This American Life on NPR routinely does amazing stories on radio. The program, hosted by Ira Glass, recently had this piece that really struck me.
In 2010 a man named Itaru from the town of Otsuchi, Japan, was having a hard time dealing with the loss of his cousin. He decided to install a phone booth with an old rotary dial phone on the grass in his backyard where he could go to communicate with his dead cousin. Most Japanese are Buddhist and generally believe that when people die they don’t instantly get to go to heaven and leave all of their earthly concerns behind. They believe that the dead can see suffering of the family members who are still living and they can be caught in a state of limbo in-between life and death. Itaru’s phone was not actually hooked up to a line, but picking it up and imagining he was talking to his cousin was a way for him to deal with his grief.
One year after Itaru installed the phone booth his town of Otsuchi was devastated by the Tsunami in March of 2011 that killed over 19,000 people in Japan. According to the radio story Otsuchi was the place worst hit by the disaster.
Somehow a buzz about Itaru’s phone booth to communicate with the dead spread around Japan. People started coming from everywhere to the phone booth to talk to their own family members who had died in the tsunami. It has become a shrine of sorts, something like the granite wall in Washington with the names of 58,000 American soldiers killed in Vietnam. But this is even more intimate because the people who come to the phone shrine dial their lost family and talk to them as if they are actually on the line.
The reporter for this story is of Japanese origin. She got permission to tape and translate the conversations for the radio piece.
I found calls heartbreaking, but utterly fascinating. People dialed a number like they were calling home and talked to the dead often in a matter of fact way, and sometimes in a sad, regretful way. “Is it cold there?” a man would ask his dead wife. In Japanese culture emotion is rarely expressed overtly, but in the tapes of the calls you could hear the pain and sadness in the most mundane statements and queries.
The conversations (one way, of course) brought tears to my eyes as my wife and I were driving home from the city last Sunday night.
I thought of conversations I wish I had with my parents before they died. I was on a vacation trip with my sister Susan and her family when my mother died suddenly. There was never a chance for a last talk. I would have liked a chance to tell her I loved her deeply.
I do remember a heartfelt talk with my father, visiting him in Florida. We were talking about his wife, my mother, who had died a few years earlier and he said something that struck me with such impact that I still recall it frequently. I thought of it while listening to the “phone call to the dead” show. “I wish I’d given her more jewelry,” he told me.
I asked a therapist about this remark because I wondered why it seemed to bother my father so much. The psychologist interpreted the remark to mean “I wish I gave her more love or sex.” If I could talk to my father today I would ask him to tell me more about the “I wish I gave her more jewelry” comment.
We all have things we’d like to ask the dead or tell the departed. This is the season as we head toward the holidays when we should ask the questions and express our feelings to our loved ones, before we have to make a phone call to the dead.
Question: What would you say in a phone call to the dead?