In April and May of last year, I asked my hair cutter to cut my hair shorter and shorter as a way to prepare myself for the inevitable.
One day not long after my final haircut, I was at Smile, a neighborhood drugstore. (There’s already an astonishing number of drugstores in Tokyo and they keep opening new ones. At least 99.9% of the junk they sell is stuff I would never buy, and the list of what I do buy keeps getting shorter, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish. A funny thing, though, is that they only sell OTC drugs. Pharmaceuticals are only sold at pharmacies.)
The Smile “pharmacist” is an older woman who has been very helpful when I ask for weird things like mosquito spray in February (She found some!) and cold medicine without caffeine (doesn’t exist). That day, she commented on the shortness of my hair and I made a lame joke about Takarazuka, which is a women only theater troupe, many of whom have very short hair because they play male characters.
Well, she exploded in Smiles (see what I did there?) saying she was a major fan and offering to copy some of her DVDs for me. It was a kind offer and I accepted even though I knew I would probably never watch them. I only know about the group because there were always posters advertising their performances outside the sento public bath I had to use my first year in Japan because my apartment had a squat toilet and no bath.
Last week, we went to Smile to consult with her about my itchy eyes. She looked me over and said that I looked hale and healthy and we told her, gently, that I had had cancer last year but was feeling much better. More explosive Smiles (I did it again!) and she gave me a bear hug, something Japanese people do so rarely I can barely remember how it’s done. Then she plucked a cat hair off my sweater and called over two other women who work there to exclaim over the almost absurd adorableness of our cats.
But there was something much, much more to all of the oohing and aahing than cats. I was so deeply moved I had to fight off tears, which I could at least blame on itchy eyes.
One of the many monumental challenges that moving to Hawaii poses: I will have to drive. Our house is in the middle of nowhere. Even fetching an egg will mean getting in the car and driving. The closest store, imaginatively called “Da Store”, is three miles away and the only fresh produce they have is wilted lettuce.
I will have to drive. I have a license, but since I left the States 30 years ago and gave my 1974 Super Beetle to my mom, I haven’t driven. Not really. I hate driving and I suck at it. I did drive for a few minutes in the Florida Everglades 25 years ago, but as I approached, crocodiles ran in all directions, screaming in terror. My driving skills, never worth sneezing at in the first place, are rather rusty.
Having a car in Tokyo is really more of a liability than an asset, so I’ve always been a bicycle gal. My bicycle, though, is as old and rusty as Methuselah. It’s not worth the price of shipping it, so the trash people came today to take it away. We came back from lunch today and it was gone. It made me sadder than I expected.
I’m trying to make the transition to car life. We’ve been casually shopping for cars, meaning looking at other people’s cars as we walk around. Honestly, I’d be afraid to drive anything bigger than a Tonka truck, so when we found this one, we both fell in love.
It’s a Daihatsu Canbus and just as cute as a baby bunny wrapped in a pink blanket eating marshmallows while being cuddled by a koala. I mean, this sweet little guy is actually smiling. It doesn’t matter that he’s a roller skate with a box on it and powered by a sewing machine that tops out at 60 mph. That’s just my speed.
Unfortunately, it turns out that these tiny Matchbox cars are not up to US crash test standards and therefore unavailable in the States. I have the option of self-importing, but that would be a mistake for several reasons: 1) it would be expensive, 2) the car would be an orphan, unable to have his cogs and switches replaced without significant trouble, and 3) he would get stolen within minutes because everyone would be so terribly jealous that I had the cutest car in the universe.
So I’ve come up with a solution. I’m sure Tonka trucks do come up to American safety standards, so I am going to get myself a pair of Tonka dump trucks, lash them to my feet, and use them as roller skates to get around the island. That’s a sensible solution, no?
I’m trying to get rid of my Christmas tree. I haven’t used her in the past few years and don’t want to haul her across the Pacific Ocean. Plus, she doesn’t stand a chance with Monkey Boy and George in the house. But I’ve had her for more than twenty years; I know this because every year after Christmas I wrap her in the same tattered sheet of newspaper.
Three times I’ve taken her downstairs and three times I’ve brought her back up. I guess I feel an affinity for the old girl. She’s seen a few holidays, waited patiently for the seasons to change, allowed two generations of cats to toss her on the floor and never lost her temper. Maybe she has a few kinks in her spine and her branches are a little off-kilter but I think she might not be ready for the trash heap. Not yet.
It’s funny which things are easy to let go of and which things attach themselves to us, snapping turtles of the psyche.
When I was a little girl, I had an old flannel nightgown I carried around with me. I would rub it against my nose while I sucked my thumb. I called it my “smoker”. I don’t know why; maybe sucking my thumb reminded me of my grandfather sucking on cigarettes. Around age seven, I gave my smoker to my parents and told them not to give it back. And then I asked them to give it back. And then I put it in a drawer myself, vowing to stop sucking my thumb. And I did stop.
