It was on October 5th of 2011 that my mother passed away. Since that time, our daughter went from a preschooler to a 4th grader, we got a new dog, my husband suffered a crippling bout of depression, I starred in a play, my uncle died, the theatre where I work was evicted and had to move (never move a theatre company while in operation by the by). I started experiencing premenopausal symptoms, I became an expert on international financing, and traveled to Tokyo about ten times. It's been a jam-packed 5 years full of solid grown up stuff.
It used to be that I would travel to Japan once every two years. But since my mother's passing, I go twice a year to look in on my father. I take my daughter with me every time because she doesn't remember my mother though she says she misses her. Her memory of my mother is of her dying. And me crying. I want to make sure that she has a clear memory of my dad. Alive,
On every trip, I would tackle a closet in the house to clean out my mother's belongings, which has been an immense task. She experienced the war so she held onto positively EVERYTHING, "just in case." She also had a sizable walk-in closet full of clothes, which was trouble. Japan does not have Goodwill. There is not really a place where you can drive up with your car full of crap and dump it. You can take some things to consignment shops but that takes time to sort and go to different places and they can reject what you bring. My time was limited and I do not drive in Tokyo so that was not a choice. I asked around to my friends who have gone through this and they said they just threw them away or paid a company to come and haul it away to be thrown away, which seems wasteful. My good Catholic mother would gasp in horror. So I began by giving things away to relatives and people who were close to my mother including the lovely Filipino lady who has been cleaning my parents' house for nearly 15 years and adored my mother. She was really helpful. I knew she lived in a house with a bunch of other Filipino ladies so I packed bag after bag of everyday clothing, purses, and some accessories and she took them all. After that, I homed in on my one cousin who has mentioned that my mother's clothes fit her perfectly. She lives quite a distance away but she came with an empty suitcase and took as much as she could. I told her that even when I wasn't there, come visit my dad and take what she liked. Over the course of 5 years, she came multiple times and thanked me up and down. But all this only took care of about 25% (UGH). Because my mother was involved with some fancy international fund raising organizations, she had many high end suits and evening gowns that people in Japan normally wouldn't have the occasion to wear. And that remained a source of my headache for the next few years.
One summer, I cleaned out a hallway closet full of gifts, many of which were dry goods. Japan has a custom of sending gifts to friends and acquaintances in the middle of the summer and end of the year and dry goods are common. I brought a bunch to my brother's house up stairs (it's a duplex situation), cooked and ate some myself and discarded ones that were grossly out of date. Once I made some room, I then moved the pile of books and clutter that was in a now-neglected office so that I could use it when I came. Then I tackled a pantry closet and threw out food that was old, and piles of paper bags and organized it so that my dad can see and find things.
While I was doing this, I also started to notice some things about my father. First was the garbage. Japanese garbage is complicated. You have to sort more than you do in the States and different items go out every morning by 7:00 or so. You can't put them out the night before because some jerk started lighting trash on fire. True story. My father's sleep pattern is different from day to day and because he wakes up several times a night, he ends up getting out of bed later, missing the garbage pick up. So things were piling up by the back gate on the outside and some inside. I purchased several bins and labeled them so he can easily sort them, and asked my sister in law to look in on the situation.
Then there was the mail and the magazines. My father had a huge pile of magazines he was not reading so I put them out to recycling. Then with his request and permission, I stopped the subscriptions. The mail was being opened but he would put them aside to go over it later and there they stayed. With that, I discovered that he has two US Bank accounts that had my mother's name on them that had been frozen because he neglected the notices. This launched a three year project for me, a task that is not that difficult if all parties live in the States but is a total pain in the ass when the account holder is a foreigner. For starters, talking to the bank on his behalf took 2 hours on international call being transferred several times with my father on speaker phone which he had trouble hearing. It's not a bad thing that banks are cautious about fraud but it was maddening. My husband who was in the room listening almost went insane during this. But we got through it and got all the paperwork in place for them to release his funds and close the joint accounts. Then there was the death certificate. It couldn't just be an English certificate that hospital issued. It had to have a Foreign Ministry Seal to ensure that it was real. Which meant that I had to ask my sister in law to make an appointment, drive my father there and get that signed by a certain date. Then I had to help him fill out a 10 page form from the bank and have it notarized. And to do that, I had to make an appointment at the US Embassy and take my father there, go through two sets of security to sign. While doing this, I had to repeat myself about 10,000 times to my father to explain what the form was for and where we were going and why because his memory doesn't hold much anymore. All of this was stretched over several trips and was weighing on me to get done because I kept saying to myself, "get it done while dad is well, get it done while dad is well." Well, he turned 90 this year, and aside form hearing and short term memory loss, there is not a thing wrong with him. Go figure. But I am glad it's done anyway. And now I know how it works though I will probably never need to do it again.
