after death, what becomes our family
Father-in-law is an interesting man. He laughs a lot. Like now, when he offers a snack:|
"Do you want a senbei?" he asks son, only grandson, now on the verge of fourteen, the age of the "adulthood" ceremony in Japan--or so my wife informs. Grandfather removes a chunk of thin, white and porous material that, yes, looks like a rice cracker except it is paler, with a spot of malevolent green about the size of a penny.
Son waves it off with a gentle "No," and an uneasy giggle.
It is, afterall, from the top of grandmother's skull.
|Sorry it has been so long, but a lot of things have gone down, and I needed to take care of them.
Good news (yeah, it's been a while):
I have been offered, and accepted, positions at two higher educational institutions in Japan. One a university, the other a technical high school slash college. Essentially, I got these positions through contacts because these places never advertise publicly to fill their vacancies, and I got the contacts by hiring a couple of people starting a headhunting business. I say "hiring" but I mean I will be paying them a percentage of my earnings.
At the technical college, I will be designing an e-learning site, training teacher, helping to internationalize the learning communities, and, eventually, teaching writing and English. This is a part-time position for now, but they have said they want to hire me full time in a couple of years once I get a couple of academic publications out. Really good news because it would mean a salary with half of my social insurance being paid by the school--plus the prestige: whatever changes I make here are probably going to be implemented nationwide.
The university interview ended with the professor asking: "Why haven't we found you before?" Very nice ego boost there. They want me to teach a variety of subjects in English, plus write textbooks for the school to use. Again, a part-time position, but one with a definite future expansion in terms of number of teaching hours and career advancement. As this is a national university, the work I do, again, might be adopted at different cities throughout the country.
Oh, and my pay in each position is two- to three-times what I'm earning now.
There are complications, of course, but overall this is the first really solid, good news I've gotten career-wise in about ten years. Not since I started writing professionally and actually getting paying gigs and published a textbook have I felt any hope. Now I do.
The wife, however, is pessimistic, worrying that the headhunters are going to try to take advantage of me. I'm not stupid, I pointed out to her. Our deal is very fluid and flexible, and I'm being hired directly by the college and university, so there's nothing the headhunters could do to damage me (plus the contract we signed is invalid in Japan anyway, so). Every time I mention another positive point of these positions (like, for example, that I get paid even when I'm working at home on the e-learning site or that for the first time in almost 17 years I have an office and the college is going to buy me a nice, new laptop for work) she just complains that the headhunters might take advantage of me. Very frustrating. I've pointed out to her that these two people have already helped my career more in a couple of months than she has done in 17 years. She is pleased with the positions, but not with the means of getting them. Tough titties.
I got them! :) In a couple of months, I can get out of these deadening, maddening, soul-crushing English conversation school I've been working for. No days off (again) for a few months, trying to get everything started, but at least there's hope--not like it has been for almost a decade. I will have nights and weekends off after almost 17 years of working in Japan.
So, the moral of this story so far is: I made the right decision focusing on writing instead of going the safe route and just getting another full-time position at yet another English conversation school.
|Sorry it has been so long--though it's not as if I have been particularly punctual otherwise on these blog posts. I am okay, if you were wondering or worried. Just a lot of things happening, and writing is low on the totem pole of priorities these days.
We had the 49th day ceremony a week ago. This entailed the immediate family and a couple friends meeting at parents' house to hold a prayer with the priest. About a dozen or so people sat in the living room and droned with the priest a sutra to the little shrine in our in-laws closet. The priest is an ancient-looking fellow. I'd seen him before at the funeral. He drove his own car to the house, and insisted on parking in the tiny space next to the front door--but between his slow reflexes, poor hearing, and failing eyesight, and my father-in-law's short-temper and odd hand gestures, it took a frustrating five minutes for the priest to actually get the car into the space. Son and I smiled at each other during the festivities--we know father.
Prior to the prayer, brother-in-law asked if I was Christian, and if Christians do this kind of thing in America. I told him that I was an atheist (this was difficult as I don't know that word in Japanese), but that, yes, Christians do something similar, though there are many different types of Christians, and many different religions, in America.
"But being atheist is so much easier, isn't it?" he asked.