Not so many years after that, I started sucking on cigarettes. It took me 35 years to stop, but I did.
I think if I can mentally tuck my Christmas tree into a drawer with both my smoker and my smokes, I might be able to let her go.
If I can’t, does anybody want a used Christmas tree?
We’ve set our departure date for August 4 and I am determined to downsize. I give each item a feng shui moment, asking it, “Do I really want to carry you across the Pacific Ocean?” More often than not, the answer is, “No.” We toss old documents, choose which photos need to be kept, which are better forgotten, give things away, delete no-longer-relevant computer files. I had four boxes crammed with old letters at the back of the closet, couldn’t bear to toss them, couldn’t bear to read them. So we had a bonfire in the back garden.
Fire: cleansing, mesmerizing, comforting, final.
We continue to wait out the ridiculous quarantine period (83 more days!) and there is an unhealthy coating of frustration mixed into the sparkling tropical fruit salad that awaits us halfway across the Pacific.
Or so we hope.
I took this photo in April at Volcanoes National Park. There were two sputtering pools of bubbly lava, far enough in the distance to seem unreal. No biggie.
I came back to Tokyo, carried on with preparations.
And then Kilauea started to kick up her heels.
So far the lava is only flowing in Leilani Estates, which is two developments away from our house, about 15 miles, a safe distance, we hope. But I have this nagging image in my head, a scene from Minions, where a T Rex is balancing on his toes, trying to keep his balance by flailing his tiny, useless arms and then…
…he topples into a pit of bubbling lava.
I can’t describe how painful it is to read the news, to watch new vents opening, creeping northwest, creeping toward our little piece of paradise.
When I asked Realtor Ron to make our offer on the house, I started to cry. I hadn’t realized how much I wanted it until it looked like I might get it. And now I might not get it after all.
But at the same time, I’ve lived here for 32 years, lived through typhoons and earthquakes and tsunami. And I’ve had cancer and will live with the fallout from that for the rest of my life. I’m finding an odd sense of comfort in that, in the way that things go in parallel, they go full circle, they usually work out in the end. One way of the other, we will move forward into whatever the future holds for us.
For now, we wait. And we hope. There’s nothing else we can do.
I find myself hovering on the edge of a knife, trying desperately not to topple over into the Land of Schizophrenia. How am I supposed to sit quietly and continue recovering when paradise is waiting for me just a hop and a skip across the Pacific Ocean?
This is the first papaya I harvested from one of the trees in my new garden. I had to wash some sort of white goo off its skin (Gekko guano? I don’t wanna know.) and artfully place some chunks of lemon to hide its blemishes, but it smelled like fairy breath and tasted like the first blossoms of dawn. The garden is young; in time there will also be avocados and lemons.
We did all the fancy tap dancing required to get the cats past quarantine. Their microchip numbers are listed on the Holy List of the Acceptable and now we have to wait 120 days. I don’t understand why. They have all been vaccinated and their blood examined by the People Who Decide These Things. They do not have rabies. They cannot get rabies. But we are told to wait and so we do, while visions of tropical fruit dance in our heads. Each night, we toast each other saying, “I don’t want to be here.”
Perhaps it is as it should be. The next three months will give us time to sort slowly and lingeringly through the detritus of 32 years of living on this tiny, delightful island. It’s harder than I realized it would be. The new house is light and airy and I want to keep it that way, so I will bring an absolute minimum of junk with me. I’ve gotten down to two small photo albums, three favorite reference books and a couple of novels. I’m picking out special items to send to people who matter, saying sayonara to things that don’t matter, making peace with separation, making peace with myself.
Everything points to this being the right move to make. A lot of things have come together in a final-feeling sort of way, almost as if Japan is giving us a gentle nudge toward the airport, tearfully waving a handkerchief at us from the departure gate. It’s been a good run, but to quote Douglas Adams, “So long and thanks for all the fish.”
I’m trading in a tiny island for an even tinier one, earthquakes for volcanoes, power tools for coqui frogs, nomiyas for luaus, salarymen for aging hippies, bicycles for surfboards, konnichiwa for aloha, Amaterasu for Pele. I’ve been making a mental list of things I will and won’t miss. The won’t list is longer.
I can’t wait to see how all of this is going to unfold.
When George first came to live with us, we had to take him to the vet for a general health check. We hadn’t named him yet, so we just called him Sanban (Number Three).
