Apologies for recycling this, but Janie's meditation on memory brought to mind my post about my mother who passed away in Oct 2007 that I had put up at hocb. I let the domain lapse, but downloaded the posts (but not the comments). A little poking around and here's the post.
(Oct 14, 2007)
My mother passed away early Sunday morning Japan time. She was 71 and had a melanoma recur and it was inoperable. It didn't look so bad 2 weeks ago, but a sudden worsening in her condition took us by surprise. I had been able to talk to her on the phone the night before, though she couldn't reply, and I hope I was able to let her know how much she meant to me.
I've been trying to get on with my doggy life, doing all the things that are required of me, and trying to inform people who need to know what they need to know. One of the things about Japan is, because the majority are Buddhist, people are very understanding when there's a death in the family, because everyone understands that there are a number of specific ceremonies and rituals that take precedence over almost everything else. The university will post a notice informing everyone at the school, so I don't have to tell people individually, there's an accepted mourning leave period of 11 days, though it was difficult to explain that we didn't know when the services were, because in Japan, the preparations for the ceremony begin promptly with death. But living half a world away makes that kind of preparation difficult to imagine.
So we'll keep our plans to return home in a 10 days, when we hoped to see my mom, and spend time with my dad and brother and do the things we need to do. So things seem to run on an auto-pilot that is slightly but noticeably askew and I find myself trying to cast around to find a story about my mother to tell all of you and settled on this one.
My mother met my father at the University of Wisconsin, and ended up getting married through a series of seemingly random events, the most implausible one being a postcard from my father to my mother rekindling the relationship after a gap of several years from a Goat's Breath Inn in rural Louisiana where my father was working on the US Geodesic Survey. My grandfather on my father's side apparently wasn't happy about the marriage, but Wisconsin was a long way from Kaneoe, and even further away at that time. After the marriage, my father went back to UW to get a second bachelor's degree in Electrical Engineering because he found the work he wanted to do required a pretty thorough knowledge of instrumentation and when he was there, he was given an opportunity to participate in surveys of the Earth's magnetic field, conducted from an airplane flown over the Antarctic, and after some discussion of the opportunity with my mother and shortly after my birth, he went off to live at the South Pole for 6 months. It was decided that my dad would return by way of Hawaii and my mom, with me in tow, would meet him there to meet my grandparents and the rest of the family, which was 8 or so other siblings and their families.
At that time, it was prop planes, and unbeknownst to my mother, who had just departed with me from Minneapolis in a winter blizzard, my father's plane was grounded in New Zealand and he would not be able to make it to Hawaii for another week. So, when my mother stepped on the tarmac of Honolulu airport with me in her arms, swaddled in corduroy and screaming my head off, she didn't find my father, but was surrounded by a pack of Japanese and Hawaiian Pidgin speaking family members who surrounded her and whisked me out of her arms. She had never met any of them and they carted her off to someone's place, where she waited for my dad. For a week.
It's hard for me to imagine what it must of been like, expecting someone to be there and finding yourself basically adrift in a different culture. Different food, different customs, different dialect with the simple task of trying to figure out who was who made even more difficult by the fact that all of my father's siblings had an English name and a Japanese name, used interchangeably, depending on who was talking, what they were talking about, and who they were talking to.
There are other stories to tell, like trying to imagine what it was like for my mother to emigrate with her parents from England in 1950 to the US as a 14 year old, or dealing with a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis by going back to work as a medical receptionist, which had her get to know almost everyone in town, so any trip out became a challenge to my memory, or her visiting me in Japan and thinking that each bow from a saleswoman or shopgirl required a bow in return, to which they bowed in return, which always had me turning around to find my mother and a shopgirl involved in a bowing match to the death. But that first story seems to sum up a lot of the things that always amazed me about my mother. She had told me that her first day at an American high school, she entered the cafeteria for lunch and overwhelmed, having never been in one place with so many people before, ran home and proceeded to have lunch at home for her entire high school career. I asked her how she could change from that person to the person who would take on challenges the way she did and she claimed that after I was born, she made a decision to stand up because she was standing up for not just herself, but for me as well. I don't believe that so much, as when we went to Hawaii, I imagine I was pretty much at the level of a slightly intelligent pet. I was simply a catalyst for her to locate a preternatural courage, a courage that often gets called fearlessness, which is stupid, because the truest courage is when it is in the face of fear. And when I think how difficult it is for me to summon up the courage to go into situations much milder than the one she experienced, despite all of the advantages and experiences I've had to help me overcome my fears, I am really in awe.
As I write this post, I wonder why it is so important to tell all of you about her. Anne Tyler, in Accidental Tourist, has the main character Macon, who mourns a son killed in a random robbery, say what is bad about grief is not the pain, but what happens when you realize that for a moment, and then for longer and longer lengths of time, you are experiencing not the grief but the absence of grief, and you realize that for that time, you've forgotten that person. That has to be what has driven man to put headstones or pile up stones or build monuments or engrave names, and later to endow institutes or have buildings named, as a way to have that knowledge outlast our own weak, wilful memories. Perhaps there is a sadness that drives us which is the realization that it is probably impossible for almost all of us to do anything about this. The memories will fade, my daughters might only briefly note a time when their father was too sad for words, just like I remember my grandmother's passing as the time my father sat in front of his chessboard all evening, not saying a word, a book of chess problems open on his lap. So I write this post as an attempt, however vain, to have this story set off a sympathetic vibration inside of you, and keep that tone that is the memory of my mother, alive a little longer.