“… the cherry blossom represents the fragility and the beauty of life. It’s a reminder that life is almost overwhelmingly beautiful but that it is also tragically short.” – CherrHomaru Cantu
According to the calendar, it has been spring for over a month. The equinox marked another official beginning of the season. Yet it is only now that spring really feels like it’s in business, for the cherry blossoms are blooming.
You can get over just about anything if you do it enough times, and so it is with me and the cherry blossoms. The delight I might have felt when I experienced the sakura the first couple of times has faded, tempered by all the other things I associate with the season. The chaotic frenzy of the new school year. Hayfever. Crowds and a near-obsession with capturing the perfect photo and selfie at the expense of the real world. The reality that picnics under the cherry blossoms actually just involve getting drunk enough that you might not notice your backside is freezing off. Winter still not bloody going away.
But there is still more to it than that.
Unlike April 2nd 2016, which has been grey and cool, April 2nd of 2015 was a warm, clear day. It was beautiful weather for viewing the cherry blossoms and that was what I set out to do. Normally, I would have been working for at least part of the day but it was spring vacation and my Thursday students had taken the day off. One of my other students had recommended a place in Tokyo that was very popular, explaining at length the routes one can walk to visit several different vantage points. I was 10 weeks pregnant, though not many people knew it yet, and certainly not my students, in the throes of morning sickness and struggling to gather the energy to do anything much at all. Yet I was also conscious that my obvious interest and the effort my student had put in meant it would disappoint her, even if very quietly, if I did not make the journey to see them.
I made it to the train station where I needed to switch lines and stopped for lunch first; skipping it just exacerbated the “morning” sickness, which was really afternoon/evening sickness with me. I tucked my phone away long enough to pick out a restaurant, order, pay, and find a seat. It was about a five minute window where I was not paying attention to my phone. Just five minutes. Yet in that time, I got a message.
It was from my mother. My uncle was dead.
Ten years ago, in 2005, I remember being utterly offended when a friend announced her engagement via ambiguous text message. The world’s changed since then, though, and even if ambiguity still grates on my nerves, text messages are a more acceptable means of breaking major news now. In this case, perhaps it was the least painful way to do it. As she later explained, she needed me to know before the Facebook tributes started flowing and told me for her, but the idea of making that particular international phone call, dealing with possibly not getting through or Skype, wasn’t something any of us were keen on. It was the right choice.
My uncle was sick, really, for a long time before that from diabetes-related problems that were only exacerbated by what were honestly questionable lifestyle choices. The doctors had told him a couple of years before that they didn’t expect him to live longer than five years. For all that, though, it was still a shock. He was always a part of our lives until, that day, he wasn’t anymore.
Accompanying shock was a wave of overwhelming helplessness. I remember sitting there, feeling suddenly and unpleasantly both hot and cold, and just not knowing what I should, could, would do. Lunch arrived and I had to eat it, and somehow that became continuing on with my original plan because the alternative was to cancel it and go home, and to do that would mean beginning the painful process of accepting that my uncle had died.
Details from the rest of the day stand out starkly in my mind. The blue skies, the crowds, the strong wind that blew through the trees. I remember feeling sick, exhausted, dazed, and I remember seeing the cherry blossoms even as I remember not really taking them in. There’s the overpriced juice from a vending machine when I started feeling sick again, the darkness of the subway that took me there and, finally, the burning of tears in squeezed-shut eyes on the return trip.
I found myself regretting my choice today as I was walking along. Aside from the reasons I already mentioned, I made myself carry on with my viewing plans because, if my pregnancy was a success (and it was such a very big if back then in my mind), I might not have a chance to carry out such a trip again in the immediate future. To do so with a baby or small child did not seem wise. I’m pretty sure that I was correct about that, but I’m not sure now that I’ll be able to bring myself to do so even when/if it becomes feasible again. I think of that place and I remember pale blossoms, blue skies, crowds, a sense of unreality and the first shock of loss.
Cherry blossoms are finicky things. Some people plan visits to Japan around their blooming, but I honestly wouldn’t recommend it. A streak of cold weather can delay them, a burst of warm weather can bring them forward, and the rains and winds that are so common in April can sweep them away with brutal efficiency. They do not last long.
Aside from their beauty, though, it is their transience that makes them so worthy of excitement. They come and go so very quickly, with a degree of unpredictability that even the sakura watch weather forecasts cannot really overcome. As Cantu noted, they are seen as representative of life itself.
I didn’t go home for the funeral. I wish I had even as I recall how impossible it felt. A ten hour minimum flight is tough at the best of times, and early pregnancy certainly isn’t that, and my budget was already badly strained. The pragmatist in me noted that attending would have been for me, that while I think such a thing would have been appreciated, my fleeting appearance would have caused my family even more stress with having to manage me, my flights, and my less than fully healthy state. The last time I saw my uncle was the day after Christmas 2014, briefly, and that has to be enough. I can wish that I could back in time and lengthen it, to say things that were left unsaid, but that won’t make it possible.
Writing this, I’m finding that I no longer regret this new association I have between cherry blossoms and death. It’s a reminder, even if it is sobering and depressing. All we have is now. Nothing lasts. The good, the bad, it all gets swept away, sooner or later.