Abruptly losing a parent when you’re 8000 kilometres away from them for most of the year still sucks, even one year later. Continue reading
Abruptly losing a parent when you’re 8000 kilometres away from them for most of the year still sucks, even one year later. Continue reading
Yesterday was my father’s birthday. He was going to be fifty nine.
Dad loved his birthday. He liked birthdays generally, to an extent – it was a chance to sing a loud, off-key rendition of “Happy birthday” and to wrap presents (or, in my younger years, have my sister and I wrap them to his… exacting… standards) and put them out the night before with the expectation that the recipient become very excited upon merely seeing the pile of them. Also, there was cake, and other sweets.
But he was especially happy when it was his special day. Getting older didn’t seem to bother him all that much, he just enjoyed having a birthday. He loved getting presents, something of a nightmare when you were giving him them because there was such a limited range of things he liked. Clothes, in his preferred style and in his size. Merchandise for his favourite football club, always. Aftershave and related things, to an extent. Whiskey, in recent years. I haven’t been in Melbourne for my father’s birthday in a long time and all of the above is either unavailable in Japan or impossible to get through customs in Australia, so I leaned heavily on the final option – chocolates and cookies. I also found that he liked the handkerchiefs you can get over here and I almost always got him one of those too, in the colours of his favourite football club.
And then there were all the other things he liked about his birthday. The food, the cake, the balloons. The sappy cards. The party poppers, with which he and my sister could both do the “Hogan’s Heroes” theme song. The singing. Being the centre of things.
And now, somehow, we all have to do Dad’s birthday without Dad.
I had been dreading yesterday for the last week or so. I wanted so badly not to get it wrong, and I felt I needed to do something to mark the occasion.
In the end, I settled on two things. The first was cake. Is this something I’ll do again? I don’t know. I’m leaning towards “probably not”, but I felt like doing it this year, at least. I could imagine myself marching into one of the pretty cake shops here, mentally consulting the ghost of my father as to which he liked, and buying it. So I did. I didn’t buy a full on cake, but two small cupcakes. Cakes in Japan, when we talk about non-traditional Japanese sweets, tend to be based on French styles, whereas cakes in Australian bakeries favour more British styles, and that leads to cakes that are more different than you might expect. I stood there in Fujiya, dithering, because I wasn’t sure that anything there really would have been to Dad’s taste. In the end, I decided on the bear cakes, though I immediately wondered if I’d picked wrong. They’re kind of too cute for a deceased father, aren’t they? My logic, though, was that if he had been there really, those are what he would have picked those out for us (i.e. my sister, me, maybe my mother too).
The other was printing family photos. I’d been meaning to for for awhile… a long while. Now I can put him up on the wall, at least.
I thought about other things, like setting off the little fireworks you can buy at the supermarkets here in summer time, but it would have been logistically difficult, given I’d be wrangling Mr. K and R was working late and thus unable to assist. I also actually tried to finally sign up for Australia Plus and watch the football, but Paypal is having issues with my account currently and put a stop to that idea too.
I just have to hope that what I did manage was enough, I suppose. Happy birthday Dad.
My phone tells me that it was 5:33am on April 7th when it started vibrating urgently. I woke, dazed, not realising it was a missed call from Mum until I looked at the screen and saw it, accompanied by a message from my sister, telling me to call them as soon as I could.
I don’t remember standing up, but I remember R stirring as I climbed over him. “It’s my family,” I told him calmly, in a voice that didn’t feel like my own. “Something’s wrong.”
Then I was in R’s room and the phone was ringing. Mum answered. It was Dad. Mum had found him breathing strangely in his sleep.
Then he had stopped.
They had tried CPR. Then there was the ambulance. I mhm-ed, to let them know I was there even as my brain struggled to process what she was saying. It was early, so early.
They worked on him for ages, she told me, but he never regained consciousness.
Probably his heart.
There was a dreadful pause as her words travelled across the distance and sunk in. Then I screamed. Dad.
One of the realities of living so far from home is the fear of something like this happening. It’s always a possibility, it’s undeniable. Yet even in my grimmest ponderings, what I had always imagined was an 11th hour flight home and a hospital. I never imagined it this way. I never allowed myself to imagine that, suddenly, there would be nothing.
