The last day haunts in loon-like echoes. My mother’s last day. Her mother’s last day. A week apart. My mother came to visit me in Japan, then left two days later after learning of her mother’s stroke. And when she left, her suffering gnawed the corners of my apartment, creating drafts I hid from under layers of blankets.
That spring, my grandmother died. Clear like an undisturbed pond. Rain. Soggy shoes. A hostel in Kyoto that smelled of wet carpet and mold. I wrote a postcard to my mom and said, I miss you, and, I wish you could have been here. It hurt to hear the gongs and somber quiet of the weathered wooden temples. Leaving, one is also left.
SPRING IN JAPAN is a domino effect of cherry blossoms. In March, nascent pink buds open in the south, and the color spreads north into April and May, speckling the cities, petals like confetti on the sidewalks. Cherry blossoms are lauded in Japan because of their fleeting nature. They epitomize the Japanese aesthetic. The concept of mono no aware has been a part of Japanese culture at least since the introduction of Zen Buddhism in the twelfth century, though Motoori Norinaga, a Japanese literary and linguistic scholar, invented the term in the eighteenth century. It literally means “a sensitivity to things” and defines beauty as an awareness of the transience of all things and a gentle sadness at their passing. This is the sense on which the culture turns.
Mono no aware is the sigh at the end of a savory meal, when the mouth still waters, glistening the lips. It’s the softening of shoulders when the sun sets and spills purple bronze across the sky. It’s looking at an old photograph of someone and hearing her laugh and then half-smiling.
It was a windy April in Kanazawa. The wind wove through the Hokuriku Mountains in the southeast area of the city and made the Sea of Japan to the west appear dark and choppy. Cherry blossoms dislodged from their stems and stroked the ground, which had been split by the March 11th quake. The earth leaked cold mud, which collected at the bottom of my shoes. The air bit my bare ears. We stood on the edge of a river that started at the top of Mount Utatsu and wound down through a cherry-blossom grove, nested within pines and birch trees. Shafts of light swam through the tangle of branches, texturing new grass with shadows and glares reflected off human things—cars in the lot, cell phones, the wisps of silver in my mother’s hair. Her face looked cold, the tip of her nose red.
She had arrived in Japan the previous day with her younger sister, Sue, and best friend, Mary. I took the week off from work and booked a room for us at a Japanese-style inn in the ancient city of Kyoto, where we were headed in a few days. We had been apart for nearly a year, sharing our lives in fragments: a letter here and there, calls that grew less and less frequent as the months stacked. But in this shrouded moment, standing in front of me, Mom was further away than she had ever been. She retreated into the folds of her beige spring coat and hid her chin in the frays of a scarf. I led a silent meditation in honor of my grandmother, Lucy; we had just learned she was suffering from a sudden stroke on the other side of the world. I let my words float down the river and break apart on the rocks. Mom had only just arrived, but I knew she was already gone. My words slid around her. She sank deeper into her layers.
My grandmother, Lucy Evans, married Bernard Ulrich in 1942 and settled down in a small suburban town, one of many scattered across the state of Pennsylvania. The first child was named Mary Lou. And then came Clare, Susan, and Bernie.
I was the daughter of rebellious Clare, youngest granddaughter of patient Lucy, whom the little ones, including me, affectionately called Gammy. All I knew about Gammy’s past was that it had been difficult and she had been strong. The second-eldest of a poor couple’s eight children, she dropped out of school after eighth grade to work in a factory, earning money for her family during the Great Depression. They ate fried onions and potatoes cooked over a fire fueled by chopped wooden furniture. When finances recovered, she paid for her five younger sisters to wear makeup and floral frocks and, then, to model their fashions in magazines. They never said thank you. She never complained, her face a mask—algae-green eyes, a murky gaze, and skin as smooth as morning.
She raised her four children, mostly alone, while her husband was off fighting in World War II or, after that, off leading a double life with another woman in another city where he worked long hours. But she always put meals on the table—lasagna or macaroni salad with a side of peas for the kids, a roast beef specially prepared for Bernard. She always had fresh flowers in the house and music wafting out the windows. She swept the floors to Frank Sinatra tunes, never sitting down to put up her feet. Her determined self-sufficiency got the better of her when the dementia hit. She’d pull away from an outstretched hand, and the unfamiliarity of this support cascaded into vertigo—a coiled suspicion, paranoia, blame laced with fear. Still, she always smiled at me, and when I looked into her jade eyes, I saw her memory of my two-year-old self in yellow rubber boots looking back at me.
“Brenna,” Gammy said before I left to live in Japan. I was always flitting around the world for indefinite periods of time, and before any departure, I made a point to visit Gammy. This time, at ninety-four, barely able to read, barely able to remember, her heart weak and irregular, her hair a wild white nest, she swayed in her rocking chair with a somber finality and spoke between slow-motion blinks. “Never stop writing.”
