How I learned Japanese (and about myself) #1- Ganbatte

I learned what ganbatte means on Feburary 27th, 2006.

I was on my way to the hospital to visit Aiko before work, when I got a frantic call from Aiko’s best friend Peipei telling me that I needed to hurry to the hospital. That Aiko had fallen into a coma in the night. I was already en-route so I just continued on my way, trying not to panic myself. Even though I knew in the back of my mind that there was a chance she wouldn’t beat this thing, somehow, through all of it, I thought for sure that she wouldn’t die. She was coming to NY with me in June to meet my friends and family…she wasn’t going anywhere before then. Some miracle would occur and kill those tumors, I thought. Each time I went to see her, watching her slowly deteriorating physically and emotionally, I still refused to believe that cancer could kill a life force as strong as hers…and I was right, of course. The cancer (and those goddamn anti~cancer drugs and chemotherapy) merely killed the vehicle for that force, not the force itself.

When I arrived at the hospital, her older sister was alone with her, distraught. She saw me and screamed in joy. She spoke a mile a minute, so I couldn’t follow, just grasping at familiar words and body language. I gathered that she had been waiting for her parents who were en-route, but that she was worried that Aiko would die before they arrived and that I should talk to her because, though in a coma, she could still hear us the doctors had suggested to her.

I looked down at my love. She was struggling to breathe. Tubes everywhere. The cancer was doing it’s best. It had spread to her lungs and brain a month earlier so the coma should not have been a surprise, I guess.

The night before, I had sent her text message telling her I would see her in the morning. She’d replied OK. I asked her did she need anything, she said “iranaiyo” (she didn’t) It was late when she replied, 1:27am, so I asked her what was she still doing awake, hoping against hope that it wasn’t due to the pain she had been enduring ceaselessly for the past 3 months or so. She replied, her last words to me, “Neyou to shiteru” (I’m going to sleep…”) And my beloved did just that. Thank god her pain is over. I replied, “OK, sleep well,” and sent a little kissysmiley icon. My last words to her.

If I’d known that was going to be our last exchange I would’ve said…I don’t know.

Looking down at her, I began to talk to her, hoping for a reaction to my voice, but inside not wanting her to respond, to wake up. I wanted her pain to end. I fully understand euthanasia now. But, Aiko wasn’t going anywhere, not before the rest of her family arrived.

Her little brother and his girlfriend arrived next along with Peipei and her mother. Everyone took turns encouraging her to hang in there because Mr. Furukawa, the leader of their clan, would arrive soon. Her mother implored her, whispering, “ganbatte, Ai-chan. Ganbatte!”

But, Aiko didn’t need to be told, I think. She was her father’s daughter through and through, and wasn’t going anywhere without his approval. He arrived in a huff and I moved from beside her to make way for him. He called to her, the whole family told her, “Father’s here, Aiko! You did it, he’s here.” I left the room for the family for a while, went and had some coffee and a smoke. The doctors had told us that though her heart was young and strong, her lungs were weak and so she might live out the day, several hours or so. I called my job and told them I wouldn’t be in, and returned to the room.

When I returned her mother told me to talk to her so I did. They had set her Ipod and speakers to play her favorite music, some jazz ballads and what not. And then that Christine Aguliera song “Beautiful” came on. She loved that song. “You are beatiful…in every single way…” I sang it to her and she seemed to respond to my voice. She took a deep, hard-earned breath, and it just slipped out of her. I sang while I waited for the next breath.

It never came.

But, she’d had a very high fever so she still felt so very warm and alive. I caressed her cheeks and rubbed her bald head where the hair had begun to grow back. She looked so beautiful, it wasn’t hard to feel the words I was saying to her. “You are beautiful, no matter what they say…”

She died in my hands.

I didn’t accept it. No one had noticed it but me. I’m not even sure I noticed it. I hoped I was mistaken. I got up and her sister took my place, and she noticed it then and shrieked. The doctor came in checked her vitals and looked at his watch. 3:37pm.

On March 1st she was to be cremated, so I went to Aiko’s family home first thing that morning for the last viewing /wake. She was in a box on the floor in the living room. Her face looked so beautiful and alive. I couldn’t believe she was gone.

Peipei translated some of the goings on, but most of what was said to me and about me will forever be a mystery, except that it must have been good. This woman who I treated so haphazardly sometimes had nothing but great things to say about me to her friends and family. I was treated with so much…priority, it was overwhelming. I might have been her husband, and indeed I felt widowed. Even her father, who I had suspected liked me, was full of love and warmth and compassion for me.

Her friends came to me, and with Peipei’s help, told me about all the wonderful things she said and how happy I’d made her.

I used to call her negative…a negative person, pessimistic, glass is half-empty kind of person, but she’d told me that I had changed her. Made her more positive, made her more optimistic. God, I don’t see how I can be given the credit for that. I was pushing her in that direction sure, but not by example by no means. I’m such a hypocrite.

