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Originally published Friday, March 25, 2011 at 3:00 PM

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Guest columnist

From Des Moines to Japan, the human connection of tragedy

Guest columnist Ann Hay reflects on a chance encounter she had with an elderly Japanese couple at Des Moines Marina and their shared moment considering the tragedy in Japan.

Special to The Times

THIS past Saturday, I got in my car with my dog Alex to drive to the Des Moines Marina to work on my boat. Once I arrived, the sun was shining and warm, so I took Alex for a walk knowing that, this time of year, in an hour or two, it could be raining cats and dogs and a walk would be pretty miserable.

So we walked around the marina grounds to the north end of the marina where there is a park, a fishing pier and a large parking lot. Lots of folks fish off that pier, sit in their parked cars or walk around and simply enjoy the view of Puget Sound and the extraordinary peace there.

But this past Saturday was different. Alex and I passed one particular car that had a very elderly Japanese couple in it. I remember making eye contact with one or the other of the occupants, who both were obviously crying. Then I quickly moved on, not wanting to embarrass them or me.

But only a few feet later, I realized that they wouldn't be here — out in the open, in public — if they were embarrassed and that it was mostly me who was embarrassed. My heart just stopped. And I hung my head.

I turned and walked back toward the car and made very purposeful eye contact with the two people, difficult as that was for me. They were crying so hard. But they both looked right at me. And as soon as we made eye contact, I stopped walking and started crying too. Right there in the parking lot. For a fraction of a second, I was embarrassed again, but then I didn't care about being embarrassed.

I just cried. I stood there a moment and then walked to the car and laid my hand on the hood and just stood there, looking out across the saltwater of Puget Sound. They knew I was there and they knew I was crying. Fairly quickly, the woman opened the passenger window and held out her very small hand to me. I went to the window and knelt down and held her hand (and she held mine) and all three of us cried. He reached over and touched her so that all three of us were touching.

There were no words. We just cried. Really big tears. Together.

And we looked out over the saltwater of Puget Sound knowing that these waters move north and then turn left at the Strait of Juan de Fuca and then flow to Japan — that all of these molecules of water touch each other. Even in the parking lot at Des Moines, Wash., we knew we were looking right at Japan. And we cried.

Eventually, I got up and let go of her hand, and she of mine. With my hands pressed together, I bowed deeply to them. They exclaimed and said words I didn't understand but that I think I do understand. I said, "God bless you," and they said words to me that surely meant the same.

I hope their sadness and loss is a bit less, or that, with shared human compassion, it is a bit more bearable. I can't imagine losing family with so much tragedy when you're so far from home.

Though I may never see these people again, they are my family.

Ann Hay and Alex live in Burien

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