"Well, you have to do a lot of reading and thinking. Maybe not easier. You have to decide things for yourself."
Then the priest signaled we should sit down and begin.
The sutra is very musical. Yes, it's a bit of a drone, but the intermingling voices syncopate, and the rhythm is soothing. Wife explained the purpose of the ceremony was to show just how much the family loved the deceased so they could go peacefully into the next world (or something like that. I don't know. I felt it sounded a lot like something priests had come up with to fleece obedience and money out of the faithful.)
After we'd finished, family and friends shared memories of mother. Father gave a speech of thanks. And then we all made our way via bus to a local hotel to have lunch.
We were on the third floor, in one of the banquet rooms. Full service, waiters, and a seven course meal. Lots of alcohol and talking. Felt a bit bad for son though, because of all the old people, and only his cousin there of similar age. Still, it was successful in that everyone had a good time and left smiling.
Yesterday, while I was at work, they put her bones in the next grave site father started for this family. It is next to her family's plots out on a hill overlooking the bay. Nice place. Wife told me I need to go there soon and see it. I wondered if she'd forgotten how many times I'd been there previously.
|10 minutes into the ceremony, I stand, follow the other people from the second row, bow to the priest and the shrine, light a stick of incense with my niece, and then return to my seat--only to quietly stand up again and make my way out of the funeral hall.
This was pre-arranged. Our son is competing in a track meet in Yamaguchi city, about an hour's drive away, and I need to leave early so I can pick him up and bring him back in time for lunch with the family. We'll be having lunch at the crematorium. I've never been there, but they've given me a map and some directions, so I think I can find it.
So, I drive. It's a new car, and I take it easy, not speeding, but not going slow. I need to get there just after son's race.
50 minutes later, I'm pulling into Yamaguchi, and the phone rings.
"Have you picked him up yet?" It's wife.
"No, not yet. I just got into Yamaguchi."
"Eh? Why? You're taking too long."
I hang up and hurry. I'm angry. I drove as fast as I could, going over the speed limit most of the way, but there's a lot of traffic.
I get to the track, find son, tell him to hurry, but he's talking to his teammates. Finally, we go. We get in the car. On the way out of town, we stop to get him a snack.
Phone rings again.
"Not yet? We are leaving for the crematorium," she says.
"That would be impossible. How long do you think it takes to drive here?" I'm angry. "How did you think I could pick him up and get him back there this fast?"
But I'm not, am I? Not really.
"Get in the car," I order son. "We have to go."
And we drive. We drive fast. Ten minutes later, she calls again.
"We are eating."
"We are hurrying."
"Forget it. It's impossible." She is angry.
"Hey!" I bark back. " I'm trying to help here. I had to leave the funeral early to do this, right?"
40 minutes later, we are pulling into the parking area of the crematorium. The family is just coming out. It's over. Her body is burned. She is gone. My sister-in-law is carrying mother's portrait at the front of the family.
We hurry over, apologizing. Everyone thanks us for coming. Wife is polite. I am polite. Son knows the drill. He accepts everyone's congratulations (he did well in the meet) with humility.
|"Do you want a senbei?" he asks son, only grandson, now on the verge of fourteen, the age of the "adulthood" ceremony in Japan--or so my wife informs. Grandfather removes a chunk of thin, white and porous material that, yes, looks like a rice cracker except it is paler, with a spot of malevolent green about the size of a penny.
Son waves it off with a gentle "No," and an uneasy giggle.
Wife and her sister are in the kitchen, organizing food stuffs, moving sushi and vegetables from big platters to small plates, so it can all fit on the small table in the center of the cramped living room. Father-in-law is standing next to the closet, close to son, brother-in-law is seated on the tiny wicker sofa to their left, his two daughters are huddled on the floor between me and son.
Father-in-law has pulled the immaculate white box from its display stand at the front of the tiny shrine in the closet. Mother-in-law's picture, carried by wife's sister from the crematorium, takes up a large space as the side of the shrine. The box lid is open. This makes me incredibly uncomfortable.
We pull the bones out of the ashes," wife had explained prior to the funeral ceremony. "First we remove the legs bones, then the middle bones, and finally the head bones. That way, the person is not upside in the next world."
