It’s my birthday. I’m thirty one years old, and although I’m still not sure whether I feel like a grownup or not, I’m now far enough in to this new decade to be able to say with confidence that I’m in my thirties.
It’s also the 68th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, a fact that gives this day a complicated patina of heartache, remembrance and a funny thankfulness that, in spite if everything, this dear old planet and I have managed to complete yet another whirl around the sun. I’ve always felt a little haunted by the hundreds of thousands of people who died thirty seven years and half a world away from my birth. I’ve always felt a sort of funny debt to them, as if I owe something to them, though I’m not quite sure what. You would think that as the Hiroshima dead fade further and further into the past that their weight would begin to feel lighter, less real, but instead, the reverse is true – the more distant this event becomes, the more the bombing of Hiroshima colours and shapes this day for me.
Where do you even begin to try to figure out what happened in Hiroshima? You could start by bring the camera in as close as possible, fiddling with the settings and watch as shapes dissolve into other, smaller shapes, the image adjusting and readjusting until finally the atoms themselves are in focus.
The physics of nuclear fission sound more like poetry than science – a single neutron is fired at an atom, in this case an atom of uranium-235, and splits the nucleus apart. Out of each split nucleus will fly several more neutrons, which will smash into other atoms, which will, in turn, split and release their own neutrons. The fracturing of each and every atom releases another tiny bit of heat and radiation; when a chain reaction like this occurs in the millions of atoms that make up a pound of uranium-235, the resulting explosion is enough to lay waste to entire cities.
All of this can be much more simply and elegantly expressed in one neat equation:
Now pull the camera back, watch the atoms coalesce into more recognizable shapes, objects and buildings and people, until your view is that of the Japanese sky a few hours after sunrise.
At 8:15 am on August 6th, 1945, the Enola Gay flew over Hiroshima, releasing Little Boy, a gun-type fission bomb. Little Boy missed its intended target of the Aioi Bridge, and instead detonated directly over the Shima Hospital. The hospital was destroyed, the staff and patients reduced to a pile of bleached bones by the heat of the blast. The centre of the city was destroyed, an estimated five square miles turned to scorched rubble. 80,000 people died that day, and another 80,000 more died over the course of the next few months either from the effect of burns, radiation sickness or other injuries.
One hundred and sixty thousand people.
Because of one bomb.
I’m not sure how old I was when my parents told me that the anniversary of my birth is also the anniversary of this annihilating atomic flash that was responsible for so many deaths; it feels like something that’s always been a part of my personal mythology. I remember poring over the entry for Hiroshima in our battered green family encyclopedia, nauseated by the descriptions of peeling flesh and charred bones but somehow unable to stop reading. I checked books out of the library about atomic bombs, books from the adult section with mostly incomprehensible text and lurid, technicolor photographs of fiery mushroom clouds. Someone gave me a book when I was seven or eight called Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, about a little girl whose blood cells, irradiated and mutated by the bomb, developed a form of leukemia. Remembering an old Japanese legend that said that the gods would grant any wish to a person who managed to fold a thousand cranes, Sadako began frantically making cranes out of every scrap of paper she could find. She died in October of 1955, after folding only 644 cranes.
After that, I learned how to make paper cranes.
It seemed like the right thing to do.
Because I felt like I had to do something; I felt like I had some kind of responsibility to the history of this day that gave me my first breath, my first sunrise, my first wailing cry. I still feel that way. And though I’ve all but given up on origami, I try to find other ways to honour the dead.
So I spend an hour or so every birthday looking at pictures from Hiroshima – the survivors with their twisted limbs and thick, ropy scars, the cityscape smashed flat and littered with debris, the shadows burned into walls and sidewalks, marking the places where people stood looking up at the sky during their last moments on earth.
I look at these pictures and take the time to consider that these are the things that we do to each other. These are, in fact, the cold, calculated atrocities that humans perpetrate against other humans. These people are the people who died because of us, because of the endless machinations of our stupidly cunning species. The wards full of children lying helpless as the atomic leukemia slowly, agonizingly leaches the life from their bodies? That was us. The old man bloated and swollen from radiation sickness, the raw skin peeling off his face and hands? That was us. The people vaporized in an instant who left nothing behind, not one single thing to be treasured by those who loved them? Still us. The groaning, bleeding, charred mass of people who lingered on for months and months, each day a living hell? Us.
As if being alive isn’t difficult enough, as if there aren’t enough tricks and traps ready to ensnare our brittle bodies, we have to go and do these things to each other.
I want to remember how easy it is for us to live side by side with these atrocities. I want to recognize that when I go to sleep in my clean, comfortable bed in my safe, comfortable city, somewhere out there are people whose lives are little more than grinding daily pain. I want to know the names of all the Iraqis who have died, all the children in Afghanistan who have become collateral damage in this war, all of the people everywhere out their whose agony is directly attributable to other humans. I need to know and remember these things, because the not knowing and not remembering are so much more dangerous.
I’ll leave you with a poem written by Sadako Kurihara, a survivor of the Hiroshima blast. I’ll leave with the thought, the question, really, of how each of us can be midwives in our own lives. I’ll leave you to, hopefully, take a few moments of your own to remember.
LET US BE MIDWIVES!
Night in the basement of a concrete structure now in ruins.
Victims of the atomic bomb jammed the room;
it was dark – not even a single candle.
The smell of fresh blood, the stench of death,
the closeness of sweaty people, the moans.
From out of all that, lo and behold, a voice:
“The baby’s coming!”
In that hellish basement,
at that very moment, a young woman had gone into labor.
In the dark, without a single match, what to do?
People forgot their own pains, worried about her.
And then: “I’m a midwife. I’ll help with the birth.”
The speaker, seriouly injured herself, had been moaning only moments before.
And so new life was born in the dark of that pit of hell.
And so the midwife died before dawn, still bathed in blood.
Let us be midwives!
Let us be midwives!
Even if we lay down our own lives to do so.
My birthday last year, making lanterns and paper cranes with my sisters at the Rally for Peace: