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Friday, Sept. 8, 2006

Widowed mother reflects on life post-9/11

Children providing healing, clarity after attacks killed husband in WTC


Staff writer

Five years after the death of her husband Yoichi, Harumi Sugiyama, 41, still wears her wedding ring and dreams about him at night.

News photo
Harumi Sugiyama, widowed by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, strolls through Tokyo's Omotesando district last Friday. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

In her dreams, her husband is alive and she finds herself complaining to him about the hardships she has endured since he was killed in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"There is a part of me that is still waiting for him, even though five years have already gone by," Sugiyama said. "I'll probably keep having that dream forever."

Looking back at her experiences since the tragic events of five years ago, there are moments when she feels the passage of time has healed her immense pain.

But she can never forget.

Sugiyama's husband was a 34-year-old manager at the New York City branch of Fuji Bank. His office was on the 80th floor of the World Trade Center's South Tower.

The couple met while studying at Rikkyo University in Tokyo and married in 1992. They moved to New Jersey in the fall of 2000 after Yoichi was transferred.

On the morning of Sept. 11, Sugiyama remembers her husband leaving for work around 7 a.m. She made breakfast for her two sons Taichi, then 3, and Rikito, 1, and was getting ready to take them to day care when disaster struck.

It was a typical morning -- until two hijacked jetliners slammed into the towers and brought them crashing to the ground.

Although she was four months pregnant, Sugiyama headed to ground zero to look for her husband. She frantically searched local hospitals until doctors told her the stress could cause her to miscarry.

By the time Yoichi's body was recovered in April 2002, her third son Soya was already three months old.

Sugiyama returned to Japan in July that year and published a memoir that was later made in to a TV drama in Japan. Writing the book gave Sugiyama an outlet, she said, allowing her to absorb the reality of what happened and move on with her life.

But the anchor throughout her ordeal has been her children. Despite the loss of their father, they're growing up fast.

Two are in elementary school, and all three have started swimming lessons. Like other mothers, Sugiyama is having a hard time making them put down their video games.

"Everything is chaotic, but raising them makes time the fly by so fast. I wish my husband could have seen the expressions on the kids' faces," she said.

The family has adapted to life without their father the best they can. Sept. 11 has become a day of both grief and remembrance: Every year on the anniversary of Yoichi's death, Sugiyama makes one of her husband's favorite dishes, like Korean-style barbecue, and shares memories over dinner with her children.

But the healing hasn't been easy by any means, especially for her children.

Taichi fervently believed his father had escaped from the World Trade Center. He could not face his father's death and cried as Sugiyama explained what really happened that day. For young Rikito, she had to explain an airplane had crashed into a building, killing many people, including his father.

"In retrospect, I've spent the last five years just taking care of my children," she said.

As for Sugiyama herself, although she is still overwhelmed by sadness at times, she has not sought vengeance for the loss of her husband.

"Crashing airplanes into a building is incomprehensible. I can't understand how anyone can do such a thing, so it's impossible to bear a grudge against a terrorist," she said.

For the same reason, it is difficult for her to blindly support the military action taken by the U.S. after the terrorist attacks, which she said has not resulted in a safer world.

Still, Sugiyama said the U.S. is an extraordinary country that offered unstinting help to the victims of Sept. 11 -- psychological counselors and lawyers were provided free of charge and children received free gifts from toy companies. By contrast, the Japanese government did not offer much help.

"The U.S. is a great country. It's so influential. That is why it needs to be aware of its actions," she said.

For one thing, Sugiyama has doubts about the decision to construct a new building on the site of the World Trade Center.

"Is it really safe to build new towers at ground zero? Is it rational? It scares me," she said.

Last year, Sugiyama and her sons visited ground zero for the first time since returning to Japan. As Taichi found his father's name in the list of victims and prayed, Soya, unable to comprehend the gravity of the situation, joked around his brothers. Rikito had a sore throat and wanted to go home.

"I am grateful for every single day that I am alive, and to be able to lead an ordinary life. I just hope the next five years will bring peace to the world," Sugiyama said.



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