"She was content to stand in the shadows and watch the rest of you shine."
- From a letter sent by a dear old friend of my mother.
For some reason January always depressed me. Most years, I would come back from spending Christmas in Ireland, emotionally recharged to face another year of work and life in general, but within a
couple of weeks some kind of malaise, an "ennui" if you will, would settle in and erode all or most of the zest that my visit to Dublin had filled me with. So it was that I faced January of 2002,
already on a downer after seeing my less than healthy mother, and dragged further into depressions doldrums by the burglary at my apartment. I was glad that I had Naoko to cheer me up at the
weekends, and it was one Sunday night at the end of January, when we were at Simple Simon, that the call came.
As soon as I answered my mobile, I heard my dad's voice saying "Are you sitting down?" This was the same opening line he had used in the call to tell me mum had cancer, so I knew immediately something was wrong. As I pushed open the door of the bar to go outside, the cold air was not the only thing to send a chill down my spine. He told me straight out, "Mum is dead". I started to feel dizzy, and more than a little bit sick. I steadied myself against the wall as he told me the details. My brother and sister both came on to reassure me that she was at peace now, and that the end was quick. I remembered that I was scheduled to fly to Germany two days later, and told them that I would be home on the Tuesday evening, and would call them again when I knew more. The rest of the call is a blur.
Once it was over, I stood for a moment in the night air, then kicked the wall in a rage. It must have reverberated inside the bar, because Naoko and Shimano came out to see what was wrong, and I asked Shimano to go back inside. I put my arms around Naoko, and told her. She told me she would settle our bill and get our coats. I took a few moments to settle myself and went back inside. The bar was quiet. I knew most of the customers there that night, and they were all watching me with shock and concern. I apologised for the interruption to their evening, and Naoko and I left. She walked me home with her arm around me, half carrying me and half guiding me. As we were half way home I stopped walking and broke down crying, holding Naoko. She hugged me back just as hard. After a few minutes we started walking again. She got me home and called a taxi for herself.
I do not know what would have happened if I had been alone when that call came. I do not know if I would have made it home without hurting myself or someone else, or doing some criminal damage along the way. And if I had not had Naoko to wish goodnight to, I probably would have spent the rest of that night getting violently drunk. Instead I felt I had to not let myself fall apart because she would be worrying about me. If I had let myself go to pieces that night it would not have been just "my" problem. In an instant she had become the most important woman in my life, the loss of my mother had been cushioned by the fact that I had Naoko, and I was grateful that I had her to fall back on at this time. That feeling would grow stronger daily, and helped me through the surreal nightmare of my trip home for the funeral.
I went to work the next day, only to tell them I would not be going on the business trip as planned, but I would be using the ticket. I asked them to rearrange my flights, and emailed a few people with the news. Seeing my mother's name on the company notice board that announced all death notices of workers' family members had an unreal tinge to it. Within minutes of that being published, people were lowering their voices as they walked past my desk, and friends were dropping by to offer condolences. I wanted to get out of there as soon as possible. I had to wait for confirmation of my flight, and as soon as that was done I went home again and started to pack.
The flight home was uneventful, although we could have hit a mountain and I might not have noticed. I arrived in Dublin airport to be met by my dad and sister. We hugged and cried for a bit, then drove to my brother's house to pick him up. When we arrived, he came out the front door to greet us, and let a scream out of him as he embraced me that literally scared me. He had always been one to keep his emotions pent up and roped in, but I guess he was having a hard time doing that now. We drove back to my parent’s house, and settled in for the evening. The next day we went to see my mother in the funeral home. Many times after other funerals we had discussed how we all disliked the practice of viewing the open coffin, and it was my mother's wish that hers be closed. My father suggested that we keep it open until the four of us, her immediate family, had seen her and made our goodbyes, then close it before the other mourners arrived. I disagreed, wanting it closed from the start as I was sure that was what my mother would have wanted, but I had no energy or will to make the argument. In the past I have fainted just from visiting people in hospital, so I was totally unsure of how I would react to the sight of my mother. My brother held my shoulders to steady me as we approached the open coffin. She had become tiny in the short time since I had last seen her, and I almost didn't want to see her, preferring to remember here as she looked when alive. Some mourners arrived before we had a chance to close the lid, and my mother never got her wish.
The removal to the church was an unreal experience, somewhat like watching a movie from the inside, a feeling I often get when I realise I am dreaming, as if I could step out of the situation any time I liked. As the limousines made their way to the church, I could see people outside stop and show their respects as the hearse passed by, doffing their hats or blessing themselves, and several times I had to stop myself from wondering why they were doing it. It was only as the line of mourners made their way past the front pew of the church to offer their condolences, when I greeted my best friend Paul, who I knew had lost his own mother years before, that I finally realised this was all really happening to me. The surreal feeling I had had since the removal; the dream-like haze I felt, faded, and real emotions came.
