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.