Among the bazillion other things we have to do to pull up stakes and start our lives over, we have to process the cats. There’s no rabies in Hawaii so the Department of Agriculture is extremely vigilant about quarantine standards for imported animals. It doesn’t matter that ours are indoor cats or that there’s been no rabies in Japan since 1956. There is one set of rules and everyone must abide by them. No exceptions. So sayeth the Dept of Ag.
I won’t go into the tedious details except to say it takes six months, minimum. The first step involves vaccines which involves several trips to the vet, always a popular pastime within the fur community. Fortunately, the vet’s office is only a five minute walk from here because they scream bloody murder all the way. The neighbors look daggers at us, wondering what sort of horrible torture we’re inflicting on them.
But then we arrive and the vet is a chubby, kindhearted woman who seems to care about our fuzz muffins nearly as much as we do.
We told her about the move to Hawaii and fortunately she’s been through this process before and can help us through it. When she finished with the first set of injections, she smiled gently and said, “I wish I could be Number Four.”
I smiled back and said, “Sensei, I think you’re a little too big for the cat carrier.”
I continue the slow, tedious journey toward recovery, one painful step at a time. And I mean that literally; the chemo left me with nerve damage in my legs which causes pain in my joints and muscles. That may improve in time; it may not. As expected, the treatment sapped me of much of my strength and energy. What I didn’t realize is how long it would take to recover, or even start recovering. Only now am I beginning to regain some of my yoga self, my balance, my poise. Just yesterday, I managed to transition from one legged dog to low lunge without thumping my foot down. It was a major victory and cause for much celebration.
My senses are still unreliable. My favorite white wine still tastes like rotting cabbages but there is hope. Last night, a drop of shower water landed on my lip and when I licked it off, it filled my mouth with rapture. An ordinary salad sent me into paroxysms of delight last week. Yesterday’s curry was the stuff of legends.
All of my hair has returned except for the part of my left armpit where I was nuked. The stuff on my head is about an inch and a half long, curly, a blend of colors. A friend looked at it and said, “You look…expensive.” I am considering keeping it this short. I like the way people look at me now.
As the Year from Hell slunk out the door, we resisted the urge to kick it’s narrow butt down the hall and slam the door with a resounding bang. Instead, we cultivate peace, calm and gratitude. The very wise Deepak Chopra said an essential element for lasting happiness is a reflective, quiet, alert mind. Peace in the mind opens the heart to intuition; your life is in a state of flow because your mind is quiet. This is the essence of mindfulness, a sort of Vinyasa for the soul.
In that state of mind, we went to Hawaii. We looked at some properties. We were deeply disappointed. The first house we saw was dark and damp. There was a riding mower rusting in the garden alongside a chipped bathtub. The neighborhood smelled of defeat. The second house had tacky paneling, filthy shag carpet and stunk of cigarettes. Then a flash of intuition led us to meet Beer Belly Man, who introduced us to Realtor Ron, who led us to this.
Our new home. Our little piece of paradise.
People keep saying we deserve this after all we went through last year. I know they mean well, but I don’t think merit has anything to do with it. What about all the other people who had cancer last year and didn’t get a house in Hawaii? What about the people who didn’t survive? Did they deserve that? For that matter, did I deserve to get cancer in the first place? Did the other people in my life, and in the world, who are coping with disease and tragedy and grief and all that is evil, heartbreaking, unfair and unnecessary deserve that?
These are not questions that have answers and I will waste no more time looking for them. Life is not logical; life is not fair. Life just is. And I am grateful to have it.
In a few months, I will bid farewell to the invasive sounds of my neighborhood, the screaming kids and motorcycles and trucks and helicopters and always, the incessant, relentless, ear-shattering, soul-crushing power tools. In place of all of that, I will listen to the sounds of exotic insects, palm fronds brushing together, lemon trees blossoming in the garden and above all, coqui frogs. Few things have ever sounded so sweet to my ears. And I’ve heard a lot of stuff.
I have read that many people find coqui frogs invasive and annoying. I have also read that one of the many reasons for NOT moving to Hawaii is that I will always be an outsider, invasive, annoying. Shoot. I’ve been existing pretty happily as an invasive, annoying outsider for more than 30 years. The big difference is I will be an outsider who isn’t illiterate. And I will be a literate outsider who is living out her days doing yoga here:
I could live another three decades. Or my cancer could return and I’ll be gone within years or even months. Or I could get hit by a bus tomorrow, or choke to death on a chunk of pineapple today. So deserved or not, this is the place for me to find peace, peace in my heart, my mind, my spirit, peace to accept my forever changed body and soul, peace to move on and make the best of whatever adventures may lie ahead.
I happened across the blog An Encore Voyage by a clever lady named Lynn, who seems to be sharing some spiritual space with me. She said:
Yoga sneaks up on you, and quietly changes the person you are, from the inside out.
