Tuesday, January 11, 2011

reflection on my last post

Am I willing to be lonely if that is my mission of the moment?

Am I willing to sacrifice the comfort of keeping in touch with a group of friends for the sake of one other person's well being?

Am I the one who commits to a decision? If I make a vow, can I live up to it? Can I return quickly if I sway from it?

Why do I continue when I don't know where I'm going?

Why do I do things others ask of me, even if I am on the last threads of patience, effort, energy and compassion?

Do I confuse stress with apathy? When I'm overstressed, do I become apathetic?

Each of these questions, and more are emerging from my writing in my journal. Had I not experienced my grandmother's passing, I would not know the answers to these questions. If I experienced this later, though I may find the same answers, the experiences in between would have been totally different. For that, I've learned much about life. Thank you again, obaachan!

Monday, January 10, 2011

A bittersweet birthday

Kana Uemura - Toire No Kamisama
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Six days ago, my grandmother passed away at the 86 years of age. Going through the spectrum of emotions, I celebrate my birthday today with the bittersweet taste of life's toil. After work, I picked up her ashes with my dad in tow, and we welcomed her home one more time.

My grandmother lived with my parents before my own birth. She came to America in 1967, not knowing a word of English, and possessing a limited education from the times of the Japanese imperialist wars of the 1930s and 1940s. During my life, my grandmother became my second mother, offering comfort and guidance, encouragement and wisdom. Though today may be a bittersweet birthday, my grandma gave me this opportunity to express myself.

I am forever fortunate to be present in the autumn and winter of her life. In these years, she displayed the ever-present challenge of obstacles and strife, and how one directs and defines life's victories. Perplexed by what defines a "unique mission" that only I could fulfill, I returned to Colorado in 2008 intending to forgo chasing my dreams of the moment to support my grandmother.

I came back in September 2008, right when Bear Stearns and Lehmann Brothers collapsed, beginning the market collapse and punctuated the end of good times, and began the largest downturn I will probably experience in my lifetime. My initial intention to return home was to ensure that she saw her final dream come true--watching Eric graduate, signaling that her three grandsons completed Soka University of America. However, when I was in the job hunt, I had amazing opportunities to support my grandmother. My best conversations with her were when we chanted together and when I drove her to the bank, pharmacy or grocery store. I got her hooked on my favorite song when I played it on the car stereo, and she got me to listen to music I never heard. And though in May 2009, with Eric graduating Soka, I could have moved on to chase my own dreams, I realized that I had more to contribute to my grandmother’s life. In order to support her dream come full circle, I needed to do something in return to show appreciation for what she provided before she passed away. I forwent pursuing my dreams once more in order to support her. This entailed that I made a decision for my "mission" - to support my grandmother in the waning years of her life.

2009 and 2010 quickly became the most difficult and taxing years of my life. Many times, I wanted to do something else and begin accomplishing my own dreams. However, every time I tried focusing on something else, her condition would bring me back to my mission. My grandmother suffered a heart attack on September 19, 2009. The doctors gave her only a 20% chance to live through the night. And yet, my grandma rode on that 20% chance, leading to her eventual, though not a complete recovery. 

With her heart function reduced to 35% of normal, she continued to live for 472 days after her heart attack. This feat alone inspires me. Nichiren wrote that, “one day of life is more valuable than all the treasures of the major world system, so first you must muster sincere faith” (WND-1, p. 955). My grandmother then illustrated this purest form of faith in her final 472 days. I had 472 days to find new reasons to love my grandma, 472 days to see her struggles with health, anxiety, depression and negativity. Even in her state towards the end of her battle, I knew that she overcame all that was holding her back. After her heart attack, there were days when she would say that she wished she were dead already, and others when she would say that she feared death. In her final days, I could see that fear and anxiety melt away on her face. That's how I know she passed away victorious.

Preparing for her passing, and now with her physically gone, I felt taxed of energy. But I gained experiences that I was naive to and would continue to be had I not chosen to come back home. Edward R. Murrow noted in 1954 that people "can escape our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape the responsibility of the result" (See It Now, March 9, 1954). Even when I tried to escape my heritage, everything pointed me back to my mission to support my grandmother.

Today is my birthday. But today is also when I welcome my grandmother home. おばあちゃん ありがとう!

I have much more to say about my grandmother, but the greatest thing I can say is that her homecoming now is the best gift I received today.

And to those who’ve reached out since her passing, I cannot thank you enough. I wish she was here to celebrate. But I she gave me her entire life and I carry that as a responsibility and not a burden.