Memorable Monday 3

Yesterday, I spent the afternoon sitting in the cancer ward waiting to hear my name called. I have been experiencing some pain in my right breast and felt some places that didn’t seem right to me. So I went to the hospital to see my OBGYN. I waited and waited and was finally seen. The midwife first examined me and I told her of my family history. Since my mother died of breast cancer at the age of 44, she felt that the Dr. should also come in. I explained that I was still breastfeeding and wasn’t sure if it was related to that or not.

The Dr. was very thorough and checked both of my breasts. But then said that he would like to send me over to the oncologist for a better examination. They asked if I had ever had a mammogram and I said that I hadn’t, so they called over to the oncology ward and gave an introduction for me.

I felt pretty confident that it wasn’t cancer but still, having your doctor tell you to go to the cancer ward is a bit disconcerting. I walked down the hall and registered with the oncology department with the help of a very kind nurse. She had no idea whether I had cancer or not but she saw me as a mother with a young child and treated me with the utmost kindness.

I felt my heart beating a little faster than usual and I worried as Violet heard the doctors talking about where I was going. She understands more Japanese than I do. And she heard them telling me that i was going to be checked by a different doctor, she wanted to know exactly where we were going. She knows about cancer because of all the family members we have lost to this disease. I didn’t want to lie to her but also didn’t want to cause her undo worry. So I just told her we were going to get my milky looked at by another doctor who would look at a picture of the inside of it. She was satisfied with that.

We sat there waiting and I couldn’t help but notice how the lights were darker in this ward than in the OBGYN ward. It was quiet and most of the patients that we saw waiting there were hunched over and seemed to be in a certain amount of pain. Some were young and some were obviously in there late 70’s or 80’s. The ones who made eye contact with me gave me sympathetic smiles and I could tell they were wondering how I was and what I was there for. Violet’s smiles and energy definitely seemed to lift their spirits too.

I figured that I was going to get a mammogram but was hoping they would let me have an ultrasound instead as I was concerned about radiating my breast milk. Just in case though. I told Violet that she might not be able to drink milkies after my exam for a bit. She looked worried and said she would like to drink some before we went in. A woman in her mid 70’s walked up and said “おいしそう“, which means, looks delicious. She went on to say how rare it was to see a girl her age drinking breastmilk and how wonderful it was. I felt encouraged and continued to smile down and my sweet girl.

Sitting there, waiting with her in the cancer wing filled me with so many memories. My mother was everything to me. She was my first friend, she was my confidant she was my hero. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, I wasn’t there. I was away at college and had to hear about it over the phone. How I wish I could’ve been sitting there holding her hand instead.

I was able to sit with her through some of her treatments and drove her to some of her appointments during spring and summer vacations. We would sit there holding hands and trying to make each other smile or laugh. I was scared and she was scared. She was brave, she was selfless and showed me how to endure the impossible. Losing her was the hardest thing I have ever experienced and I pray that Violet is spared from watching me die from a disease that ravishes the body.

We sat and waited, Violet holding me and smiling at everyone around her. Finally my name was called and I had my first exam by an oncologist. I told him I was breastfeeding and he immediately offered to do an ultrasound instead of a mammogram. I didn’t even have to ask. He checked both of my breasts and and looked as thoroughly as possible. I felt very well taken care of and was thrilled to hear him say that there was absolutely nothing to worry about. Violet understood the results at the same time as I did and immediately came over and rubbed my chest and said, “Milkies! You are ok!!!” And then she patted my hand and said, “I knew you would be ok, mama! I love you!”

Today, I am thankful for the excellent health care I have experienced here in Japan. Today, I am thankful for my healthy breasts. Today, I am thankful for today!

This PSA is so powerful and never fails to make me cry. I ask you all to remember to “touch yourself”. For your self, for your husband, for your children, for your friends. Set a date and check yourself every month. It’s easy, it’s free and it’s painless.

 

The Day The Earth Would Not Stand Still

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Three years have passed since the day the earth would not stand still. Three hundred-sixty-five suns have set, since the day the water left the ocean, destroying everything that stood in its path. Thirty-six full moons have brightened the night sky, since that dark night when we huddled on the floor of the hospital gymnasium, wondering if the ground would ever stop shaking.

The morning after. Violet made a friend in the shelter and they had entertained the elderly people by running around and giggling.

The morning after. Violet made a friend in the shelter and they had entertained the elderly people by running around and giggling.

How did this happen? How did the days creep by at such speed? Time has a funny way of doing that. It keeps going, even if you don’t want it to.