I had expected clean white bones. What I saw were mostly white, with a couple blotches of green and brown scattered about. Were they signs of sickness, or did everyone have these? And they looked to so frail, so waffer-thin, I could easily understand the senbei jest, I just didn't want father-in-law to force son to do something he wasn't comfortable with. This is the former teacher who used to joke with me about how he'd yank on his students' ears until the almost bled. Things were different in the "old" days--and, thankfully, we've learned a few things and moved on.
And she is gone. She is gone, and in her wake we sit, moving almost not at all from the spaces we were when she bustled between kitchen and living room, delivering food and taking away dirty dishes. I recall how she protested every time insisted on carrying my own plates to the sink. I still smile at that little thing we could never agree on. I have no doubt she understood my reasoning, as I understood her's, but neither of us would relent, and as often as not I allowed her to take my plates to the sink, and even once or twice managed to wash them myself.
This is the house where she helped wife with our infant son for the first month and a half of his life, caring for him and her, carrying him when he wouldn't stop crying so his mother could sleep, cooking for her so she could eat in her exhaustion--our son, their first and only grandson, the half-breed (they persisted in calling him "half" despite my obvious discomfort with the term), now a teenager, crouched beside the tiny box holding her baked bones.
Father-in-law holds a piece of skull out to son. How comfortable he is with the body, with the death we see there, with her absence that isn't here.
I am scared.
|There was so much food at the wake: platters of sushi, chicken, snacks, soft drinks and beer. Only twenty of us sitting around the long central table. The room was located in a funeral home, a business, a place fully equipped to provide all the services a family would expect of a funeral service in Japan. Next to the room was the chapel, which the following morning would be fully decorated with flowers.
We couldn't eat everything. We didn't bother to try. At the end, my wife and her sister wrapped up all the remaining food, and divided it among the families. People would be eating sushi for breakfast, and then returning for the service. Nothing wasted.
Father stayed the night, again. There was a small room adjoining for sleeping, with a bathroom and a TV. He slept two nights next to his dead wife.
Now, according to wife, he is slipping, forgetting things, getting tired easily and frustrated about keeping track of money issues. She thinks we should put him in a home soon. I say, "We should ask him what he wants, first." He has never struck me as being particularly in need of someone to take care of him.
|So, I went solo camping. I had wanted to take my son with me. I'd even offered to take my father-in-law so he wouldn't have to sit around alone and bored. In the end, son's schedule was simply too busy, and father-in-law too tired to come.
If you can imagine it, I found this site way off in the countryside of Japan, a place so deep in the mountains that the houses I passed as I navigated the treacherously narrow road, seemed to materialize out of the distant past.
It was a perfect over-nighter, culmination of a several-month-long manic drive to gather my old camp kit back together and get out into the woods, an almost desperate, reckless expenditure of time and money, researching gear, visiting various stores, and buying, buying, buying stuff. This started just before mother-in-law went into the hospital the second and final time--and even her being there didn't quench my desire to go camping. If anything, her laying there, shriveled up, tired of an adventureless, monotonous life (or so I surmised after years of being in this family), fueled and warranted my drive to get the hell out of town.
But not to escape. I have no desire to escape.
I do want to make things better for my family.
One way I could do that was to go camping, and come back feeling refreshed.
Unfortunately, I did come back refreshed, but a miscommunication via text messages with my wife led her to be screaming at me for almost twenty-four hours. Lines have been drawn. It is interesting--nay, funny--to watch her realize that she can no longer threaten me.
"Call the police, tell them I have hit you. Go ahead and lie. I don't care. I just want to stop fighting. I want this to end. I want this situation to end. I ahve been patient for years, for you, and I made sure this condominium was in your name in case we separated so you would never have to worry about me taking it from you--not because, as you have screamed so many times, I wanted to avoid paying the loan. That's impossible. Let's get a divorce. Tell the judge. They'll make me pay a fair share of the condominium loan. How could you not have known that? How could you insult my generosity and care for you in this way? I have been nothing but kind and patient all these years, and still you act crazy. Yes. Crazy. Yes. You need to talk to a counselor. Why? Because I don't trust my own judgment in this. Because I want you to be happy, and I know you can't be happy with me. That's one reason I wanted to get out of the house: to give you a break. To give me a break, too. And to give our son a break. He's as tired of this as we are. Please, let's stop. Please, give me a divorce. I don't want to fight you for this. The only reason you want me hear is money--money for our son's future. But what about me? The only future I will have this way is loneliness, desperation, and despair. Fuck that. I choose happiness. I want to choose happiness. You can't threaten me anymore. I am an immigrant, yes, but I can survive here on my own. I know this now. I want to stop fighting. Please."