What did she see in me?

After an hour or so they closed the box. I touched her one last time before they did. Her father’s pillar cracked a bit, as did her mother’s. They had been a fine mix of solemn and jovial since my arrival, like a good ole New Orleans celebration of the dead. When her father had picked me up at the train station, Aiko’s little cousins from Osaka in the back seat of the mini-van, he had told them to greet me in English, and they all bellowed, “Hello” when I got in. I laughed along with her father, saying “Hey Y’all” and the jovial tone had been set.

But, that all ended when the casket closed.

They loaded her into the back of a hearse and we were off to the crematory. Some of the joyfulness returned during the ride, but again I couldn’t understand most of it, so I sat, looking at Saitama out the window and thinking about things.

The crematory was absolutely gorgeous. Like a NY museum, surrounded by trees and brooks and gardens. We viewed her body one last time, through a glass-covered box, her face framed in flowers, and her casket filled with the things she liked, Japanese tradition. It reminded me of some Egyptian pharaoh taking his treasure with him to the next realm. I’d had hell thinking of something to give her. I had decided on my Ken Burns Jazz DVD set and my Jean Michele Basquiat book. She loved art and she was crazy about the history of Jazz. But when I’d presented these things the family had said something to indicate it was too much. That stuffed animals and little trinkets of that sort were the norm. I had given her a stuffed snoopy doll the first time she’d been hospitalized and she’d kept it in her bed always, so I’d placed that with her instead. I’d put it by her leg, but her father moved it up next to her face so through the window in the casket I could see Aiko and the snoopy doll, ready to make the journey to the next realm.

I’d also written her a letter the previous night. I wrote that I was so sorry I hadn’t been a better man for her, and that I lied and cheated and abused her trust. I told her that I couldn’t think of anything she wanted because she wasn’t much of a material person, more of a doer, and so the best thing I could do was promise her that I’d do my best to honor her memory by being the kind of person she’d shown me how to be by example: a doer. This letter I also placed in her casket.

After a while we were led through the crematory by a staff person who was guiding the casket on an electronic cart. We followed him to the oven rooms and the casket was placed in an oven. A few words I didn’t recognize were offered and a switch was thrown, and like that, her body was incinerated.

We were then led to a private waiting room and served tea and what not. I talked with Aiko’s friends and family a bit but I was  a little out of it.

After a while we were called again into another room where her ashes were presented to the family. Large pieces of pearly dusty white bone and cartilage were still intact, but most of it was in small chips. Small chips of my baby. As per tradition, with chopsticks, a piece is selected by each person and placed in the two jars that are to be kept by the family…lord knows what happens to the rest. I took what looked like a piece of a leg bone, clasped it with chopsticks and place it in the can, sort of in a trance state or like a researcher studying Japanese burial traditions…I just wanted to get this over with. But, part of me, the grieving part of me, seized me again. Watching the family literally picking through her bones and what not was almost too much. It was like a dark metaphor come to life.

Following this, we were led out to the door. Another family was coming in, following a staff member guiding a casket. Everything had happened exactly on schedule, also the Japanese way. We got back into her father’s minivan and headed back to the house, where lunch awaited us. We all sat there silently for a while, listening to a recording of Aiko performing “Paper moon” one of the old jazz standards that she loved to sing.

I asked her brother to make a copy of it for me so I could listen to it when I needed to hear her voice.

That’s how I learned the meaning of ganbatte. Aiko’s life and death illustrated it for me. The memory of her and all she represented remains indelible in my heart and mind. I’ll never forget her lesson of courage nor the importance of doing one’s best in all things…do everything like it’s the last thing you’ll ever do.



19 Responses to “How I learned Japanese (and about myself) #1- Ganbatte”

  1. 1 Zen
    January 3, 2010 at 5:20 am


  2. 2 Armchair Asia
    January 3, 2010 at 5:52 am

    Oh how I empathize with you.
    Yes, I have tears in my eyes. Sometimes it is just too hard not to dwell on the all loses in one’s life, especially at new year’s.
    As I have said, there are no happy bloggers.

  3. 3 Tracy
    January 3, 2010 at 6:04 am

    Thank you for sharing!



  4. 4 Rune
    January 3, 2010 at 6:18 am

    Must be the new year getting you all retrospective. I remember the first time you wrote about Aiko back when you had just gotten started on the blogging business. I have to go look for it in your ungodly messy archives 😉 but I am positive that reading the two pieces together will show how your storytelling has evolved leaps-and-bounds. The story still brings a tear to my eye.

    I guess this is also an opportunity to apologise for the insensitivity I showed in my comment in the first post. Though the page I linked to was relevant to がんばって it was not really appropiate with the heavy subjectmatter and bareing of soul you presented us with. For that 本当にごめなさいでした。

  5. 5 Ady
    January 3, 2010 at 8:52 am

    Thanks for sharing. May her soul rest in peace.