I said, “I won’t.”
“Good,” she said, struggling to hold the memory. “You know, I kept every one of your little letters and poems.”
“Every single one.”
After Mom and Sue left, Mary and I took the trip to Kyoto together. To save money, we cancelled our reservations for the fancy bamboo-floored inn and stayed in a shaggy hostel with creaky bunks and cardboard-stiff towels. And the rain—it pelted. It poked and prodded and shoveled us hurriedly into steamy buses, squished up against one hundred wet umbrellas. My hair fizzed out in a humid bush about my face and stayed gnarled in knots as we crisscrossed the city, half-looking up at the glistening roofs of temples, half-running for shelter from the rain. Every corner of Kyoto had the shadow of my mother’s absence, and when we stopped to eat, I knew what she would have ordered. My mom hated fish, but she loved noodles. I ordered noodles that first day. Mary and I ate in silence.
THE POSTCARD I SENT TO MOM was a woodblock print image of a tiered temple in Kyoto called Kiyomizu-dera. It was printed in sunset red and yellow singed with bronze, though the main halls of the real-life temple were mostly wooden brown. Kiyomizu-dera literally means “pure water temple.” The site dates back to the year 778 AD, although the buildings have been destroyed many times by earthquakes and fires. What remains today is what was rebuilt from 1631 to 1633 by the third Tokugawa shogun, Iemitsu. Triangular roofs perch atop tall splintered pillars, and multiple verandas jut out into the hillside, offering layered views of Kyoto, a maze of old and new. Not a single nail was used in the construction of part of the complex, yet when the wind blows, only the maple trees around it sway. When I looked out over the hillside, everything was splashed with a new spring green, the layers of vegetation as tightly packed as fish scales. Below the main hall flows the Otowa Waterfall, where three channels of water pour into a pond. There’s a section down a long trail of stairs where visitors can catch the water as it falls. We cupped it between our palms and drank.
The day before Gammy’s stroke, I took my mom, Sue, and Mary to see the cherry blossoms lining the Asanogawa River in Kanazawa, the river that gurgled beside my apartment. Cherry blossoms last for only one week, and the timing of my family’s visit was perfect. We walked toward the water, beneath the lush lace of pale blooms still strung sturdy along branches that arched over our heads. The canopy threw a soft geometry of shadows across our faces, and when we snapped a photo to remember, everyone said how much I looked like my mom.
I have my mother’s build, a small frame with knobby knees, full cheeks, and a pointy, up-turned nose. When it’s hot out, the blood in our hands and feet turns our white skin red, and the blue vines of our veins bulge visible near the surface. We look at things intensely, furrow our brows against the sunlight, and rarely smile when alone. We cross our arms over our chests (though I have tried to break this habit) and sit during movies with our hands tucked between our legs. We get cold easily and wear paisley scarves and big wool sweaters in winter, linen fabrics and long wiry earrings in summer. In our bodies, each of us carries the other.
WHEN MY GRANDMOTHER TALKED at the kitchen table, she used to rub the napkins flat, as if her hands were an iron. I see my mother does this, too, when she’s talking about her past. She looks away, maybe up at the ceiling, and her hands do their own thing with the napkin. I listen to her stories. Lucy was an accommodating mother. As a child, my mother Clare used to bite her sisters and slam doors in people’s faces. When she dropped out of college and moved to San Francisco, Lucy welcomed her back a year later. Clare had anger, inspiration, and a feisty creative energy. She drove a taxicab in Illinois and used to smoke Cuban Crooks cigars on her breaks while reading the Wall Street Journal. She cycled cross-country, slept in graveyards, and wrote stories about haunted selves. When I was studying film in college and I told her my favorite movie was Bergman’s Persona, she told me it was one of hers, as well.
My upper body is like my mother’s—long torso, long neck. My lower body is like my grandmother’s—thin legs, thin toes. I am patient and accommodating, but my heart pumps heavy and blows me around to far corners of the world, always seeking.
I left for Japan on a sticky August morning. When I said goodbye to Mom at the airport, I looked back over my shoulder several times after walking through security, holding up the line with my slow footsteps. Walking down the ramp toward the gate, through dust-laden rays of sunlight, I cried, but then I quickly wiped the wet from my cheeks, smoothed the folds of my shirt, zipped my bags, clipped my hair, and boarded up my sadness. I waited patiently for the plane to Japan, fighting the sea beneath my skin.
Japan is a body of mountains with ocean borders. A narrow string of islands, the archipelago has a rugged backbone where gushing rivers spill into the sea. These drainages—alongside typhoons, earthquakes, and active volcanoes—are among the great natural forces that influence the ecology and urban geometry of this country.