But all of this taught me something. He is aging. Sounds obvious but this is happening rather rapidly. Things are slightly different every time I go so I learn what is pattern is and see if I can help the matter. My brother's family live upstairs and he has dinner with them every night but during the day, they all work or go to school and they do not come down to his house to spend time so things go unnoticed. Like the garbage. So I look around and report to my brother. Then he works with his wife to see if he can help some things while I am not there. At first, I was frustrated. Frustrated that my father was not functioning in the way that he used to, and my brother's family seemed to be doing just the bare minimum. But over time, I realized my frustration is not helpful. My father is battling excruciating loneliness every day. He spends his day with at TV on because that is the only voice he can have in the house. Most of his friends are now dead and he is a bit of an introvert so he is not one to go out and find new ones. I was suggesting different things for a while but I stopped because he does not feel comfortable. And that is OK. I learned that I shouldn't suggest things just to make myself feel better. He lived this long, he can do what he wants. He loves when we come. He loves when I call. So that is what I do. As for my brother's family, they got their own thing going on. They are thoughtful to my father and my brother takes him to the family cabin that he loves every chance he gets. And that is what they can manage and that is OK. My brother is grateful for the work I do and is receptive when I ask him to do something. We make a good team. It could be a lot worse.
One funny thing during all this was that my mother has stored several envelopes full of cash, "just in case." For a while, every time I went home, my dad would bring out an envelope and say, "your mother had some cash stashed away--why don't you split it with your brother?" Some were $200, some were $500, and one time it was about $2,000. You could tell about when she stashed each envelope because Japan changes currency design every few years. So there were some that had old currency, which you can still use, but probably had higher value because of its age. We split them, giggling, and questioning how many more envelopes were hidden in the house. I took it as a stipend for my hard work. Thank you, Mother.
So it went--my last 5 years. In between my trips, I would be immersed in raising a daughter, stressing about my husband's condition, doing my work and trying to hold it together and felt like barely managing because my body is also going through a change. And I was mourning. But now, my daughter is a more self-sufficient (and sometimes even helpful) young person, my husband is in treatment and managing his depression, I got on top of my own health situation (what up, Zoloft?) and work has calmed down from the move. Talk about a life experience. 40s is no joke. And I know my story is not rare or the worst one.
One of my childhood best friends who lost both of her parents within 2 years said to me, "there comes a point when you can just say 'sorry!' and get rid of all the things that are left." I hit that point this summer. I was no longer sentimental and on a roll to just clear the rest of the clutter. Mother is not here anymore. She has not been for 5 years and she is not coming back. We have to move on. Make room for other things and not live with a ghost anymore. So I tracked down a non profit organization that will sell the donated items and send the proceeds to the third world charity. That, my mother would approve. I packed up the last of the stuff and as I did, I put on the most outrageous outfits and took photos. That was my final farewell to her.
Some people are forced to go through this process much sooner and faster. In a way, I am glad I took 5 years because the pace of it coincided with my pace of mourning. At first, I was plagued with things I should have said and done, but over time, I started to focus more on what I was able to do and manage at the time and remember that my mother was happy with me. She lives on in me and my daughter (and my brother and my nieces). Sometimes, I do a double take at a mirror because I so clearly see her in my face. I have yet to decide if I like that or not. I will continue to make my frequent trips as long as I need to. I suppose that is the way it is when you are an ocean away from your father who is left behind.