I suppose I’ve already given it away with the subtitle, so there’s no shying away from it, no appropriate lead-up for me to provide. It is still a raw, difficult, almost impossible thing to say out loud, and perhaps just slightly easier to write. But my reality right now is this: my mother—my best friend, and the most beautiful person I’ve ever known— passed away on December 28, 2020. She was 56 years old.
It would be irrelevant for me to tell you that she had been battling breast cancer for many years. The entire time, she was adamant that she would not let the disease define her, or the way she lived her life. She repeated over and over: “I’m not a cancer patient.” I understood. In fact, there was never one identity that could singularly capture her magnetism, her many passions, and the many lives she touched. She was a scholar of Japanese literature. A loving wife and mother. She went to make-up school. She danced ballet. She studied English and took the TOIEC test for fun. She played the okoto, a traditional Japanese stringed instrument, and bonded with neighborhood okoto players who would become her core group of friends towards the end of her life. She prided herself on her impeccable fashion sense, and got up at 4 in the morning every day to put on make-up before anyone else woke up. She could walk for hours in 9 cm heels. She once danced with legendary composer Ryuichi Sakamoto at a nightclub (before she met my dad). She made friends wherever she went, and she was an expert at gift-giving. She made life look easy and fun, even up to the end. She never showed pain.
When things started to look bad in the last couple of years, she would tell me gently, but with weight, that she had said everything she had wanted to say to me over the course of our decades together. She said she had no regrets. She had demonstrated to me, even before the cancer, what it looked like to live every day to the fullest. And to know when to take breaks and do nothing.
Ever since I moved from Tokyo to New York in 2007, my mother and I had an intense long-distance relationship that evolved with technology. We used GChat, Skype, iChat, eventually landing on a Japanese-Korean app called Line. We video-chatted almost every day, and if we were busy, we’d message each other on email and Instagram. After we moved to Nashville, we created a Google Album where she could see the growth of her two grandsons and the changing seasons of our new home city. I could see exactly when she’d viewed something. Even inactively, we were connected.
Our distance was painful, but it was something she’d orchestrated from when I was little. As a young mother in Tokyo, she’d developed a kind of disillusionment with the Japanese school system, and nudged my father to apply to post-docs overseas so that we could all experience other options. We went to San Diego for three years, came back to Tokyo, and went back to California, this time to Palo Alto, for another three years. “Liberated” is the word she used to describe what happened. She distinctly remembers my third-grade teacher asking her students, “What do you think?”—something she never witnessed in a Japanese classroom. In her own social circles, she was glad to break away from the clique of young women back home who were under immense pressure to live perfect lives, with perfect children who’d go onto the perfect universities and get perfect jobs. (Later, I would tell her that people can be like this anywhere else in the world, and that perhaps she had simply found better friends in Palo Alto.)
But an idea had already germinated inside her, which was that I would grow up with an American education, and that with luck, I would end up having a life in the States. Even if it meant that we’d be thousands of miles apart from each other.
Even in her last days, when we contemplated the possibility of flying back to Tokyo so that we could see each other in person one last time, she was stubborn in her desire for us to stay put. Setting aside the logistical nightmare of traveling during the pandemic with two small children, on top of strict quarantine guidelines in Japan that would have separated us for two weeks after arrival (by which point it may have been too late), my mother was strong enough to put her foot down on this matter. She still mothered me through the screens of the video-chat. “I’m not a cancer patient,” she repeated. “And we’ve been doing this for years,” she reminded me. Even before the pandemic, we had become experts at using whatever new technology came about to connect, and to say over and over without actually saying it: I love you.
In the last week, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to honor her and her positive spirit. In between the difficult waves of grief, I work hard to remember her the way she wanted to be remembered, not by her last days but by the accumulation of moments when she was most alive. In that vein, I thought this might be an appropriate time to revisit a piece I wrote (in an older newsletter) right after my mother came to Nashville in 2018 to take care of us, following the birth of her first grandson, Ray. My hope is that it will offer a glimpse into our mother-daughter relationship that I will continue to cherish in the days and years to come.
(From March 2018)
As you all know, our baby boy, Ray Yoshikawa, was born on March 5. Just over three weeks have passed, but it’s felt like an eternity. Yet again, my relationship with time is all topsy-turvy from what I’ve been used to. Little moments are amplified, day and night confused. Like Ray (and our cat Lukie), I’ve become more or less nocturnal, and it’s moments like these when Ray is sound asleep (usually on my chest) that I find time to myself to think, write, daydream… also replay my favorite moments from the last few weeks when my mother was here. She flew in from Tokyo three days after he was born. Sadly, she’s flying back today.
My mother and I hadn’t seen each other in almost two years, though we’ve been diligent about video chatting at least once a week. It was both wonderful (my mom’s favorite word) and surreal (perhaps mine) to have her around, to spend all this time being in the same room together, allowing ourselves long stretches of silence between conversations that simply come up, unlike our video chats where we try to update each other on everything that happened throughout the week in one concentrated go.
We talked about everything. The abomination that is hazelnut-flavored coffee, which only seems to exist here in America. We exchanged birth stories. We showed each other YouTube videos we thought the other would enjoy. We talked about Ray, how strange and funny it is looking after a baby boy with all his little parts. We talked on the couch. In the kitchen. During short drives and walks to Hillsboro Village. While folding laundry. Stirring onions in the pan. While I nursed. While she rocked Ray in her arms.
We talked on and off about motherhood and what it means, and for the first time in my life I heard stories of her mother, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers. How they were all women of extraordinary circumstances, how they all fell in love, how that informed their relationships with their families and where they ended up living, how many of them fled their homes to find new homes, how they raised their children, how they had particular ways of cleaning their houses and purchasing food, how they had their clothes tailored or made their own, the ways they restarted their lives after the war burned everything down, how they prepared baths, how they carried their babies, how they did their hair.
When Ray turned two weeks old, the little stump from his umbilical cord fell off, and we talked about how the stump resembled a little shellfish, the kind we eat in miso soup. She said Japanese people keep these stumps their entire lives and request to be cremated with it upon death, a ritual that ties the knot between the beginning and end of that person’s life. I thought briefly about how to store it (in a box? in a bag?) and how I would explain this to Ray one day when he’s older, how unimaginable it is still, that this little squirming creature is going to be a fully-grown person one day.
Every day I watched her watching me becoming a mother, and every day I went back and forth between feeling like I’m getting the hang of things and feeling like I’m still a kid that doesn’t know the first thing about taking care of another kid. In moments like these, it was my mother who reminded me that she felt exactly the same 29 years ago, and again, the surrealness of this situation—seeing her in our Nashville home, seeing her holding my son who I’m still getting to know—struck me particularly hard.
Jin and I were completely spoiled while my mother was here, getting to eat all her amazing home-cooked meals and having another pair of eyes on Ray while we napped at odd hours. Now that she’s gone, it feels like the trials of new parenthood is finally upon us. This morning, as I watched her get into the Uber that would take her to the airport, I was overcome with a profound sadness that comes naturally with living so far away from home, but then I looked down at Ray, his eyes swimming in all directions from a half-asleep state, and that sadness was quietly replaced by another feeling, a new thing that I can't quite name, but something that made me feel infinitely connected not only with her but the mothers and their mothers that came before her.