When I think back on that day, March 11, 2011, I am still filled with such raw emotion. I don’t often let myself sit in the memories of that day because if I do, my mind goes to a dark place from which it is hard to escape. The “what ifs” play over and over in my mind and if I’m not careful, I find myself mentally paralyzed by fear.  Fear, that has taken me so long to manage in order to allow our daughter to go to school and my husband and I too work in different locations. For so long, I couldn’t stand the idea of physical separation from them. I needed to be near them. It was the only way I felt safe. Fear, that still visits me in my dreams but not nearly as often as it did. Fear, that returns with each earthquake. Fear, that I have yet to overcome but have learned to breathe through and release. It is that fear that keeps me from sitting with these memories for too long.

That day, I lived through an actual nightmare. You see, I suffered from reoccurring nightmares about the Thailand tsunami of 2004. I wasn’t there but it haunted me. They were very vivid dreams about my family being washed away in a wave. I would wake screaming and shaking and often crying out loud. Those dreams haunted me randomly but always at least a few times a month. They were exhausting.

I knew that living in Japan posed a risk for experiencing such a natural disaster but it wasn’t something I thought about on a daily basis. After Violet was born, I became more cautious and more nervous about what I would do in such a situation. When we had strong earthquakes, I usually wanted to evacuate to higher ground. I remember after one such earthquake, packing up the car and driving up to Rias Hall (which is on high ground) to wait it out. We were the only ones up there but my husband and I felt it was the right thing to do.

Our home before the tsunami

Our home before the tsunami

On March 11, 2011, I was home with Violet, who was one and a half years old. Thankfully, I had extended my maternity leave and had not returned to work. Gabe was at work across the bay. When the shaking started I ran over to Violet. I picked her up immediately. I stood frozen for a moment, wondering what to do. It became clear, very quickly, that being inside was far too dangerous. I threw open my front door and ran outside. The ground was shaking so violently that it was very hard to balance. I just focused on holding Violet close to me and covering her head. All that I could do was put one foot in front of the other. It might sound crazy, but the thought that it was the end of the world actually crossed my mind. I wondered if the whole earth was shaking or if it was just in Ofunato. I kept glancing down, thinking that at any moment the ground beneath my feet might split open and suck me in. It was terrifying.

I tried to remain as calm as possible but I felt that my heart was beating out of my chest. Violet of course felt my fear and began to cry. We huddled together with some elderly women from our neighborhood and they all tried to help me calm Violet and protect her. The electric wires in the near distance sparked loudly and a fire erupted in the sky. We all let out a communal shout as we looked up at the sound. Then we quickly huddled together again.

After several terrifying minutes the ground stopped shaking but my body did not. You know that feeling you get after you step off a boat or stop skating? Your legs feel like jelly and everything seems to be moving. That is what those first steps felt like after the earthquake subsided. I wanted to collapse. I wanted my husband. I wanted him to hold me and tell me it was just a dream. But it wasn’t and he wasn’t there. I’ll never understand why I started walking back to my house. I was obviously not in my right mind. I didn’t even think about a tsunami. The shock of the shaking left me feeling confused and clouded my judgment.

Thank God, my friend happened to be in the area during the earthquake and her clear thinking led her to drive by my house to check on us. She informed me of the impending tsunami and we quickly fled to higher ground.

My heart raced as I fumbled with my phone to try and call Gabe and then tried to call her husband as well. I was able to reach Gabe and tell him we were going to the hospital and he said that he would meet us there. We waited and waited as the walls shook around us and the lights above us swayed like a ship on rough waters. Soon people started to arrive with wet hair and wet clothes. It was then that I knew the wave had come. I felt my heart sink wondering if my husband had made it to safety. The hours moved by so slowly that it was as if time had frozen. Everything around me seemed to be moving in slow motion but inside, my heart raced.

Gabe did arrive that day. He came back to us. He ran for his life to live another day with us. So many husbands and fathers did not arrive that day. So many mothers, wives, sisters, brothers, daughters, sons and friends were not able to embrace the ones they loved that day. Some families waited and worried for days or weeks even, to embrace again, others waited and still wait to this day to be reunited with their loved ones, but theirs will be a reunion in the next life.

Violet and Daddy the evening of 3.11.11

Violet and Daddy the evening of 3.11.11

Waiting to go home

Waiting to go home

on the way to our house after the tsunami

on the way to our house after the tsunami

view from the bedroom window of or washed-out home

Gabe found one of our flash cards we used at school in the ruble

one of our English game cards we used at school in the debris

our house was one of the last ones struck by the wave. Everything piled up in front of our home and pushed through it.

