Rabbi Lisa Kingston
Yizkor 5777
October 12, 2016

The Wind Phone

Itaru Sasaki of Otsuchi Japan, was having a difficult time grieving over the loss of his cousin. Not only did he not know how to talk about his loss, but he didn't have anyone to talk to about it with. And the person who he really wanted to talk to of course, was his cousin. [1]

And so, Itaru went out and bought an old-fashioned phone booth and stuck it in his garden. It was a used English-style booth; square and painted white, with glass window panes. And inside he put a black rotary phone, resting on a wooden shelf. This phone connected to nowhere. It didn't work at all. But that didn't matter to Itaru. He just needed a place where he felt like he could talk to his cousin. Explaining his rationale, he told a reporter from This American Life, “Because my thoughts could not be relayed over a regular phone line, I wanted them to be carried on the wind. So I named this, the wind telephone.”

When I first heard this story on the NPR podcast, I couldn't decide whether Itaru sounded absolutely crazy, or ingenious. Probably a little bit of both. We all want to talk with those we miss dearly. We want to continue the relationships that have ended abruptly, that still have room to grow, and have more love left to share.

There are many ways we keep alive those whom we have loved and lost. Sometimes we glance at their photos on our dressers. We offer their smiling faces a quick “good night” or an “I love you” as we prepare for bed. Maybe it’s when we are sitting in our living room, noticing the decorative urn on our mantle that we yearn for our parent, or spouse to be sitting beside us. Or, we intentionally share memories as a family when we are memorialized, staring at the flickering flame of a yahrzeit candle. The wind telephone is just another way of giving permission to our desire to remain connected to our loved ones. Maybe the connection between our world and theirs doesn't have to be so finite?

When my cousin Lauren got married last October, my sister and I were bridesmaids. Lauren’s nieces were the cutest flower girls, and my entire extended family was there to celebrate with her. But on this beautiful day, we could not help but feel the absence of our Grandmother Dorothy, who had died just a few months earlier. As we stood beside Lauren in her joy, we wondered if Grandma would ever know that Lauren had found love?  Before the ceremony, through tears, Lauren’s mom told us that just days before the wedding, she invited our grandma to the wedding. There is an old Jewish custom of visiting the cemetery before a simcha to include all loved ones in the celebration. My aunt had even brought an invitation. And while she was there, she gave Grandma the full family update—not just about the wedding, but how our jobs were going, who was sick, where we had traveled, the sales at Lord and Taylor, what she had cooked for the holidays. All the things our grandma would have asked about, she know knew.

A year after Itaru built the wind telephone to keep in touch with his cousin, the town of Otsuchi was devastated by a tsunami. Over 400 people were wiped away within a half hour, leaving the families of Otsuchi torn with grief and longing. And then word got out about Itaru's special wind phone. Soon people started showing up randomly on his property, and walking right into the phone booth. Itaru estimates that thousands of people from all over Japan have come to use his phone. His invention drew so much attention that a documentary was made to find out what people were saying to their loved ones.

It turns out that most people used the phone just to update loved ones about friends and family. When a grandmother put her oldest grandchild on the phone with their grandfather, the conversation sounded as a familiar as an afternoon check-in.

The grandson speaks,

“Hi Grandpa, how are you? I'll be in fourth grade next semester. Wasn't that fast? Daina, my younger brother, he'll be in second grade next year.”

Then his grandma interrupts to correct him. She says,

“No, Daina will be in second grade this year, not next.”

 “Oh yeah, this year.” Then his younger brother grabs the phone and chimes in, “I finished all my homework Grandpa!”

Another woman who enters the phone booth, picks up the phone and starts to dial: 4, 2, 5, 7, 4, 4. She's dialing the phone number for her house that was washed away; the last place she knew how to reach her husband. Then she stands in the booth in silence, holding the phone to her ear. Wishing for, dreaming of an answer.

Almost 10 years ago, my father’s best friend Roger was killed in a tragic car accident. But I recall one morning soon after. My dad was sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and reading the New York Times, looking at the stock market. Then, without awareness, he reached for our kitchen phone and dialed Roger’s number—calling his best friend for financial advice as was something they often did. As the phone rang and rang, my mom reminded him that Roger was not going to answer. But it doesn't mean we don't reach out.

In our current age—Facebook pages, cell phone numbers, and Instagram accounts remain active after our loved ones have died, often turning into shrines and memorials for those we have lost. After 39-year-old Anthony Dowdell took his own life, Facebook became the place where his wide-cast group of friends mourned together. A friend shared, “we could leave messages for him and each other.” Friends still upload photos of Dowdell and his dog, Bacon, and if they were hanging out at a restaurant or bar he would like, they tag his name so his Facebook profile shows that he, too, was there with them.[2]         

This isn't so different from calling our loved ones from a disconnected phone booth to keep them alive. We see old names and numbers in our contacts when we scroll through our phones, and we are stunned for a moment. A sharp pang of grief stabs us and retreats and we wish, just for a moment to be able to press that green button and hear their voice. Or maybe we do it. We call their voicemail and listen to their timeless voices, knowing our message may never be heard.

Yizkor is another mode we use. We come together to connect to our loved ones with the familiar rhythm of our liturgy, the words of sacred songs, and remember that we can talk to those we miss any time. It doesn't have to be in synagogue, a cemetery, at a shrine, or on the phone. It doesn't have to be out loud. It can be—it should be whenever thoughts of them cross our minds.

Our loved ones are a part of everything we do, of everything that we are. The dynamic relationship we are able to have with someone who has died can continue to grow and breathe long after they are gone. Memory is more than just remembering what was, it is how we bring our past into our re-imagined futures.

We keep people alive by our memories, but we keep relationships growing and evolving by continuing to share our feelings, our regrets, our fears, our updates. My cousin Lauren now wears the wedding band of my Grandma Dorothy, remembering her grandma’s love is now entwined in her own relationship. My father and his friends still toast to Roger when they get together. I can still hear my grandmother’s voice—a voice of my childhood—on her answering machine.

Grief and heartache touch each one of us. While this realization doesn’t make our pain hurt any less, it can forge strong bonds of compassion and empathy between us. Unlike Itaru, we do have people to talk to about our grief, about our loss, about our pain. We have the people in this community. We have Yizkor. In our grief, we share memories, updates, thoughts, and feelings with each other too. We may not have a wind phone, but we can make a real phone call. Check in, ask how we are doing? What are we feeling? How are we remembering? It’s not only the ones we miss who will be there on the other end of the phone line. We’re there too.


[1] This American Life #597 One Last Thing Before I Go: Transcript

[2] Jaweed Kaleem. Death on Facebook Now Common as Dead Profiles Create Vast Virtual Cemetery.Huffington Post