“I will write peace on your wings, and you will fly all over the world.”
She was two years-old when her world changed, literally, in a flash. At two, she wasn’t really aware of the cataclysmic event that had taken place or that her life’s path had been irrevocably altered. It was just as well. By not knowing, Sadako was permitted a few more years of innocent childhood. As she grew older, some of that innocence was lost, but not all. She, like most children, was resilient and the shattered world of her parents was for her, familiar as the only world she’d known. As she grew older, she experienced all the joys and pains of childhood. She played and dreamed and went to school. She was a normal child in a terrifying landscape.
Ten years passed. The city began to heal. Signs of recovery were found everywhere. But as autumn slipped away, Sadako noticed swelling behind her ears and on her neck. Then bruises appeared on her legs. It was radiation induced leukemia. Dormant for a decade, it now came calling for the child who had survived the flash unscathed. Doctors could do nothing. There was no cure. There was no hope. Sadako was hospitalized and given a year to live.
When science loses hope, the hopeful look elsewhere. Sadako was hopeful. She wanted to be cured—she wanted to live. And so the 12 year-old turned to the mystical crane. In Japanese lore, the crane is a symbol of happiness, good fortune and longevity. According to legend, if you fold a thousand paper cranes—one for each year of a crane’s supposed life span—your greatest wish will come true. And so, Sadako began folding cranes. She used whatever paper was at hand: writing paper, newspaper, medicine labels. She worked tirelessly. When she’d made a thousand cranes and was still no better, she began making a thousand more. She folded another three hundred before dying after one year as the doctors had said.
Both science and legend failed Sadako. Yet in death, she’s become an inspiration for others. Her family and friends erected a statue of her holding aloft a crane. The inscription reads, “This is our cry. This is our prayer. Peace on Earth.” Others retold her story. In a new version, Sadako never completes her thousand cranes. When she dies, friends finish the work as a sign of hope. The tradition continues today as thousands of adults and children fold paper cranes as a reminder of the cruelty of war and as a symbol of peace.
Sadako Sasaki as an enduring symbol of peace is of course good. But symbols can obscure a painful truth. The truth is Sadako wanted nothing more than to be cured. She wanted to grow up and grow old. She wanted the fullness of life that we all enjoy. She wanted to live. We honor her best when we remember this. We owe our children their innocence. We owe them a world in which dreams come true and hope is rewarded. In a noisy world, Sadako speaks to us today. In a whisper we must strain to hear, she’s saying we owe our children more than a thousand cranes. We owe them life. —Ebert