Our house was one of the last ones inundated by the wave. Furniture, clothes, other neighbor’s books, toys, photos, paint, industrial chemicals, and all manner of debris was piled up in front of our home, broke through, swirled around and flowed-out.

the waves washed through our home

After the streets had been cleaned and cleared of debris two months later.

 

After the land was cleared

After the land was cleared

our community trash recepticleOur lives will never be the same again. Our hearts will always grieve for the ones we lost that day. For the lives we lived in the days and years before the waves destroyed our worlds. We grieve for the memories, both past and those that could have been, that it robbed so many of us of.

Three years later, life has found a new normal for many of us. We get up and we go to work. We play with our children and we visit with friends. But for so many, life is like living a daily nightmare. The mother whose arms will remain empty, the husband whose heart tortures him by continuing to beat rather than let him go and join his beloved. The daughter who wakes without a family and knows she is on her own now. The sister who lives without her truest friend and the bride-to-be whose wedding will never come…. For these people, life has continued to move on while their hearts remain in that day. We grieve with them and our hearts long to take away their pain.

For so many, guilt continues to plague their hearts, mine included. When I think about how quickly we were rescued from the shelter, I feel both incredibly thankful and unbelievable guilty. The fact that I had food and water and place to sleep while so many families, for months, did not, still breaks my heart. When I look at a picture that was recovered from our home after the tsunami I feel so grateful to have that memory back on my wall but then I immediately feel guilty for feeling that joy when so many of my friends have lost all their pictures and memorabilia that they carefully kept for generations. It is easy to give in to the guilt. The guilt of experiencing joy, the guilt of feeling depressed when so many have lost so much more.

For those of us in temporary housing, life has settled and we are feeling a new sense of community again. I will say that for the elderly in particular this is especially important. In Japan, your community is your family. People take care of one another. People still come out on the streets daily to talk with one another. After the tsunami, all of that was lost and for so many even if they still meet some of their former neighbors, it is difficult for them to communicate more than just a hello anymore. There is so much between them and yet a river of grief, envy, guilt or sorrow divides them. So, the new communities that we were all placed in are that much more important.

Three years later, there is talk of moving on and rebuilding. But for so many, the thought of starting over again is almost unbearable to think about. Even if the housing is small and cramped and cold in the winter and hot in the summer, it is home. It is a circle to belong to.

There is an elderly woman in my community who lost her family and her neighborhood. She is about 80 years old and she lives alone. She was able to make a connection with her new neighbor in temporary housing. They talked daily and walked outside daily. When her neighbor moved, it was so devastating for her. She came out every day looking for her friend. My neighbor had to remind her that she had moved. The pain and sorrow on her face as she remembered broke my heart. She couldn’t understand why she had left or where she had gone. My neighbor tried to comfort her and tell her that the rest of us were still here with her, that she was not alone. But she just sat there on the bench looking out at the parking lot, waiting for her friend to come back. For her and so many like her, the thought of leaving this new community is just too hard to think about.

Our family of three continues to live in temporary housing along with hundreds of other families. We still struggle with the painful memories and terrors of that day but together and with the amazing support of our family and friends both here and abroad, we are healing. We remind ourselves that it is ok to feel sad sometimes. It is important to feel our feelings and breathe through them. We watch our town and neighboring towns slowly coming back to life and it fills us with hope. We watch grieving friends begin to smile again and it fills us with love. We watch friends who lost their homes, rebuilding and starting a new life together again and it fills us with joy. We gather and we remember and it fills us with peace.

Our new home

We took this photo the first day we saw our temporary home. This is where we still live today.

Today, I still have nightmares. I still wake up crying in my sleep. But thankfully, they don’t come as often as they first did. I still dream of my family being lost in the wave but I also dream about all the true stories I have heard of losses on March 11th. I wake and remember and try to forget. I snuggle in a little closer to my husband and daughter. I breathe them in and remind myself that it was only a dream. The real nightmare is over.

Life will never be the same again, but it will be life. And the life we are given this day and the next will be a blessing, a gift that I pray we can cherish. My prayer for us all is that we can find at least one thing to be thankful for each day. And that with each breath we are granted, we might breathe peace, love and light. Today is your day, live it as is it were your last. Breathe as if it was your first.

photoFor further reading about our experiences on 3.11 read my post “Breastfeeding through a Disaster”

Our thoughts from 2012 on the first anniversary of the disaster are posted here.