I came home forty-eight hours ago. Most of that time has been filled with shouting: her shouting at me or at our son.
I am sorry, mother. I am sorry. I have done everything I could to make your daughter happy, but couldn't. You told me you raised her to be strong, because Japanese men would never help her at home. But she didn't marry a Japanese man. She married me: an American man raised by a single mother. Almost the only thing I do at home is help her. And she has ignored me for years. You were tired. I am tired. But I don't want to die. I want to live, not to be safe. I choose happiness.
I choose happiness.
|Big fight this morning before work.
Son had a time trial (3000 meter), but was a little slow eating breakfast and getting out the door. Wife started stressing, as she usually does. He was having trouble putting in his contact--his eye hurt. She tried to do it for him, but he kept flinching. She lost control and started throwing things and shouting. She hit him and kicked him. I pulled her away and shouted at her to calm down.
Apparently, this put me on "his side."
I took him to school. He was on time.
I came home. She threw some bills and an envelope of money at me. The bills are for my pension and my taxes. They come to $1700--basically almost all of my monthly income.
I asked her why she gave it to me, and she started in on me about my bad choices, especially of not becoming a company employee. If I worked for a company , that company would pay at least half of those taxes. But I don't. Apparently that was my choice.
I got really angry at this. It was never my choice. Very few companies hire foreigners as full time workers. Mine does, if you jump through a huge series of hoops, and are willing to work more hours for less money. We have always needed both the extra money and the flexibility my work situation (two or three part time jobs plus my own private teaching) has allowed us.
Lots of shouting. Lots. I lost my mind a bit, I confess. I never used to be this way--I'm just tired of the way she treats me. I said this to her.
"I have sacrificed my home country, my family, my ten years of university education; I work in a job I hate, live in a country that doesn't really want me; and I live with a woman who does not show the slightest concern for my emotional wellbeing, who never shows affection or desire for her husband, just anger and frustration."
"I want you to think about our future!" she snapped back. "We will have no money. Son will need money for university."
"What choices do I have?"
On and on we went.
The end result is me agreeing to think about how to build my own company or school. Oh, and she said she will think about what I have said.
Nothing has changed. Nothing will change.
Two days before we took her mother to the hospital, I had found and apartment and was ready to fill out the divorce paperwork. I had confronted her with this. I could see no other options. I had been suffering eight years of loneliness--she doesn't even sleep in the same bed with me. She now had a nice place to live and a new car: as far as I could see, she was safe and secure financially. It was time for me to go--if I could take son with me, all the better, but I was hoping, for his sake, to share custody on a weekly basis. There are no joint custody laws in Japan, so this would take mutual consent.
She rejected my offer outright. The reason: money. If we divorced, we wouldn't have enough money to be safe and pay for son's education. I'd said she couldn't keep hiding behind that excuse, and that I didn't believe it. It was time for a divorce. Time to move on with our lives and out of this horrible situation.
And then her mother.
"How can you be so mean to me?" she asked this morning. "My mother just died twenty days ago."
"You can't do that to me. You can't use that to defend yourself. I stayed to support you through this. But nothing has changed, and you still treat me as if I don't matter. I am sick of this. What you're asking me is to sacrifice even more for you, and for me to live a life of loneliness and coldness until I fucking die! Have you ever considered that?"
"But if you build your company, then we can both work at it after I retire. That will keep us safe."
She's insane. Or I am. I have never been able to determine which. Perhaps both.
Her mother is dead. I am sorry. It was the one thing I told myself I could stay for: to help her through her mother's death, which we both knew was coming soon. I have done my best.
I am so tired. And my job--English conversation teacher--depends on me looking happy. People come to talk to me to feel better about their lives. If I look dark, or if I look like I am no concerned about their problems, then they complain, and then the company comes down on me, threatening me with termination. I am a contract worker, after all, with a yearly contract. There is no better language school to work for. There are few, if any, permanent positions available for English teachers in Japan.