In one section of Kyoto, north of downtown and east of the Imperial Palace, two rivers, the Kamo and the Takano, join to create the Kamo River, which flows through the center of the city. The small Kamo River has the same name as the main Kamo River it empties into, but it is a different river and is represented with different Chinese characters. A mossy-green sliver of land divides the two smaller rivers, and where the land comes to a triangular point, the rivers join together. At this spot, the water is shallow, and you can walk on small steppingstones that form a path to the other side of the river. Here, gray herons dip their beaks in marshy coves, looking for fish, and egrets glide like sky pearls. Children stumble on rocks, splashing. It’s a fertile place.
AT THE AGE OF TWENTY-TWO, the Japanese literary scholar Motoori Norinaga moved to Kyoto to study medicine but instead became fixated on literature and cherry blossoms. In a nationalist effort to distinguish Japanese culture from Chinese influence, he spent his lifetime reviving the waka—Japanese poems written in Japanese, as opposed to kanshi, written by Japanese poets in classical Chinese. He despised the idea, popular at the time, that literature should be morally uplifting, believing instead that writing should be inspired and produced by human feelings. He claimed all waka are composed through knowledge of mono no aware, through a yearning to express deep feelings and their transitory natures. Norinaga loved cherry blossoms, especially the less ornate wild ones. In his lifetime, he wrote more than ten thousand waka, including hundreds devoted to cherry trees, which he felt symbolized the essence of Japan. The cherry blossom, or sakura, is Japan’s unofficial national flower.
Kanazawa, where I taught English for one year, undulates atop three hills, most of them dotted in April with every variety of cherry blossom—pale pink, droopy purple, glowing white. The hills are nourished by two rivers, the Asanogawa River and the Saigawa River, which both connect to the Sea of Japan on the western coast of the country. The city’s labyrinthine layout and dead-end streets confuse travelers, but historically, this confusion served to protect it from invasion. Isolated on the cusp of Snow Country, Kanazawa hibernates for six months in winter, under wet snowflakes as big as paw prints.
As she aged, my grandmother’s dementia worsened, snuffed out her fire, made everything gray. She hid among the shadows of her closed window shades. Her life became an endless winter of frozen recollections and cold pizza. She didn’t know what month it was. Her memories became realities, and her realities became imagined fears. In her world, I became my mother, my aunt, my brown-eyed sister. My face bled into other familiar faces. Her spine slumped, her skin sagged, and her scaffolding was my mother. With Sue’s help, Clare fed and cleaned and entertained Lucy, turned the TV to the oldies station, brought her flowers and large-print books, paid her bills, washed her hair. And when it was time to leave to visit me in Japan, she made all the arrangements to have her taken care of, kissed her on the forehead, and said, I’ll see you soon.
And then the stroke two nights after my mom’s departure. Which woke Gammy from sleep. The difficulty swallowing, the numbness, the confusion, the glassy eyes and clammy hands. The clumsiness. The fall. The linoleum floor against her ivory face. Contraction. Weighted limbs. Found the next day in a pool of her own urine. She couldn’t speak and didn’t know she couldn’t speak. And there was an icy stillness, a cold-blooded peace.
“I just thought how Sue and I were like Gammy’s borders, and when we left, she was free to go,” writes Mom. “Or if not free, maybe not held together.” The words sound flat when I read them, but I am sure she looked at the ceiling after she wrote them.
The day before my mother left Japan, which was only the day after she arrived, we followed a knotted string of streets to the center of town, where the stone walls and watchtowers of Kanazawa Castle loom over the sidewalks. We walked across the bridge to the cherry blossom-lined hill bordering Kenroku-en Garden, considered one of Japan’s three most beautiful gardens. Here, gravel carpeted the walkways and crunched softly beneath our feet. It was night, and the garden was illuminated in a haunting celebration of spring, blossoms and branches backlit, their color pinkish-yellow. Wispy clouds stitched across a somber moon and hung together loosely in the midnight-blue sky.
We huddled close against the last of winter’s chill, the fringe of my thin silk scarf tangled in my mother’s thicker knitted one. Looking up at the weave of branches, we waited for the wind to blow cherry blossoms across our faces. I nestled my nose in her hair the way I used to do as a child, and we walked the petal-lined path, arms interlinked.
Weeks after my mother left me to watch her mother leave her—after the rose drained from Lucy’s cheeks and the last drip fell from the hospital IV—after the mist and fog of my trip to Kyoto with Mary—after I vacuumed the last remnants of my mother’s hair from my floor and hung the sheets she had slept on in the warming April breeze—I walked to town along the Asanogawa River. The cherry blossoms were gone by then, tiny specks of pink crushed into the muddy path. In their place, leafy fractals unfolded like fans.