She’s right. Yoga enhances your strength, balance, flexibility (in every sense), self-acceptance and mindfulness. It also brings clarity and a sense of calm.
Throughout the endless series of nightmares last year presented, I only lost it once and that was only because they’d kept me in the hospital way too long and my surgeon was a sugar-coated bitch.
When I got my diagnosis, I knew in my heart that it is what it is, no more and no less. In the early stages, I felt my own courage, bravery even, but eventually the treatment process became a matter of moving forward blindly, of not dwelling on anything, of waking up and going to sleep and breathing, always breathing, taking the time to stop and rest and then rest some more. More than anything else, what got me through it all was a sense of distance, as if all of this was really happening but not really happening to me. Yoga gave me that sense of perspective, the ability to accept being slightly off-center all the time.
I want to put it all behind me, but I don’t want to forget. I want to learn what I can from the experience. One thing I learned is that it is good to be grateful when good things happen, and it is all right to be sad when bad things happen. The nice thing, though, is that we can also be grateful when bad things don’t happen. Assuming there is some sort of balance in the movement of energy through the universe, and I do believe there is, that works out to more gratitude than sadness and that works for me.
For now, I seem to have won the battle. I am on the slow path to recovery, the little engine that could, moving into a new stage in my life that promises fun, adventure and a great deal of happiness. I think I’ve earned it.
I finished Adriene’s 30 day True series this morning. It was good, just the right speed for where I am in the recovery process, and the final sun salutation brought with it a sense of closure. As I breathed deeply into my rapidly recovering lungs, I glanced out the window at the men pouring concrete into the foundation of the new house going up next door and I gave thanks that I wasn’t them. My little space heater barely makes a dent in the frigid air so my breath fogged the window as my toes turned blue, but I gave thanks all the same. One does not wear socks when one does downward dog. Yoga must be approached with respect and I give it with gratitude and humility.
Last week I lost my Pasmo train pass, the day after I’d charged it with 5000yen. An hour later I got a call from a station employee saying they’d found it and I could come pick it up. Ah, Japan. I gave thanks.
On Monday I had a wicked scare at the hospital but the doctors went into overdrive and fixed the problem. Their bedside manners might leave something to be desired, but they know their stuff when it comes to medicine. I gave thanks, more than once.
Yesterday at the supermarket, an old lady was having a hard time with her shopping cart so I helped her with it. Not only did she not give thanks, she didn’t even look at me, just walked away with a “harumph”. Meh. Her problem, not mine, but I watched my brownie points swarm with confusion, not knowing quite what to do with themselves.
Tomorrow I board a plane for a long overdue vacation in Hawaii where I will be able to salute the sun properly, and she will cook some of the stiffness out of my joints and muscles. Then I will stuff myself with mangoes and listen to the sound of the surf and congratulate myself for surviving last year, all the while giving thanks.
I will continue to give thanks, for the sun in the sky and the air in my lungs and the blood in my veins and being able to walk and talk and see and sleep and eat and think and feel and love. Thanks.
As snowflakes gently surrender to gravity and make their way toward the earth, a little girl opens her eyes. It is early Christmas morning. She extends her arm in front of her face and can just make out the shape of her hand in the murky light.
She leaps out of bed, knowing she has permission to go downstairs and explore the contents of her stocking, as long as she does it quietly. The big people will need a couple more hours and a cup or two of coffee before they’ll be ready for Christmas, a terrible lapse in judgement as far as the little girl is concerned. But she is already old enough, and still young enough, to know the world is full of magic and mysteries.
She sails down the stairs and grasps the stocking to her chest, feeling the crinkly, crunchy promise of the collection of shapes bumping and jostling against each other inside. Pulling out the goodies one by one, she finds underwear, personalized pencils, chocolate footballs, an orange, three walnuts and a sliver dollar. Every year, those items appear and she never asks why; without them it would not be Christmas.
At the very bottom of the stocking, tucked into the toe, there is a small scroll, a piece of paper rolled tightly and fastened with a red ribbon. She slips off the ribbon and discovers that the paper is a blood test report, indicating that her tumor markers have fallen below normal levels.
The little girl, now a middle aged woman, looks up, barely daring to mouth the words, “Does this mean I don’t have cancer?”
From his perch on the roof, Santa peers down the chimney. Laying a finger beside his sooty nose, he winks and says, “Yes. It means you don’t have cancer.”
The girl/woman feels her insides curl into a ball, like a cat on a sunny windowsill, its nose tucked under its tail, its purr and twitching whiskers proof of contentment.
Just then, her phone jingles. She thinks of Clarence in “It’s a Wonderful Life” saying that every time a bell rings, an angel gets their wings. But this time it is an app that gives a jingle every time Tokyo Tales gets a new follower.