Calling the Dead

風の電話Yesterday was the seventh anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster that followed the terrifying tsunami that followed an earthquake bigger than ever recorded before in Japan. That tragic domino effect cumulatively killed more than 18,000 people, many of whose bodies were never recovered. Countless families had  beloved pieces of their worlds violently ripped away from them, pieces that still ache invisibly like ghost limbs.

A few weeks ago, I listened to an older podcast from This American Life called “One Last Thing Before I Go.” The first act recalls a man in the nearby city of Otsuchi who had lost his cousin the year before that triple disaster. In an attempt to deal with his unresolved grief, Itaru Sasaki bought an old phone booth. He painted it pristine white and positioned it in his garden, in a pretty spot that overlooks the ocean. For comfort, Sasaki used it to talk to his cousin, “on the wind.”

He had no idea his telephone booth, inside which sits an old rotary phone, unconnected to any wires, would become a vital resource to many who lost loved ones in the tsunami. Thousands of people come from miles away — sometimes regularly — and help themselves to the booth. I wonder how Sasaki feels about what he started, this community offering. That he gave people a sort of portal — if not actually to the dead, to people’s memories of the dead. It helps them somehow.

A recorder was put inside the phone booth to listen to the calls.

Moshi, moshi, they start. Hello?

Parents, grandchildren, friends, entire families make the trek to talk on the Wind Telephone. Some of them even actually dial.

Everyone is doing fine, they say into the receiver. This is apparently important so that the dead don’t feel trapped on this side. Don’t worry about us. We are told the dead need to be reassured, released — in order to go… wherever they are going — the afterlife. Buddhist faith suggests the dead can be stuck on Earth if they are worried about the people they are leaving behind.

Many ask that question we all want to ask, Where are you?

Particularly heartbreaking are those whose people are truly lost — the whereabouts of even the mortal bodies unknown. People beg them to come home.

Why did it have to be you? Why did you die?

They cry when they haven’t cried: Stoic men break down. Teenaged girls sob uncontrollably. Families finally discuss their losses. They all talk when they hadn’t talked. They say things they always wanted to say but couldn’t. To each other, to the wind.

I had a vague, uneasy sense of eavesdropping inappropriately. But it all struck me as deeply poignant, therapeutic, healing. I cried along with them.

I was so moved by the story of the Wind Telephone, that I looked online and found tons of other stuff. I found beautiful pictures in an article inspired by the same show on This American Life. I learned there is a notebook on which mourners can also jot notes that may come to them while they commune with their lost people.

I watched an hour-long documentary about the phone. People are so relieved when they exit the booth. They feel heard. You can practically see their shoulder drop from releasing stress.

How will I get through? A man asks.

Don’t we all talk to the dead from time to time? Ask the air, the sky, whatever, for forgiveness, apologize for wrongdoings, look for advice or protection. Sometimes, you just want to tell them what’s going on.

Tomorrow is my brother David’s birthday. He would have been fifty-seven.

When he died suddenly almost ten years ago, I listened to his outgoing voicemail message every day, often several times a day, just to hear his voice — calm, assuring, with a soft Texan accent. Hey, this is Dave… I found it devastating when, one day, I finally reached a recording that his number — and with it, his voice — had been disconnected.

I want to visit the Wind Telephone. I want to call David and wish him well on his birthday. I want to ask where he is, why it had to be him? I really do want to ask how I will ever get through. I want to catch him up on the things I’ve been doing and hear about his latest adventures. And I think he’d really like that view across the ocean.

I ache for a way to reach across the universe to a magical in-between space and tell him I love him and miss him, and — even though it might not be completely true — bravely say that we are doing fine, not to worry about us.



Photo by mikinee, via Wikimedia Commons


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