Unbelievably, tomorrow is our 28th and last day in Japan. For the most part, all has gone as expected. The kids have been insane approximately 80% of the time due to diet and schedule inconsistencies and the general unpredictability of life on the road. Ten different cities, eight different hotel rooms, and at least six different bullet trains in the course of a month is hard for anyone, much less for our kids who react strongly to change. Despite my success in getting my work done, I have to admit that more than once I found myself thinking I'd made a huge mistake spending thousands of dollars to drag my loud and cantankerous brood all over Japan.
But, then a week ago Monday, we got news that convinced me we were all right where we needed to be. That morning, on his way to work, less than 100 feet from his front door, Ren's younger (and only) brother was killed instantly when a distracted driver swerved onto the sidewalk and crushed him against the wall of his building. It was his birthday. He was wearing new shoes and pants. The massage chair he'd selected as a birthday present was due to arrive that afternoon.
The number of things that had to go wrong in order for Ren's brother to die blow my mind. That we happened to be in Japan as a family for the first time in five years and that we were also already headed toward where his family lives when we got the news astonishes me even more. Ren and his brother weren't especially close in recent years as their lives had taken very different directions. If we'd been in the States, I doubt Ren could have gone to the funeral (last-minute flights to Japan can be hard to come by and astronomically expensive), and missing his brother's funeral would have led to the kind of regret that changes a life forever.
Things being what they were, though, the whole family ended up attending the funeral. We made the trip from Kyoto to Tokyo on an early morning bullet train and got to the funeral just as they were preparing to send Uncle to the crematorium. The kids helped as we covered Uncle's body with flowers while a Buddhist monk recited a particularly mournful chant. Sky wondered aloud if the somber chanting of the monks was intended to make people cry because suddenly he couldn't find a happy thought. Stow wanted to know if Uncle was sleeping and why he was so cold. Pink hated that he looked a little too much like Ren. Watching my three usually boisterous kids take in the scene before them, I was amazed at how much they suddenly seemed to understand. But, as I saw Ren gently pat his brother's head, memories of the past and thoughts of a lost future reflected in his tear-filled eyes, my heart broke all over again. Ren's brother would never meet his youngest nephew, never get to know his sweet niece or discuss trains with his curious nephew. He would never sit in his massage chair or see his younger daughter marry. He would never meet his grandchildren.
It was a long, hard day.
After seeing Uncle to the cremation chamber, we sat down for lunch. What does a person talk about over a fancy boxed lunch while a loved one is being turned from flesh to ashes downstairs? Suddenly, I was relieved to have the chance to ride up and down the escalator with Stow. Keeping him entertained was much easier than the awkward conversations we left behind. Two hours later, our lunches barely touched, we returned to the chamber to welcome Uncle's ashes out of the fire, and together, chopstick to chopstick, we placed his ashes and bones into the urn. After final prayers, Uncle's remains were prepared to go home for the 49 days of mourning. From the end of lunch until the end of prayers, no one spoke, and aside from the constant chanting of the monk and the occasional clicking of prayer beads, there was no sound at all.
Watching these Japanese relatives, some close, some distant, somberly carry out the task of ushering their loved one out of this world and into the next, I was struck by the sheer determination with which they faced this grim and heartbreaking task. Buddhists talk about the suffering that comes from not realizing the impermanence of all things and from being too attached to that which is, by nature, passing. I can't imagine a more searing lesson in this than watching a man go from human form to dust over the course of an afternoon.
If you read this blog regularly, you know I spend a lot of time thinking about how to help my ASD kid make sense of this crazy world and meet the unexpected with flexibility and determination. Burying a brother who was so full of life one day and so completely gone the next, I realized that I've been going about this all wrong. My real task isn't to help make life easier for my children; it's to help them understand that sometimes life isn't fair. And, it certainly isn't predictable. But there is a distinct beauty to be found in the chaos and the suffering and, most of all, in the dogged perseverance some days require.
I wrote about this again HERE.