On Shogun Sr.’s First Birthday Since His Death

Today would be Shogun Sr.’s birthday, and it’s the first one to pass since his death. I miss him a little bit every day, but today the missing comes on a little harder. I wish he were here with us to celebrate.

I think about cooking him his favorite foods for most of the nine birthdays I knew him, and how, after he had eaten, he’d always push back his chair, nod his head earnestly, and say Gochisosamadeshita, “thank you for the meal,” and then in English, he’d sometimes add “Thank you To-ray-shee!”

I think about the little baby inside me now, at almost 27 weeks old, who showed up unexpectedly in the last two months of Shogun Sr.’s life. How, when I told him I was pregnant as he lay weak in his hospital bed, saying “Otōsan, I have a secret; I have a baby inside,” and then I patted my stomach, his eyes went wide with surprise. He thought about it for a moment and then asked, “Does Toru know?”

I laughed and said “Of course!” and then switched into broken Japanese, explaining Watachitachi wa hontoni bikuri shimashita! Onaka ga warui deshita, dakara byoin ni ikimashita, to Isha wa, “Anata wa ninshin desu!” to itaiimashita, “We were both shocked! My stomach was bad so I went to the Dr, and the Dr said ‘You are pregnant!'”

And then Shogun Sr grabbed my hand and kissed it, and then he burst into tears.

I think about how we asked him to name the baby, and he said he would, but then he stopped speaking, and he died before he could tell us what name he had picked.

I think about how once, before he went into the hospital, he fell early in the morning in his kitchen. When the helper-san arrived, she couldn’t lift him, so they called. Toru was on his way to work, and when I answered the phone, Shogun Sr said quietly, To-ray-shee, es-oh-esu “Tracy, S.O.S”

After I got there, two other female helper-sans arrived, and the four of us women fussed around in a frantic rush of lifting, cleaning, tending, changing. Then, when one helper-san wheeled him out of his shower twenty minutes later, he took one look around his living room at the four us of women standing there, and he said Yare, yare, “Oh boy…”

When I feel the little baby kick inside me, I think about how happy we are that our baby finally seems to be making an appearance, and how sad we are that Shogun Sr won’t get to be here for it. I think about how the baby waited quietly through five years of medical treatments and miscarriages and general fertility-specialist fracas before showing up, as if waiting for all the fuss, all the frantic rushing, to quiet down before making a move.

And I think gratefully about how, in this assertion of that quiet, wondrous presence, she is so much like her grandfather.

OK, So I May Have Omitted Some Crucial Details

And What Do You Think of Ending a Memoir Mid-Story?

In my last post, about the very generous bloggers who nominated me for the Liebster award, I wrote that I haven’t been a very good blog-poster because I have been so busy working to meet my publisher’s deadline for the memoir. And that’s true. Sort of.

There is also a little detail I left out about the other reason I haven’t been a very good blogger: I unexpectedly got pregnant last May. Totally naturally. At the age of 45 and 1/2. After 4+ years of failed IVF treatments and 2 pregnancy losses. In the middle of my beloved father-in-law’s last months of his life, when we had just learned he had been diagnosed with acute pancreatic cancer. When I was spending 4-6 hours a day in the hospital with him to try to keep him company and as comfortable as possible. (Actually, we didn’t know I was even pregnant until I was 7 weeks, because we assumed I had either caught a stomach bug at the hospital or was sick from the sadness and stress of Otōsan’s* illness. So, on a side note, there goes the theory that women should just relax and avoid stress and then they will get pregnant.)

We had wanted Otōsan to name the baby, but sadly he passed away before he could tell us the names he had chosen. We miss him very much. And we are in awe that his little grandchild-to-be finally showed up (at least in the belly) and we got to tell him before he died.

Because of my past difficulty getting and staying pregnant and all years of medical treatments I went though in Japan (a part of the story covered in the last part of the memoir), because I was already 45, and because I was simultaneously morning the loss of my father-in law, I didn’t want to write or even talk much about my pregnancy at first. I was also so sick with morning sickness that I could barely get out of bed until I passed the 16-week mark; I even stopped working on the memoir for over 2 months.

Now the sickness is waning, I’ll be 20 weeks this Thursday, and my doctor expects me to deliver a healthy little one at the end of January.

So, the Memoir Was Supposed to End with Me, at 45, Coming to Terms with Not Having a Child…

When I sold the memoir to Putnam last winter based on the proposal and first 4 chapters, the story was supposed to end with me childless at 45, since my sweetie and I had decided against adoption (as I wrote about in the New York Times online). Well now, obviously, the pregnancy complicates things. In a great way, of course, but still. So I spoke to my editor last week about how to end the memoir now. Do I end it before I get pregnant? I can’t end it after I deliver, because the manuscript is due almost a month before my due date. It looks like the story will now come to a close with me mid-pregnancy, mourning my father-in-law while celebrating this incredible surprise of  the promise of a new life.

Sometimes I love this idea, because I’m not big on memoirs that tie up every loose end; life just isn’t like that. But sometimes the idea seems weird to me, to end so much in the middle of the action. Then again, if we are lucky enough that the baby is in fact born healthy, as is now expected, I guess that could be the makings of the second book: raising a child in a country where I still don’t speak the language (!), and where I’m a first-time mother at the crazy age of 46…

——-

*Otōsan is the Japanese word for “respected father,” what a daughter or daughter-in-law calls her father or father-in-law.

A global quandary: Writing illness, protecting dignity

A recent post from Liane prompted me to start writing about this question:

Towards the end of The Good Shufu’s story, My beloved father-in-law, whom I refer to among friends as “Shogun Senior,” begins seriously to decline physically due to Parkinson’s Syndrome. He’s relatively young–only 72–but the illness is brutal and his body, and then his mind, have started, literally, to wither.

Time, I learn, is a thief.

In Japan, the eldest son (known as chonan) and his wife inherit the responsibility for caring for aging parents. My husband T (known among my friends as Shogun Sama–what the Japanese called the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il–b/c, like his father, he is incredibly stubborn, despite all his charm!) is chonan, and so we live right near Shogun Sr, and much of his daily care has fallen to me while we are waiting for him to move into the care house (what the Japanese call a nursing home).

To illustrate what a sweetie Shogun Sr., is: He barely speaks any English. A few weeks ago he fell and was on the floor, heartbreakingly, overnight. He couldn’t reach his phone, even though it was in his pocket, where we insist he keeps it at all times, since he has refused 24-hour care. When the morning helper-san (“respected helper,” or care worker) came in at 7:30 am, she couldn’t lift him alone, so she handed him the phone and he called me.

“To-ray-shee,” he said into the phone, pronouncing my name, Tracy, like all Japanese people do. “Es, o, es-u,” he said. SOS.

Anyway, I’ve struggled with how to write about Shogun Sr and my role taking care of him, sometimes in the way I would have imagined taking care of our baby, if it had been born. With a baby, though, you don’t have to worry so much about dignity when it comes to their physical needs or helplessness. With Shogun Sr., I want desperately to protect his dignity.

So: How do you write about the physical decline of someone you love, without compromising their dignity?

How do you write the truth and still honor them with the incredible respect they deserve, just for bearing their own decline?

Would love to know if anyone has struggled with this at all, and any answers you’ve come up with!