that I found something to initiate our conversation.
“I’m not sure how much he understands,” she said looking at her son. “As you can see, he often plays with toy planes. He builds tall buildings with Lego’s and destroys them with the plane. But then from time to time he asks me when his father will come home.”

Tears welled in Yoshiko’s eyes. “Excuse me,” she said and disappeared somewhere. A few moments later, she returned with a tissue box in her hand and said with a weary smile, “I can’t talk to anyone without this nowadays.” I nodded, not knowing what to say.

“You know,” she said wiping her tears, “I don’t blame Ryu for thinking that his father is still alive.” She said that her husband, Nobu, being a typical, hard working Japanese businessman, didn’t spend much time with his family. He used to leave home around six -thirty in the morning and come home after ten, which was usually long after Ryu’s bedtime. He often took business trips for a few weeks at a time, so it wasn’t unusual for Ryu to spend his days alone with his mother. “Even I can’t believe he is not coming home.”

“How are you doing?” I asked hesitantly.
“I’m doing much better, now,” she said, “I have a wonderful Japanese psychiatrist who understands my situation; and many people are helping us. I’m afraid I was in pretty bad shape in the beginning, though.” She paused, and after a while, continued.

Her friend had called her from Japan the morning of September 11. She asked if Nobu, her husband, was all right. There had been an accident at the WTC building. Yoshiko, who’d just come back from Ryu’s kindergarten, hadn’t heard anything about it yet so she turned on the TV while talking to her friend. Then she found out with great relief that it wasn’t the tower his office was in. She told her friend not to worry about it and thanked her for calling.

As she hung the phone, she saw another airplane hit the other tower and the upper part of the building explode. “I couldn’t believe my eyes,” she said reaching out for another tissue, “I really thought I was in a nightmare.”

Then, she said, she heard her husband’s voice. He was desperately calling the names of two people. “Mr. K! Mr. H! Are you all right?” She didn’t know what to make of it but definitely felt something awful had happened to him.

Yoshiko was frantic afterwards. Her many desperate attempts to reach to her husband were in vain and there was nothing she could do to find out what had happened to him. She was so frustrated about it all she remembered of those hours was walking around the room asking herself, “Why, why, why?”

As soon as planes were allowed to fly again, her parents came from Japan to be with her but still, it was a hard period to go through. “I don’t know what I would have done if Ryu weren’t with me,” she said looking at her son, still busy at play. “I realized he might have lost his father. I had to be strong for him.”

After visiting hospitals in search of her husband, and talking to survivors and victims’ families, Yoshiko gradually began to acknowledge his fate. She heard that most people, if they were alive, called home by nightfall or certainly within a few days, even if they were in critical condition. She also learned that there were no survivors from the eighty-fourth floor on which his office had been located.

“Our parents and the people from my husband’s company wanted us to return home to Japan as soon as possible,” she said. “I know they worry about us.” But she didn’t want to go home so soon. “How could I leave New York knowing my husband’s body is still in the wreckage,” she said.

She didn’t want Ryu’s life to change abruptly, either. They had been in New York only three months when the incident occurred and the best thing she could do for Ryu, she thought, was to stay on a bit longer so that he could have as normal a life as possible by continuing in kindergarten. She was also afraid that the insensitive Japanese media would have intruded on their privacy. “In the United States,” she said, “people were so sensitive to our feelings they left us alone.”

“I’m glad that I didn’t go home immediately,” she said. “Staying here for five months has given me a chance to think about my future. I’m now thinking about going back to college for a graduate degree so that eventually I can start a new career.”

Yoshiko and her husband had completed the same university the same year. He began working at M-Bank while she worked for a trading company. After two years, she quit her job to marry him. During the ten years of their marriage, she’d seen how involved her husband was in his work. They’d been in Tokyo for four years, London for four years and Hong Kong for two years, and no matter where they were, he worked hard and long hours and seemed to enjoy every minute of it.

“I used to complain to him from time to time that while he enjoyed his work so much, I had to stay home and take care of our child. Not that I didn’t like my life as a mother and a corporate wife, but at times I felt envious.”

She said she knew her husband would have been happy about her decision to go back to school. While studying and eventually holding a job, she hoped to raise Ryu in a way that would make her husband very proud of her.

About hearing her husband’s voice, she often wondered if she’d just imagined it. But when she learned that someone name Mr. K also perished that day along with her husband and Mr. H, she knew it was definitely her husband’s voice that she heard. Otherwise, she said, “How would I know there was Mr. K?” She had met Mr. H but had no idea who Mr. K was. She was later told by company people that he was a newly arrived business colleague of her husband.

“I don’t believe in superstition, you know,” Yasuko said, “but I know I heard him.” She said that it might have been his way of saying good-bye to her.

“Look what I made!” Ryu suddenly interrupted us by excitedly showing an airplane he just made with Lego’s.

“Wow, that’s excellent,” I said, “What a wonderful looking airplane!” He smiled satisfactorily and quickly went back to where he was and resumed his playing. Ryu was so adorable I couldn’t help but burn with rage against the terrorists again. I realized afresh that they not only killed many innocent people, they also made many children fatherless, motherless and took loved ones from their families and friends all over the world. What right did they have to take Ryu’s father from him? What right did they have to kill anyone, anyway? The country wasn't even at the war.

I used to think that the United States didn’t have good a humanitarian record when it came to war. In Japan, for example ,where I was born and raised , the U.S. kept relentlessly attacking civilians all over Japan from high above with B29s even after dropping nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki three days apart. Although I was only three years old at the time, I still have some recollection of being carried into a shelter in the ground whenever we heard the air raid warning and of running through the burning streets after bombs directly hit the houses of our neighbors on August 10. It was the day after Nagasaki and a large part of our city, Kumamoto, located about 100 miles from Nagasaki, was fire bombed and over 500 people died. We were truly lucky to be alive.

As bad as it sounds, I have to say now that at least the United States and Japan were at war. People knew the worst might be coming. But who could imagine what happened on September 11? How could anyone explain to little Ryu how and why his father died?

Yoshiko said that she was now ready to go home. She and Ryu were leaving at the end of March so that Ryu could start his new kindergarten in Japan in April. After holding her husband’s memorial service in Japan without his remains, she would make a decision about when and how to start her schooling. “I may come back to New York with Ryu soon. Only this time as a student,” she said.

I told her that I would be happy to help her if she needed some and asked her to let me know how they were doing in Japan.

It was time for me to leave. I thanked Yoshiko again for talking to me and said to Ryu, “Sayonara, Ryu-chan. Thanks again for showing me the way.”

“Sayonara,” Ryu smiled and waved his hand. Going out the door, I couldn’t help but wish that he would grow up in a world where his father’s fate would never be repeated by anyone.

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