  6. 6 Mythirdeye
    January 3, 2010 at 2:40 pm

    For once I’m almost speechless… when her father put the snoopy doll close to her my sleeves were already soaked with tears. I thought I knew what ganbatte meant, but now I really understand. Thank you for sharing this with us. I know it’s hard to re-live such moments, but life is a crazy ride, for better and for worse. It’s hard for me to accept shoganai, but in this case it’s all I can think of… Even though we’ve never met in person, I’m proud of you and I’m sure Aiko was too. We all come from the same place, and we all will return there someday… she is free now

  7. January 3, 2010 at 7:34 pm

    I once did a bad thing to an undercover officer while he was off duty. The facts prevented me from being charged because he woulda looked bad too. I was “squared away” on Halloween night 2003 infront of a night club by him and several other officers. That was easy..taking my lumps.

    I ran away to Japan within hours of what I had done and informed no one as I feared for my life at that time. I kept meaning to contact my Mom but I didn’t. I never did. She was diagnosed at the later stages and had a few weeks to live when she began trying to find her only child. The Honolulu police (who had a big beef) said they couldn’t find me even though I used a passport. They just blew smoke up my Dad’s ass and pretended they had no clue. I finally made contact and was told by a girl that she had a western union telegram and she thinks I should hear it. It said my Mom had been trying desperately to find me up until she died and the funeral had been held the previous Sunday.

    She died without her only child by her side. All the love she had put into me all the lessons about fairness,respect,honesty and pride.She defended me like a lioness protecting a cub even when she knew in her heart I was wrong. It was her instinct. I needed to be a good son just one fucking time. Just one time and I failed. I read “The Giving Tree” as a kid and knew even then that that child was me and the tree was my moms. and I never could turn it around? I don’t feel sorry for myself, I feel sorry for her and to her. I don’t get a redo or another shot. She’s gone and she went with the extra stress of wondering where her only child had disappeared to. She was a Mom and that’s what a Mom would do. Instead of being their to comfort her final moments I probably made them worse.

    I only think about it just before I sleep and in the shower or another solo moment. My mind is my own torture chamber. I would rather be beaten every night because my system would go into shock and the pain would go…just the pressure from the blows…but no pain. My brain cannot defend against itself. If I do have a soul it has a tattoo that says “Cancer was here”. I read your post and felt envious. I envy her because she had you. My Mother woulda done better to have you. I envy you because you were a man at a moment when that really means something.
    I’m sorry for your loss. Her life was richer because of you.

  8. 8 X_LostXcausE_X
    January 4, 2010 at 2:59 am

    This is seriously some deep stuff. Keep on keepin on. Aiko didn’t just change you. Through you and your blog, I feel she’s changed all of us, man. All of us.

  9. January 5, 2010 at 4:22 am

    The dead live on in our hearts. Excellent writing again Mr. Loco.

  10. January 5, 2010 at 1:52 pm

    A very well written thoughtul and moving account. I really felt the sort of things you must have felt watching the family pick through the bones and being with her during her last moments. It must have been a powerful experience for you and I think you did dear Aiko well in writing about it with such compassion. I hope she is resting in peace now.

  11. January 5, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    Thank you for sharing your experience, Loco. Very moving, and I give you a lot of credit for putting it out there like that.

  12. 12 Bored in Kanagawa
    January 8, 2010 at 12:08 pm

    As always you have the gift of bringing things into prospective. I’m calling my mom now, and hugging my wife and kid tonight.

  13. 13 Zach
    January 8, 2010 at 5:06 pm

    Very moving! You are a generous person to share yourself in such a way.

  14. 14 Ads
    January 13, 2010 at 1:48 am

    I stumbled across your site and when I read this post I had to mention that I feel differently from other readers. It made me think generally that Japanese women must be starved for something different, something foreign and must dislike themselves to some extent, such that they would put up with being cheated on and having their trust abused again and again by the person who is supposed to love them. I find it interesting that they choose to rely heavily on fantasy and projection of ‘different’, deluding themselves, instead of acknowledging their own strengths and worthiness, even as the person that they put most of their hopes and dreams on fails to fully respect them and who they are and treat them well. It is sad to only acknowledge the consequences and fully appreciate the person after the fact when it could have been done earlier. There is just no point.

    This post really reinforced to me, how important it is to relate equally with everyone and to live with honour, pride and integrity at all times, to treat people how I want to be treated and to not abuse a position of power that as much as I know I didn’t ask for, I do not deserve.

  15. January 14, 2010 at 4:50 pm

    This is when I enjoy your posts the most – this was beautiful – it seems that Aiko saw in you what was already there just waiting to come out – she would have liked this very much.

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