"It's not where you're born, it's where you belong. "
- Summer Rain, U2.
After a few weeks with Karen getting half, or more, of the attention of his parents, Aran began to resent this a little. He developed a tendency to spit on the floor when he felt he was not
getting enough attention, and was soon earning shouts of disapproval from both of us. Thankfully this phase passed reasonably quickly. During the summer holiday I took him out as much as I could,
to give both Karen and Naoko a break. Together we took a ride on the Chichibu steam railway, which for a fan of trains such as Aran was a highlight of his year, especially as he also got a ride
on a bullet train on the way home. I had to make him his own special DVD copy of the video I took that day so that he wouldn't wear out the tape by watching it every day. We also went to the
Sunshine 60 aquarium in Ikebukuro, which was less of a success, as it appeared that as far as Aran was concerned, a fish is a fish is a fish. He enjoyed the Toyota showroom next door to it a bit
more, in particular a battery car for elderly people which it took me over ten minutes to convince him to dismount.
In the beginning of September I had the opportunity to visit Berlin for a trade show, and got in a little sightseeing as well. Our hotel was situated next to the zoo, and also a shopping centre which had a massive Irish pub in the basement. On the night we arrived Ireland was playing Germany in a soccer international, so my jetlag was soon forgotten as we enjoyed a few pints of Guinness while watching the football. The railway station which services the zoo, which we used almost every day, is featured in the U2 song "Zoo Station" and the entire trip became a little U2 themed tour, as we also flew through Paris, using the check in area featured in the cover photo of the album "All that you can't leave behind" and I also managed to buy one of the little music boxes that Bono is holding at the start of the video for "Stay/Faraway, So Close!”. While we were there it was announced on the news that the Crown Prince Hisahito had been born in Japan, prompting the zoo's aquarium to fly their "Koinobori" fish streamers out of season as a mark of respect.
The following month I visited Paris, and finding myself in the city over a weekend, I decided to make a flying visit to Dublin for the first time in over three years. My father had just been diagnosed with diabetes, and was scheduled to get a pacemaker installed so I thought it would cheer him up a little. As it turned out it did and it didn't. While he was of course glad to see me, it happened that on the day I left, my brother was also going away on business. My sister was also away that weekend, so my father went from having his two sons with him to being on his own in the space of one day, and he lamented how sad it made him feel. This was the first time I had been back since getting married, and I couldn't help feeling that this visit was to a place I could no longer call my home, as so much of it, and me, had changed. I now had my own family and home, and it seemed like there was no possibility of me ever returning to live here. It was a short visit, and I had no time to get into the city and look around, but I was surprised how much I didn't want to or need to. On the way back from the airport, we went by the house in Blackrock where I grew up, and visited some of the neighbours, all of whom remembered me, but mixed up my name with my brother, which was slightly awkward. It seemed as if my existence there was fading, now only a distant memory in the minds of old neighbours. As I stood outside the gate looking at the ten meter tall trees that I helped to plant as shrubs some thirty years before, I felt almost nothing towards the old house, now lived in by some other family, with some other child's toys strewn around the garden in which I used to play. It felt as if all of this was no longer a part of my life.
I returned from Paris to find my son talking like a TV show host, an amazing change from his reticence of only one week before. It struck me more strongly than ever before that I was coming home to my family, and that here in Kawagoe was the centre of my life now. In order to lessen the principal on our home loan when it came up for refinancing in the following November, I was in the process of dissolving most of the financial assets I had built up in Ireland. I did most of this business over the phone with my father, who acted as my intermediary on the ground, and I found it increasingly frustrating as he would get repeatedly confused about dates and amounts, and I grew increasingly concerned that something would go wrong and I would suffer financially. This became another reason why I wanted to concentrate my finances in Japan, and reduce my holdings in Ireland. More and more it felt like I was cutting my ties with the home of my youth.
November began with the inconvenience of me losing my company ID card, which was a double blow since it is necessary to allow access to my PC at work, so I lost half a day’s work before getting a replacement. However my troubles were rendered insignificant by what I saw outside my house one Saturday morning.
Among our neighbours was a family with two young girls. During autumn that year, we suddenly realised that we hadn't seen the kids playing outside in quite a while, nor had we seen the wife around the house. Naoko speculated that they had split up and that the wife had taken the kids back to her parents’ place which was a short distance away. But I reckoned that if that had happened she would have taken her car, which still stood in their driveway. Naoko heard a rumour from one of the other neighbours that one of the kids or the wife was in hospital, and this fit with my appraisal of the situation. After a further couple of weeks I noticed the father, who was still living in the house and returning greetings as if nothing was wrong, going around the outside of the house on a Saturday morning with a Buddhist priest, spreading salt at the four corners of his property. This kind of ritual is normally done to "cleanse" a place of evil or unfavourable spirits, and when I mentioned it to Naoko she was incredulous, stating that one would not do that kind of ceremony every time a person became ill, so there must be some other reason for it. I was more and more convinced that some thing was wrong. A couple of months before this all happened, the father of the family who lived next door to them was felled with a stroke. According to the lot numbers assigned when the properties were first put up for sale, their houses were numbers one and two. Ours was number five. I fantasized about some evil force that was working it's way through the houses in order, and what fate would befall each family. My fantasizing was cut short two weeks later when, on opening the shutters in front of our living room window on the Saturday morning, I saw the mother and father taking the body of their five year old girl out of the back of a hearse. We found out later that she had died of brain cancer after a long stay in hospital. I hugged my kids a lot that weekend.
