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.
Being married is hard. It is a lot harder than the fairy tales I read as child led me to believe. Having parents and grandparents who loved each other madly was beautiful. I also feel like I only saw the good and used that as a base for my expectations of my own marriage. I am sure that my parents struggled. I am sure that my grandparents struggled. But I chose not to focus on those aspects when building my expectations for my future.
Having expectations is one sure way to build up resentment. When you have no expectations, it’s harder to feel let down. If I could go back and enter in with no expectations, I would. But I can’t live in the past. I am here in the present. I can strive to let go of those expectations and live in and find joy in my reality.
“Each of us is caught up in an idea of happiness. If we can release our idea of true happiness, true happiness is born in us right away” –Thich Nhat Hanh
Why is it that we can speak to our daughter with kindness and love and patience but we can’t do the same with each other?
With my husband,
There are days when I really feel like I could’ve been a better version of myself.
There are days when I fail at being kind, loving, patient, and less easily offended.
There are days when I feel like I have bitten off more than I can chew.
There are days when I feel like I can’t do anything right.
There are days when I just want to sit in the corner and cry. Cry until I am as dry as the desert.
There are days when I really don’t know where to go.
There I days when I wish I could go back to sleep and wake up and start over again.
There are days when I am jealous and in turn act out in anger.
There are days when I lash out with sarcasm and name calling.
There are days when words come out of my mouth that I can never take back.
There are days when I wish I could be more like the role models I grew up believing I would eventually become.
There are days.
There are days.
I am imperfect. I am human. I make mistakes. I hurt feelings. I feel hurt.
Thich Nhat Hanh has some amazing words of comfort and inspiration. I share them here to remind myself.
“Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.”
“When you say something really unkind, when you do something in retaliation your anger increases. You make the other person suffer, and he will try hard to say or to do something back to get relief from his suffering. That is how conflict escalates.”
“Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.”
“Waking up this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.”
“Through my love for you, I want to express my love for the whole cosmos, the whole of humanity, and all beings. By living with you, I want to learn to love everyone and all species. If I succeed in loving you, I will be able to love everyone and all species on Earth… This is the real message of love.”
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.
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.
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.
Our 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.
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.
For 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.
It recently came to my attention that I might be propagating an image that is not entirely true to life. I am not trying to be dishonest about my family life or the way I raise my child. If I don’t mention any of the unpleasant stuff, it is not in an effort to look more perfect but to spread around the good stuff rather than the bad. But to clear the air I just want to open up a little bit about what does go on in my home.
My daughter is not happy all the time. I don’t know anyone who is and I don’t think that would be healthy. We do disagree and she does yell at me and hit me sometimes in anger. She has temper tantrums and demands my attention. I don’t believe her actions to be out of the ordinary for a 4 year old child. I try to handle these unpleasant moments with as much patience as I can. I have never yelled at my daughter. I have never hit my daughter. I have lost my patience and sighed in exasperation.
When she was 2 we did try time outs a couple of times and I abhorred those moments. I had read a book that suggested you gently tell them they can come out when they are ready to be kind and to not let them come out. We did that one time. It was torture and I regretted it the moment it started. I have no idea how that time out might have scarred her and I don’t know what terror she felt by being isolated. It haunts me to this day.
When she is misbehaving we do time ins. We sit together and talk about it or don’t talk about it. The point is, I believe that when she is misbehaving it is because some legitimate need is not being met. I try to figure out what that is and we try to fix it together.
Another thing that is missing from this blog is the presence of Violet’s father. She does have a father and he does live in our house. I don’t often write about him because this blog is mainly a blog about mothering. I do write about her father and our family life on our family blog.
My husband and I argue, a lot. We disagree about almost everything these days. Our daughter has taken to jumping in and trying the things she has learned about conflict resolution. Yesterday in fact she made a wonderful suggestion to us. She said, “Daddy, would you treat mommy like a partner today? Mommy, would you treat daddy like a partner today? Now hold on to each other really tight like you are running away from a big bear. Hold on to each other and love each other.”
