Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Thank You...And Forgive Me.

I knew this day would come, but it doesn't make it any easier.

On this hot and muggy day at the tail end of July I'm sitting in my BLUE car dressed in a black suit and black tie because I'm on my way to a funeral. The other four seats are occupied by Seishin students, all current or former members of the music club, because we are going to say farewell to one of our own. In these "Land of the Rising Sun" stories over the past few years I have repeatedly mentioned the fact that we had two flute players with terminal illnesses, one with a bad heart and the other with cancer. Well, one of the two, the one with cancer, has finally succumbed. She was 18.

Ironically, Natsumi was the younger of the two, and her illness appeared much, much later. However, it felled her much, much quicker, too. As I mentioned a little more than a year ago, Natsumi made her final appearance with the music club at what would have been her last concert before "retirement". In accordance with her wishes, we put a flute in her almost-useless hands and put her wheelchair in her position in the band for the final performance. (Yuko, the former flautist with the bad heart, was the one that pushed her wheelchair. It was a sight guaranteed to shatter the most solid of defense mechanisms.) She also went through her graduation ceremony at the school...in a hospital stretcher. (That pretty much demolished what few defense mechanisms were left.) She wanted to stay with us till the end, and that is exactly what she did. Now it's our turn to pay our respects.

The students in my car are laughing and carrying on as if we were going to a picnic. This is actually the second time I've had to attend the funeral of a student, the first being a girl in my international seminar at Kamisu High School who was suddenly felled by a brain tumor. That was in 1991. I remember that the students were laughing and joking around about it back then, too, and it really bothered me. Now I'm seeing the same behavior among "higher-level" students about a girl that was a close friend to all of them. I guess it's a form of denial. They're too young to deal with darkness. I suppose I can understand.

The funeral is taking place at Natsumi's family home. It's actually a very new house, specially constructed to accommodate her needs, such as plenty of room for wheelchair access. The place is huge and clearly very expensive. I'm not sure which impresses me more, the sheer grandeur of the house itself or the obvious labor of love it represents. The signs of that labor are very clearly etched into the wearied faces of Natsumi's parents. They have had to endure hell for the past few years, and now they are performing one final, agonizing duty. My own parents had to deal with the loss of a child, but at the time I was too young and blown away by it all to appreciate just what that really meant. Now that I have my own children, I can look at this great labor of love and fully sympathize with the words of Theoden, King of Rohan: "No parent should have to bury his own child."

There's quite a crowd at the house, which seems hardly large enough to accommodate everyone despite its size. There are relatives, teachers, classmates, and friends going back to her preschool days. And, of course, there are members of the Seishin music club. Lots of members of the music club. Interestingly, it's a Christian funeral, the first I've ever seen in Japan. The pastor was the principal of Natsumi's kindergarten and also her Sunday school teacher in her childhood. Not surprisingly, very few of the people there have had any experience with a Christian ceremony of any kind, let alone a funeral, and they seem lost. The whole idea of singing hymns is totally alien to them (and the fact that the pastor's sense of pitch is sadly lacking doesn't really help, either). In the end, it's probably very fortunate that we have Mr. Ogawa and Mrs. Miyazawa, Seishin's vocal music teacher, there to lend their singing talents. I sing along as best I can, but trying to read the Japanese lyrics at the same pace as the tune is NOT easy...

Unfortunately, the pastor uses the opportunity for some rather obnoxious proselytizing. Actually, "propaganda" is probably a bit more accurate, but I won't elaborate. The scripture readings are familiar to me, but hearing them in Japanese definitely gives them a whole new essence. Then the pastor invites people to come up and say some words on Natsumi's behalf. That's when things really get interesting.

A whole platoon of former and current Seishin flute players, every one that served during the time Natsumi was with us, comes up to the portable pulpit in a line. One by one, they say what they've come to say, choking back the tears. Yuko is among them, and, though she looks refreshingly healthy, the look in her eyes and the sound of her voice show just how hard it is for her to come to grips with the situation. Her own words and actions back when she was a member of the band showed us in no uncertain terms that she never expected to survive till graduation, let alone live to be speaking at the funeral of a younger fellow. I really have to wonder what she's feeling now.