The following morning was the burial, which was marked by ferocious rain and winds, so strong they nearly blew the priest into the open grave. Somehow it was appropriate weather for my bleak mood. Family and some friends went to a nearby restaurant for a wake, and I for some reason found myself reluctant to talk to family members, preferring instead the company of my own friends. After it all finished we got home and changed our clothes and that was it, we were left in a house with an empty room, none of us knowing what to do with the silence that surrounded us. I stayed for two weeks in all, but there was no rush to clean up or sort out my mother's affairs or belongings, we just let the reality settle on us for a while. My father gave me a ring which he told me my mother had put aside for Naoko. I had heard before that she had three special rings she got from her mother that she wanted to pass on to each of her children, and now was the time.
In the latter days of my stay there, I met with my friend Paul and he took me to his local bar to meet some of his friends who would be joining him on his trip to Japan for the football World Cup that summer. At his wedding years ago he had joked that I was the person who would be accommodating himself and fourteen of his friends when they came over, and it turned out he was only half joking. Paul had lost his mother to an ectopic pregnancy when his sister was born, and probably was trying to give me something normal in a time that could not be so. We did not discuss my mother at all until the drive home, but concentrated on football and other everyday topics of vital importance. As he dropped me off at my father’s house, he mentioned that he knew what I was going through and since he now had a stepmother he would go through it again. I told him my grief was tempered by the fact that I had Naoko to fall back on, as I had the moment I had heard the news of my mother's death, and that sense of continuity would be a strong support to me in the months to come. He also told me that a bunch of mad drunken Irishmen would also take my mind off it all, and he had that all arranged. I also went drinking one night with my brother and his friends, but he seemed a bit too desperate to have a good time.
On the day I returned to Japan, my father insisted we all gather at my brother's house on the way to the airport, and we all joined hands as he assured us that nothing would ever break up our family, despite the distances between us. This sentiment echoed the note I had written on the wreath I laid on my mother's grave days before, where I had told her; "Distance never came between us, death will not keep us apart. You are always a part of me." It was a bittersweet comment that had come to me almost immediately when I was asked to think one up, something that rarely happens to me. I felt like some greater force was inspiring me when I wrote it.
On my flight back to Japan, I was full of mixed emotions, which somehow seemed to all fit together. The loss of my mother was tangible, but tempered by the feeling that something new had begun. Looking back years later, this time in my life was a transition, a turning point. Now I was not returning alone to Japan, I had Naoko to go back to. I felt like there was less that I was leaving behind in Ireland, and more that I was returning to in Japan. I began to feel like I was now going home.
A while after I got back, my father sent over a copy of a letter he had got from an old friend of my mother, which really helped to bring closure to my feelings of loss. Margaret was actually probably the only friend of my mother's that I could name, and the only one she saw on a regular basis. They had worked together in the civil service before getting married, and lived close by afterwards. Rather than console us, she congratulated us on knowing a wonderful woman, and on being a family that had made her proud. One phrase which stood out for me was her accolade that my mother had been content to "stand in the shadows and watch the rest of us shine", which perfectly summed up my mother, who had never asked for anything for herself, but had always given her all for us.
In the weeks after I arrived back in Kawagoe, I noticed that Naoko's mother had softened towards me a little. She suggested a party at a local microbrewery to cheer me up, and the next day Naoko and I had a long serious talk about getting married. As I reported to my father on the phone that night, we would probably get married the following spring.
On the night I got back from Ireland, as I was unpacking my suitcase on the living room floor of my apartment, I banged my toe against the sofa and quite probably broke it. It swelled to the level I could barely walk, but I still hobbled around on it and generally managed to hide my pain. My bad luck continued still. In response to my request to the company to pay for my flight home for my mother's funeral, as they had agreed to do in the conditions of my contract, head office sent a copy of those conditions to the General Affairs department at my factory, who promptly noticed that the conditions included providing an apartment for a maximum of eight years, which I had exceeded. They turned around and told me that the next contract renewal, which was three weeks away, was my problem. I had cleared out my bank account back to Ireland, and had to borrow money to meet the deposit and agency fees, and found the next few months to be financially stringent (i.e. not being able to go to Simple Simon EVERY night!) as I had nothing saved in the bank to cover the unexpected expenses. I took a few months to get back on a secure financial footing, and the events of the following June did nothing to help.
If you dropped in by accident, the story starts here;
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