What an analogy! She takes my breath away sometimes. It reminded me of the day of the tsunami, when I thought my husband might be dead. And when he walked in the doors and we embraced it was as if time stood still. All of the arguing and disagreements we had been having melted away. We were so thankful to be together and to have each other again. We felt so weak and yet so strong. When you feel you have escaped death you look at life differently. I wish that I could say that feeling lasted forever for us. It didn’t. Three years later and here we are taking each other for granted again. A life lesson gone to waste. But I don’t think it is too late, I think we can get back that zeal for life, that appreciation for each moment, each breath.
I wish that I could tell you that after she said that to us that my actions changed. I continued to feel anger toward him but I did try to get along with him for the rest of the day.
Our parenting style has challenged our marriage in ways that I didn’t expect. I don’t think it is fair to say that all of the difficulty we are having stems from our parenting style, because I think we have other underlying issues as well. I also don’t want to give attachment parenting a bad name. I think it is wonderful and I wouldn’t do it any other way. And there are plenty of families that practice attachment/gentle parenting that have happy marriages. I do hope that my husband and I can continue working on our relationship and that we can figure out a way to not argue so much. I don’t like that my daughter has had to witness our arguing and I hope that we can model healthy behaviors for her. I want her to know that marriage is hard but also that making the effort to work on it is worth it. There is nothing wrong with disagreeing with each other, but we should find a way to disagree in a healthy way. I also think that if she is going to see us argue, then she should definitely see us make up.
So, although it is embarrassing to admit that my life isn’t the perfect model of a happy family, I felt it important to clear the air and remove any veil that might be creating a cloudy image of the reality of my life. Please don’t judge me too harshly nor my child’s life. I only wanted to try sharing a glimpse into my life without the rose colored glasses.
With social media being so pervasive to our lives, I / we often have these false ideas about what other people’s lives are like. I don’t believe that your child is always perfectly dressed or that your husband always brings you flowers or that you all get along happily all the time. But when I / we only share these happy moments it does propagate an image of perfection that no one can attain. It can, unintentionally, create jealousy and envy of a life that doesn’t really exist.
In real life, we don’t have this constant stream of information about each other. When we meet or talk on the phone, we exchange stories and experiences of recent and there is almost always a mix of pleasant and unpleasant moments. We share because we long to connect with someone who will listen and understand us. I wouldn’t normally tell just anyone about my marital troubles or my failings and mistakes as a parent, out of pride mostly. But I would and do share them with my closest friends. But since for some of you, reading this blog or my Facebook statuses is the only way you “know” me ,I thought it unfair to only share the positives about my life. So in an effort to be more open, I am sharing these details of my life. If I / we are going to continue living with social media (which I believe we are) I think it is important that I/we try to be more honest.
Thanks for reading today. I wish you and yours a peace filled day.
It’s amazing to me how just holding my daughter’s hand brings me such peace. When I’m feeling stressed or overwhelmed, her small hand in mine reminds me to breath.
When she is crying out of anger, even when it is me that she is angry with, and I reach out to hold her hand, she holds it. When we are driving to school and she is crying from frustration and I am feeling frustrated too, I reach over and hold her hand in silence and I feel my body, and hers, calming down.
When I am sad or sick or tired, she reaches out to hold my hand, as if she knows our hearts unite in that single physical act of connection.
When we cross the street or walk through a busy public place, I reach down and her hand is there waiting to grasp mine. It is safety, it is reassuring, it is calming, it is peaceful, it is an I’m sorry, it is an I forgive you, it is Love.
I held my mother’s hand when we walked side by side, even when I was in high school and college. She was my safety, my calm, my friend. I felt her love and her heart when our hands were clasped.
Violet, often looks up at me as we are walking hand in hand and says, “Mama, I love holding your hand. I can feel you sending all your love through it.”
The power of touch is so healing and so important in our lives. If your child is feeling stressed, anxious or even angry, I encourage you to try holding their hand. Even if you don’t know what to say to them, just holding their hand expresses solidarity and compassion. As Dr. James A. Coan says, “The effect of this simple gesture of social support is that the brain and body don’t have to work as hard, they’re less stressed in response to a threat.”
One way our children can learn to regulate their own response to external situations is through the act of hand holding. Hand holding is an extension of our heart. It is a physical, tangible exchange of love.
Violet, I hope you know that you can always, hold my hand.