"I want you to think about your choices! your options!"
How can I?
|Son is nearing his fourteenth birthday, and all the classic teenage behaviors have manifest.
It's a daily war between he and his mother, with me running messages between the two after each huge shouting match.
It's nearly a daily war between he and I, with me staying up late at night, pushing him to finish his studies, to stop goofing off, reading comics, playing with his tablet, whatever. Up until 12:30 or later every night, and then having to pull him out of bed at 5:40 a.m. so he can eat breakfast and get ready for his morning track practice.
None of us handle stress well. I'd like to think I do better than wife and son, but I can't be sure.
Scratch that: I am absolutely, 100% sure I handle stress better than wife. Can't count how many plates she broken throwing them against the wall or smashing them into the sink, how many times she's lashed out at him or I physically (verbally is just a ground state of being with her), how many times she's stormed out of the house and threatened not to return, how many times she's blamed him or I for EVERYTHING wrong in her life, or, more recently, how many times she's held her mother's sickness over our heads as justification for her actions.
And worse, sometimes.
"It's your fault she died," she shouted at son just a week or so ago.
Boy, that started a shit storm at home. Son blowing up. Me blowing up. Her defending herself.
Hours later, she'd explain: "I just meant that I wanted him to understand that I couldn't visit her much when she was sick because I was always having to stay home with him, to push him to study."
"I will tell him that" (and I did), "but it is not okay to say things like that. I know you're stressed out, but you cannot say things like that to a child."
"He's not a child."
"Okay, fine. But he's not an adult, either. And you shouldn't say things like that to an adult, either. You have to control yourself. We are teaching him too many bad behaviors. This is getting too far out of hand. We are sick."
And we are. At least, I think so. I'm not sure.
(Just now, stepping away from keyboard to check if he has eaten his breakfast or gotten dressed for school, I found him sleeping at his desk, food unfinished, school clothes still on the bed. He's in his room, because he and his mother were fighting this morning, and he wanted to be on his own. I yanked him out of the chair, shouting at him. He'd stayed up late last night studying, but goofing off so much that he didn't finish. I went to bed at 12:30. I don't know what time he finally went to bed. The house is silent, sullen. Everyone's tired, or edge. Wife is leaving for work. She's talking to no one. Son is angry. I am typing.)
Last words before she left the house this morning, to me: "Shoes. He forgot his shoes sometimes." This means: "Bring his shoe bag containing his running shoes to the entrance. He has forgotten it in the past." I do what she says, and then she leaves. I bring his book bag, his rucksack (of track clothes) and his thermos of tea as well--not because I have to, but because I want to. I know none of this is easy for either of them.
At least he said: "Itte kimasu," what Japanese people should always say when they leave the room. It's polite. It means "Goodbye. I will be back."
You may have noticed (because I certainly did), no one said, "Thank you."
OK. She died on a Friday. The wake was held on Saturday. The last time I'd seen her alive was on Thursday, when I stayed at the hospital for about four hours so wife and father could have a break--and once again, they treated it as if it was some great inconvenience to me. It wasn't. I didn't mind at all. I was worried about both of them getting too tired and, anyway, I had the free time.
So, the wake was on Saturday night. Father had stayed all night by the body at the funeral home. I rushed there after work to find all the of the family there: my wife and son, father, wife's sister and her husband and their two daughters, brother-in-law's parents and his brother, and mother-in-law's surviving brother with his wife and their son. Except for sister and brother in law, I'd last seen them all 15 years before at our wedding.
I took a cushion next to father. Across the table was brother-in-law's father, a barber for the local Yakuza. Nice guy, has taken up home remodeling and fishing in his retirement. He and I talked a bit about how fixing your own car has become impossible these days.
Father talks to him a lot and loudly about international affairs, essentially how dangerous and untrustworthy China and North Korea are. He tends to talk a lot about "foreigners," and whenever he does, my son catches my eye. He knows I get sensitive about this. Father was a school teacher, and he has a high opinion of his knowledge and intelligence--too high and opinion. At one point, the retired gangster barber, red-faced from beer, asks father how my Japanese is.