After that, different members of the music club put on musical performances, all of which are almost totally impromptu, but no one is in any shape to play well. The recorder ensemble is hideously out of tune. The first string ensemble gives it their best, but their concentration is off and so is their rhythm. The third performance, a lovely rendition of "Itsumo, Nandodemo" from the movie Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (English title Spirited Away) played by solo flute and violin accompanied by a shepherd's harp and string ensemble, is by far the best and most moving, but the flute player chokes up and breaks in the middle. I think everyone understands.

After that, the former classmates and friends of Natsumi perform an interesting little ceremony of their own in the courtyard. Apparently Natsumi's father had a dream about her right after she was born in which she was sailing up into the sky tied to a white balloon. In addition, Natsumi herself, when she realized the end was inevitable, had a personal message written up and sealed to be opened only after she passed on. That message read simply:

Arigatou. Gomen ne.

Thank you. Forgive me.

In honor of that, the former classmates and friends have all prepared white balloons to which they have tied letters expressing their thanks to Natsumi. With a great shout of, "Arigatou, Natsumi," they all toss their balloons up and watch them sail away on the near-perpetual winds of Itako City. All the tears are gone now, and everyone is smiling. It's only appropriate. After all, even when Natsumi's arms and legs had become totally useless, she never stopped smiling. Even when she was carried from the auditorium in a stretcher, diploma in her limp hand, her smile was firmly in place. How fitting that those closest to her should send her soul off with a smile.

My attempt to sneak out at this juncture is shot down in flames. Food has been prepared, and consumption is mandatory. Still, the mood in that house has clearly changed. I think we've all found closure, and we're all feeling better knowing that Natsumi has probably gone on to a much better place, smiling all the way.

Looking for a seat away from the crowds (since I'm not feeling particularly social), I grab one in the courtyard and then realize that the person sitting a few feet away is Yuko. Once again, I find myself feeling extremely awkward, and I contemplate a swift relocation. It's too late. I've been noticed.

Seeing me, she turns that fetching, sparkly-eyed smile of hers in my direction and says, "Sensei, long time no see! How are you?"

I take a deep breath, gather my wits, and reply, "Fine. Everything's fine. How are you?"

Perhaps my tone of voice in phrasing that last, innocent question was a bit too serious. Maybe I just hit an understandably sensitive spot. As I said before, Yuko's feelings right now can only be guessed at. Her smile fades only a fraction of a centimeter, but her eyes look almost horrified. "I'm fine, sensei," she says a bit abruptly. "Really, I am. I'm totally fine. Totally, totally fine." Then she stands, bows awkwardly, and hurries out of the courtyard, leaving me worrying whether I've said something wrong. Even so, she definitely does look fine, far better than she did in her school days. The heart condition that threatened to terminate her life while still in her early teens still hasn't conquered her. I should be thankful for that.

After that, a recent graduate of Seishin and former music club member, apparently concerned at my being alone, invites me to join her group. I do so, but the other members of that group, other recent graduates who weren't musicians, ignore me and seem non-plussed at my efforts to make conversation, so I promptly excuse myself. It's a good thing, too. Some of the music club kids are ready to leave the party, and I'm only too happy to be a BLUE taxi.

As I drive home, I can still see some of those white balloons. A few have caught in the high-tension power lines (oops...), but most are still riding the winds out over the Kanto Plain. carrying their messages of thanks to a departed but still-loved friend.

You're welcome, Natsumi. No apologies necessary.


Flautists at the 2004 Regular Concert. Natsumi is in the wheelchair. Yuko is on the right. Posted by Picasa

4 Comments:

  • (sniff) Rest in peace, Natsumi.

    By Blogger DewKid, at 2:07 AM  

  • Sad to hear. But a fight unto the end is the best fight.

    I pray for comfort for eveyones loss especially that of her family.

    By Blogger Vulgarius, at 3:17 AM  

  • That was hard to read. I still haven't built up any defenses yet, so there wasn't much to tear down.

    I will think of Natsumi whenever I see a white balloon and that beautiful, short phrase she shared.

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 9:08 AM  

  • Such a moving story. My heart goes out to her family and friends.

    I hope they can find some peace of mind in the beautiful gift she gave everyone by the way she lived her tragically short life.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 10:56 AM  

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