(excerpted from a manuscript in progress)
“You ok, Mom?” My twenty-something son, standing at the UNESCO dedication stone, glanced over his right shoulder to where I stood, a large trembling mass, ready to burst. Breath, unsteady. Gaspy. Tears already patterning my cheeks. My son knows me well.
Moments earlier, our family of four had stepped off the Hiroshima City Transit bus to walk a tree-lined street on a warm spring day in Japan. Sunhat on head, camera in hand – the perfect tourist – I prepared to shoot.
Then Genbaku, the A-Bomb Dome, the skeletal remains and rubble of the Prefectural Industrial Promotional Hall built in 1914. Protected now by a black wrought iron fence, it is the only building left standing near the epicentre of the August 6, 1945 US Forces’ bomb, Little Boy, even though Japan had already issued a conditional surrender to Allied forces. The untested nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima killed sixty-six thousand people almost immediately. Seventy percent of the dead were civilians – collateral damage. Another sixty-nine thousand, injured. At the very least, an additional sixty thousand died by the end of 1945. How many more from radiation-related illness and disease? From shock, depression, birth defects? What of the intergenerational trauma? The orphans and forgotten? Who knows what else?
“Just give me a minute, ok?” I said as the crumbled bones of a building continued to register meaning. Rooted in place, a range of physical, psychological, and emotional experiences raced through me. But my son’s voice called me to the present, to my body as it stood at the northern edge of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. I knew that I could not ignore what was happening in this moment, through this act of bearing witness, this was not the time or the place.
Though I wanted to drop to my knees and wail, I dropped into a breathing exercise. In and out, setting aside emotion for later. Remembering now. Vacation time. Golden week in Japan. Many families. My family. Tourists. A culture I did not know.
I could not look away. A rumble started in my gut. My chest ached. I would remember this moment. I would try to write it.
With a sharp inhalation I focused my camera on the cindercrete debris. Back-and-forth, photobombing the ruins from different angles, all the while yearning for a telephoto lens to take me more deeply into that darkness, to capture more intimate details of the wreckage, the breadth of the destruction. How many stood inside at the moment the building fell? How can periwinkle blossom around such a place?
A place on the planet significant enough to preserve as a UNESCO World Heritage site, this human contradiction: “tremendous destructive power” and “hope for world permanent peace.” A memorial. A memory. Re-membering.
c. 2019 Bernadette Wagner