I remember the rain outside and sitting around in stunned shock punctuated by new waves of grief and tiny sparks of activity. The cats got fed. I started a load of washing that I promptly forgot about for 12 hours. I made lists in my notebook of things I needed to do as I thought of them, scattered thoughts that flitted away as randomly as they appeared. I cried, cried, cried.
I was going home, that I knew at once. R and I locked horns regarding Mr. K and whether he was going with me. I said hell yes, he was. He was never going to meet his grandfather now, a fact that tore and tears at my heart. It was the least I could do. R was adamant that I wasn’t thinking straight, that a long-haul international flight and a family in mourning was no place for a baby, that it was too late anyway. Part of me recognises that he had a good point. Still, I won.
And so a lot of technical, important things followed. I discovered that Japan will issue passports on the day citizens apply for them if an urgent situation is adequately conveyed to them. In my case, it was an e-mail from my sister requesting that Mr. K attend my father’s funeral, translated by R because an official translator isn’t necessary. There was not one but two photo stores near our local passport office and the one we stumbled into had a special chair and multiple squeaky toys to be brandished at Mr. K, resulting in a slightly stunned-looking photo.
Calling Qantas and Jetstar in English will get you redirected to a call centre, the location of which I can only speculate on but which definitely isn’t in Australia. Asking for a flight for bereavement reasons yields little response. Asking for a flight from Tokyo to Melbourne ASAP yields a suggestion that you try Osaka or Okinawa instead, that they don’t do flights from Tokyo to Melbourne… even though the latter does direct ones and both offer transfers in various other Australian east coast cities.
Inquiries in Japanese yield better results, but we still found it easiest, in the end, to just book a Jetstar flight online; unlike a lot of international flights, they let you book it only a day in advance.
Even if I look and am about to burst into tears, a jerk of a salesman will still try out his English in an effort to get me to apply for a credit card that I, as a foreigner, am probably not eligible for. There are plenty of men’s handkerchiefs in red, black and white this year, I discovered as we waited in a local department store for the passport to be processed. Red, black and white are the colours of my father’s favourite football team, he loves hankies, and his birthday is in early June. I no longer need to purchase one.
Packing. What was the weather even like in April in Melbourne? (Answer: Warm, getting progressively cooler but in an unpredictable sort of way.) Half our wardrobe, it seemed, was wet from the rain, including most of R’s pants. What did I wear to a funeral? What did I wear to my father’s funeral?
Time seemed to move in fits and starts, and we missed one of the trains to the airport the next morning because my brain couldn’t quite manage the task of accurately calculating how long it would take us to get to the station. We caught another one, luckily, and meandered quietly out to Narita, where we found out just how irritating Terminal 3 is and got given a free canvas bag marking its first anniversary by a giant chicken.
Feeding rooms, customs, a free airport pram after we had to check ours in. Riceballs, because R wouldn’t be R without onigiri.
And then the flight. The airline allows ten and a half hours, though it typically takes a little less. Ten and a half hours on a budget airline sucks at the best of times. Add a five month old baby without a bassinet and a nicotine-addicted husband, both of whom resist my futile attempts to entertain them and the latter of whom is more than a little unwilling to be there at all, and you have a very, very long trip.
I haven’t adequately been able to convey to anyone so far how torturous it is, to find myself suddenly out of my little white-noise-filled Japanese world and into one filled with Australian accents and English I can understand, where half the plane seems to hold middle-aged men with loud voices in the sort of neat-casual clothes that bring to mind my father. I doubt I’m adequately conveying it now. It’s shocking. It hurts.
I am going home. I caught myself thinking it over and over again, a tide of bitter despair accompanying it. Melbourne, finally. I am taking Mr. K home and R is coming with us. I’m getting what I wanted so very much.
Not. like. this.
There was a problem with the airbridge at Melbourne airport and we got stuck on the plane for a further 30 minutes while they tried to sort it out. Then there was a trek through the duty free store and the odd experience of going through the non-residents line at passport control, getting to the baggage carousel and sending R and Mr. K through while I waited for my suitcase.
Not so many minutes later, I followed. My mother and my sister were waiting on the other side of the customs doors for me.
And just like that, the 8147 kilometre trip became the easy part.
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.