The Grieving Child

I’ve been very behind in writing on my blogs lately. We had an extended summer vacation in the States due to the death of my beloved grandfather, “Papo”. Then only three weeks after returning to Japan, we had to make another emergency trip home due to the death of my dear, sweet grandmother, “Mamo”. They died exactly 2 months apart on the same date. July 14th and September 14th. They were married for 62 years and raised 8 children together. After my grandfather’s passing it was not really a surprise that she soon left us to be with him. In life they never liked being apart from each other, so we knew she was eager to join him.

For those of you who don’t know me personally, I had a very strong relationship with my grandparents. I grew up visiting them every Sunday after church and spent every Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, Thanksgiving and Easter with them (until I moved to Japan). They were an incredible influence on my life and I cherish the lessons that I learned from them. Losing them both in such a short time has been hard. And explaining death and the afterlife to our daughter has been both challenging and comforting.

In July, we were able to fly to Texas early to spend some time with my grandfather before he passed away. We were able to talk to him and he was able to respond in grunts and simple motions. Violet told him that she loved him and blew him a kiss and even though he was very weak he managed to raise his hand to his mouth to blow one back to her. It is a precious memory that will forever warm my heart. We spent hours singing and praying with him and telling him he was free to go. He had been suffering from illness for a very long time and it was time for him to rest.

When he finally did pass away we were at his house. Violet was in another room and I went to get her. She ran to my arms and said “Mommy where is Papo?” I told her he had passed away. She immediately held my face directly in front of her own and she smiled so big and said, “Mommy, he’s not in pain anymore now. He’s in heaven now right? He is with Grandma Pam. Can I be happy? We can be happy right?” After that I found it difficult to cry. She reminded me to be joyful.

I told her of course she could be happy and after that I had a hard time not feeling a form of happiness too. She smiled and laughed and rejoiced in his home-going. It was amazing. She wanted to go over and see his body. She was confused why his body was still there. She thought it would disappear. But she touched him and felt him and I told her his earthly body is here but his spirit, what we knew him like was gone.

The days following she often stated that she missed him, in fact she still talks about him and how she misses him. She told me that Papo wants her to come to be with him in heaven. That she saw his body turn into a pony when he died and he is a pony now. She asks about if he will come back as someone or something else. She is really interested in this lately and she often talks to me about what she was before and what she will be. We tell her that none of us really knows what happens after we die but what we believe is that we don’t have to have any pain anymore and we can be everywhere with all the people we love even if they can’t see us.

When we had the Rosary, Papo’s casket was open. Violet wanted to go up and see him and touch him over and over. She wanted to give him stickers and put them on his hands. I let her do it as often as I could because she was really expressing a desire to see him. I had to really try hard to keep her in her seat during the service because she kept wanting to get up.

Throughout the service she kept asking me questions about death and heaven and life after death. Questions that I couldn’t answer because I don’t know the answers. I could only answer with my feeble human mind.

Then when she saw me crying she said, “Mama when will my tears come?” I said, “Your tears will come when you are ready. We cry when we are sad or happy or scared or for any other feeling.” Then she pressed her self against my body and looked up at me and said “Mommy, maybe if we press our cheeks together and you touch your eyes to my eyes I can share your tears. Your tears will become my tears.” I was so taken aback by this expression of true empathy out of my child’s mouth and heart. I immediately said, “yes, you can share my tears baby. I will share my tears with you and you can always share your tears with me.” I pressed my cheek to hers and our closed eyes touched. My mascara stained tears rolled down her cheeks and she smiled up at me and said, “See mama, now I have your tears.” All I could do was hug her because I had no words to express the gratitude I felt in my heart for that moment.

My brothers and I sang Amazing Grace at the Rosary and Violet really wanted to sing with us. She really wanted to sing for Papo. She saw me expressing my love for my grandparents through singing to them for the last week and I think she really wanted to do the same. So I let her come up to the microphone with me. She didn’t know the words but she sang her heart out. I struggled to keep it together while listening to her sweet voice in my ear.

At the funeral, Papo’s casket was open in the beginning before the service started so that people who couldn’t make it to the Rosary could see him. Again, Violet wanted to go up to see him again and again. I let her take a couple of turns to say goodbye again. She gave him a few more stickers too. Then when they came to close the casket she became upset. She wanted to see him still. I tried to comfort her and tell her that it was just his body, he wasn’t there anymore. She continued to ask me questions about what happens to a person after they die and where he was. I tried to explain in as best a way I could that he was no longer in pain. He was with Grandma Pam and he would always be with us and around us watching over us.

