Tsunamis, Gunshots and Black Swans*
by Paige Ferrari
I feel funny writing about personal things, but the anniversary of the tsunami in Japan had me thinking a lot about loss, and the unexpected events that change our lives forever. 3/11 was such an emotional event, and remembering it now touches upon an unexpected event in my own life that is a bit raw and unpacked. I hope you won’t mind.
Two years ago I was working as a reporter for Japanese Public television. I was covering the story of American Taylor Anderson – a 24-year-old English teacher who died in the March 11th tsunami.
Taylor was at school when the earthquake happened. After the earth stopped shaking, she decided to ride her bike back to her apartment a few miles away. The tsunami came in and swept away Taylor, and most of Miyagi prefecture, before she got there.
When I went to Taylor’s family home in Virginia and met her family, I was extremely moved by talking to her father. He showed remarkable composure. One thing I noted was that he kept talking about the geological origins of the tsunami: the little cracks in the earth that led to bigger seismic shifts, and then finally unleashed this unimaginably devastating tsunami.
Taylor’s father could understand the geological origins. He simply could not bridge that knowledge with the simple quiet sadness of Taylor not being there anymore. “They say there were two plates that just…. shifted,” he repeated.
Geological rumblings halfway across the world offer absurd explanations for deeply personal loss. It’s the equivalent of a butterfly flapping its wings in Beijing and your best friend’s heart spontaneously combusting.
But two years later I feel like I understand a little better now what he was struggling to work out. In the time since I met Taylor’s family, my own family suffered a loss that – while not an act of nature – feels like a brush with those random forces embodied by the Japanese tsunami.
As only a small group of people close to me know, in April of last year my brother, Justin, was driving home from the Seattle airport around 4pm, when his car rolled into an apparent street side dispute and he was shot and killed. The details are here, if you’re curious. In the days and weeks that followed there was an onslaught of media coverage, most of which marveled at the horrifying randomness of his death. One paper described it as a “split-second mistiming, the essence of random death” and noted that “every turn and stop put him precisely in line with a stray bullet whistling toward his van.”
It reminded me then, and it reminds me now, of Taylor’s dad trying to square those two plates shifting.
There are a lot of clichés to mine here, about loss, and how life turns in an instant, and maybe even about about how handguns are devices packed with a destructive tsunami-like force that is especially prone to randomness. I’d like to talk about that more in depth someday down the road. Right now, it’s probably beyond my skills.
But today, I am thinking about Taylor and her dad and all the other thousands of families trying to square unseeable forces with an empty seat at the table.
I think about how our hearts aren’t just connected to each other, but to changing stoplights, wrong turns, little fissures in the earth and hidden shifts beneath dark water.
*Editor’s note: This was originally published on Paigeferrari.com and is reprinted with Ms. Ferrari’s permission. I know Paige from during the time she was in Japan; we met after friend and I read her hilarious piece on Hooters Japan for Slate magazine. I think one of the great 忘年会 (Forget The Year Party) in my life was spending the evening eating Middle Eastern food with Paige and Sandra Barron. I have family members living in the Seattle area where this happened. I was visiting the city when the events she described happened and picking up the newspaper to find it out was surreal. Her essay is a moving meditation on mortality, fate, and loss and we at JSRC felt it was worth sharing.