Having lost my brother to leukaemia when he was eleven, I knew how the death of a child could devastate a family, especially the parents. I felt for that couple, and wanted to sympathise with them, but found the standard phrases one says on such occasions to be pitifully insufficient. I simply did not know what to say. On the Sunday, most of the neighbours were visiting to pay their respects to the little girl who was laid out in their front room. Naoko was talking with the mother as I took Aran over to put some flowers down for her. Aran looked at her lying there for a moment and then turned to me to ask "Is she sleeping?" When I said "yes", he asked "Is it because she is tired?" I could no longer hold back my tears. I took Aran into the other room, to play for a little while with the younger daughter, who seemed withdrawn and unresponsive, disinterested in all the relatives suddenly showing a great interest in her, and probably wondering why her sister wouldn't play with her anymore. I knew it would take her a long time to get over this.
Even before that day, I have always been grateful that my children are here at all, and that they were born and have remained healthy. Having seen first hand what a long term illness can do to a family, and having heard of friends who have lost, or nearly lost children at birth, I am well aware of how blessed Naoko and I are to have two healthy children. It is something I often remind myself of when faced with circumstances that are less than ideal, or when I fell less than delighted with life. It often gives me the strength to carry on.
Another trip to Paris followed in December, but this time with no weekend to visit Ireland. Less than a week after that, I entered the longest single holiday I have ever taken from work, using a total of 6 personal holidays around the Christmas/New Year holidays to give me eighteen uninterrupted days without work. Over two and a half thousand emails awaited me on my return, mostly spam.
Our "Nengajou" or New Year card, for that year showed our family on the day of Karen's "Miyamairi" a temple visit to pray for the health of a newborn child. I would later see our New Year cards from the last four years all together at my father's house. They showed our wedding, Aran's "Miyamairi", Aran as a toddler with each of us, and finally the four of us a Karen's "Miyamairi". When strung together like my father had them, they made a great picture book of our marriage.
During those eighteen days I helped around the house as much as I could, because it was obvious that Naoko was tired. I was not used to that kind of physical effort, and I got very tired very quickly too. All that house work meant that her hands were wet a lot of the time, and the cold meant that they got very chapped around the fingertips, and she had broken skin around the knuckles. At the end of the eighteen days she commented that her hands were getting better because I was helping with so much of the housework. In response I showed her my hands, which were beginning to become chapped in a few places, which drew a laugh.
In January of 2007 we decided to buy a "Hina" doll set for Karen. Or more accurately, we decided to let Naoko's parents buy it, as they were itching to spend money on their granddaughter. After much discussion of types and styles, including a pick and mix session at the shop which resulted in one of their displays being retailored to my wife's wishes and left that way until I could pop in to see it on the way home from work, we decided on the one we wanted, and it was duly purchased. Once it arrived, I took Aran out of the house for the day so Naoko could assemble it in peace, and once it was finished Naoko's mother couldn't wait to come over and see it. Knowing that she was to have another granddaughter the following month through Naoko's sister, both she and Naoko's father were in seventh heaven around this time. As she stood in our front room admiring it she gushed about how wonderful it was that I had such a deep understanding of all things Japanese, and I think it was finally safe to say that she had fully accepted me as her son in law.
Later that month I had the opportunity to visit Paris again. When the office in Paris sent me the flight schedule I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. It allowed for a free day in Paris on the Saturday, which would be the fifth anniversary of my mother's death. The fact that my father was scheduled to enter hospital to have a pacemaker fitted (the previous attempt had been cancelled;) the following day made the timing of this visit doubly serendipitous. As I had done on the previous occasion, I left for the airport early on the Saturday morning, and arrived in Dublin before noon. My sister picked me up, and we went to see her new apartment. We drove past the house in Blackrock again on the way to my dad's place in Killiney, and talked a lot about our years growing up there. We also stopped at the cemetery to put flowers on our mother's grave, and my father joined us there. He greeted me with tears in his eyes, and after we talked for a short while the three of us stood in silence for a while, holding hands. As we walked back to my sister's car, I was struck with a wave of grief. It saddened me greatly that my mother would never get to meet her grandchildren, to hold them and watch them play and grow. She had always worried about me living on my own in Japan, and now I would never be able to show her how much I had achieved. When Naoko and I married, I wished I could have told my mother that I was going to be alright, that this wonderful woman who had agreed to be my wife would look after me and take care of me, and that she had no need to worry about me any more. As we walked away from her grave that day, I wished I could show her how everything had turned out so well for me.
I spent most of that trip with my sister, talking about mum, our family, and a lot of things. It was the first time in over three and a half years that we had met, and there was catching up to do. She had been with my mother right to the very end, and took her death a lot harder than I did. We talked about how our brother's death had affected our family, and how each of us siblings had dealt with it differently. It struck me in the course of our discussions that we three had really grown up differently, with our different personalities showing through. I was particularly surprised at how much my own view of life had been changed by living in Japan and gaining a family of my own.
In the early days of my time in Japan, I used to take the opportunity each year as I flew home for the holidays to reflect on the year that had passed. The sight of Narita airport fading from view below me, and the fields of Chiba and Saitama passing under the airplane always invoked in me a need to review what I had done in that year, the achievements and the failures. It also filled me with a sense of anticipation at going home, to see family and friends again.
Conversely, coming back to Japan would be a depressing thing, leaving my family behind was always tough, and the prospect of facing another year of work and life in general would leave me a little maudlin as the plane arrived back in Narita. As the years passed though, these feelings became neutralised, as I grew to consider both places my home, and I was merely passing between the two. Once I gained a family, obviously my bonds on the Japan side grew stronger, and as my plane flew east on that January morning, I realised that now, after my second visit to my old family home as a father, that I was returning to my new one. This visit had been some kind of closure for me. My transition from who I had been, to who I was to become, was in a way complete, I had grown out of the home in which I was born and grew up, and I found myself glad to be coming back to the home where I belong.
Thanks for reading this far. The adventure will go on...
If you dropped in by accident, the story starts here;
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