We continued on to the burial and we stayed until he was lowered into the ground. It was a small group of us at that point. We all threw in some dirt and then Violet wanted to throw some flowers in for him. So we let her.

Since Papo’s passing Violet has continued to talk about him and voice what she thinks he is doing. She is always certain that he is with Grandma Pam and that they are having fun together. One day she told me “Mommy I think Papo is playing with Grandma Pam now.” I asked her “What are they playing?” She looked up and said “I think they are playing golf.” I don’t know how she knew that he loved playing golf. Maybe she overheard someone talking about it. I answered, “yes, I am sure they are.” Another time she told me that Papo was dancing in heaven. He was dancing for joy with Grandma Pam. I love when she shares these thoughts with me because I really do believe that children have a more open mind to the spiritual world. And I love to picture my beloved mother and grandfather doing the things she says they are doing.

Before we left, we had several opportunities to go and visit with my Mamo. Violet seemed to know she was sad and she knew why, without me telling her. Two days before we left we were over visiting with her and Violet asked me if Mamo lived in Japan. And then said she didn’t want to be away from Mamo. She began to cry and said she wanted to be with Mamo. Then she decided she would make a picture for Mamo to remember her by.

She went and drew Mamo a picture and when she brought it to her she told her it was magical.Then she gave Mamo her plastic wand (a toy she had recently become very attached to) and said the picture was “remoted”. She said, “When you touch the wand to the picture a voice comes out.” “Who’s voice?” Mamo said. “Gods voice.” replied Violet. “What does he say?” asked Mamo. “That you are never alone and Papo is always with you.When you feel sad and miss Papo you can use it.” Violet said.

Just before all of this Violet had asked Mamo “who do you sleep with?” Mamo said I sleep alone now. I sleep with angels.” So, Violet made this picture and came up with that whole idea on her own.

She then told her “You have to use it right when you wake up because I know you always miss Papo when you wake up.” Then Mamo said, “Can I use it at bedtime too?” Violet said, “Yes! You can use it anytime when you feel sad and are missing Papo or anyone who is not here anymore. Anyone who is not with you. God will always help you when you feel sad!”

Mamo was so touched. We all were. I could hardly hold back my tears through the whole conversation. It was so precious and so heartfelt.

I am so thankful that we had that time with my dear Mamo before she left this world. My aunt told me that my grandmother had slept with the wand by her bedside and often asked for it when she was in another room.

When she passed away, we were not physically there. It was terribly painful to not be able to say goodbye to her. I felt so much more emotional at her services because of that. Seeing her in the casket, although she looked beautiful, was very difficult for me to bear. Violet really wanted to go up and kiss her and touch her though. So we did.

Violet sat more patiently through these services because it wasn’t new to her anymore. I feel sad that she has had to attend so many funerals in her short life already. But thankful that she seems to really have an understanding of empathy and love.

She often talks about Mamo and cries that she misses her. She asks if we can send her letters or if she could go and see her again. She says things about death that sometimes might disturb others who don’t know why she is so in tune to it right now.

She told me and and my father on her birthday that she wanted to go to heaven and be with Mamo. She told me she wanted to wear her favorite purple party dress when she was in her “box” and that she wanted to be buried with Mamo. She has asked me many times when she is going to die and then will she come back to life as someone else. I always tell her the same thing, that she doesn’t have to worry or be afraid of dying. That no one knows when their time will come. I tell her that Mamo and Papo and Grandma Pam want her to live a long and happy life and then when the time comes they will be there waiting to hold her. This usually seems to satisfy her.

Her heart, her big and beautiful heart is full of so much love and compassion. I am so thankful that she is in my world. She truly gave me so much comfort during this time of loss. Young children can be so resilient and usually can find the positive in things faster than we adults and for that I am thankful.

Have you had to explain death to your children?

What ways have you found to comfort their grieving hearts?
We found these books very helpful during our grieving process. We had actually been reading them for about 4-5 months before Papo passed away because she had been asking so many questions about my mother. I was so thankful that she already had somewhat of an understanding about it before we had to go to the services.
The Invisible String by Patrice Karst
The Next Place by Warren Hanson
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This is what came of 2 people in love. 8 children and their spouses, 31 grandchildren and 27 great grandchilren so far. Everyone lives in the same state (except me)

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My beautiful grandmother. She called Violet her precious! And Violet adored that.

My dear Papo. I am so thankful that Violet got to know him.

My dear Papo. I am so thankful that Violet got to know him.