"Horrible," he laughs. People laugh a little, but it's half-hearted. This is after all, a wake for his dead wife. I hold my tongue. He's just an old man, and my Japanese is not great. I know.
She is in a casket. The top is glass-covered so we can look in.
When I arrived, wife showed me how to light the incense and show respect before looking in on her. When I did, I teared up.
It was the same face I saw in the car when I felt her die. The total stillness of death. I put my arm around wife and son's shoulders. We stood there for a long while. Everyone does. Everyone takes turns, even her brother who is suffering from Parkinson's.
God, father is loud. He's always been loud. He never stops talking, either. It never mattered if anyone was listening. It never mattered if anyone responded. He just kept talking. It had shocked me, the first couple family functions I'd gone to after marrying wife, how father'd be sitting in a room full of people, talking, but no one paying him the slightest attention. It still bothers me, and over the years, I've always tried to pay attention when he is talking, and to respond whenever I could, but I get worn out, and he'd get weary of me not understanding something.
No one seems to be talking about mother, though. It is very different from my American family's wakes, where all anyone seems to do is share memories of the dead. Here, in this Japanese family, people seem to be just trying to get through. There's the funeral tomorrow, and the cremation. Wife and father are visibly tired. Son has a track meet the next day; I will have to leave the funeral early to go pick him up so we can get back in time for the cremation. My nieces are busy, too: one, in her final year of high school, studying like crazy so she can go to a state university, the other working part-time to help pay for the private university she had to attend after failing the entrance exams for a public university (or some such craziness, I can't follow the drama). I took a day off for the funeral, as did the others, but there's so much to do. This is Japan. Life in Japan is busy. Lots to do, every day.
|No one wanted to take her off life support.
Of course not.
But decisions had to be made.
My wife is the eldest of two daughters. The youngest daughter was refusing to allow the possibility that we might have to pull the plug. This surprised no one.
After her initial death (I call it a death when your body and mind stop, as hers did when I was holding her hand on the way to the hospital), mother rose from and fell into unconsciousness, like her chest did as the machines pumped life into her. She had long periods of open-eyed non-reaction, followed by short periods of near-lucidity, in which her open eyes followed movement and she seemed to react to our voices.
Once, wife came home from hospital, furious with the doctor.
"He told us that it will be difficult, her staying on life support; that people have school, jobs, family to take care of; that keeping her on life support will become increasingly difficult and take more and more of our time. Why would he say that?!"
And then a couple of days later, when mother seemed to be improving, but after we three--wife, myself, and father--had agreed on a date to take her off life support, wife came back from talking to the doctor, angry again.
"Now he's saying he could give her this and this drug to help her. He says there's a small chance she might recover. Why would he say that?! Just a few days ago, he was telling us how difficult it would be for us to keep her alive, and now he's giving us advice on how to keep her alive? Why doesn't he make a decision? Why is he doing this to us?"
"Because he's taken an oath," I said, "to preserve life and limit suffering. He can't advise you to pull the plug--that would be against his oath as a doctor. You know this. You are a nurse. We have to make this decision. We can't expect others to."
"Why?" she said, on the verge of crying now. "Why do I have to do this?"
"Because your sister won't. But your father and I are on your side. We all know this isn't what she wanted. She told you, just that morning, that she didn't want to suffer. She didn't want to be in the hospital a long time."
"But she might get better!"
"Yes, but I don't think she will."
I sound calm when I say these things, but I am full of fear, with good reason. At any moment, wife could turn on me and accuse me of being heartless and cold and wanting her mother to die. Such things have happened before.
"It would be so easy," I continued, "if we could let the doctor choose for us, but he can't, and that would be unfair to him. She is our family. We know what she wanted. But she's not here now, and she can't speak. So, we have to trust our feelings, and trust her words before. She said she didn't want to suffer. She is tired."
Back at the hospital, I am leaning over her, speaking to her unseeing eyes: "I am sorry." Her mother is stuck open by the tubes, but I watch it for movement, for the sound that will not come. Once it did, though. Once, just the day before, wife had told her we'd come back the next day. Son and I were standing there watching.
Mother looked straight at her, nodded her head, and said, "Yes."
Wife cried and smiled. She was so happy.