In July my friend Naomi called from Japan. When I lived in Kyoto, Naomi and I spent many late nights in hip bars discussing art and men. Now we spoke only once or twice a year. I told her about Neil’s suicide and heard the shock in her silence and quickly filled it in with reassurances.
“We’re doing okay now. And hey – I made Molly a promise that within the next two years, I’m taking her to Japan to show her all the places I always talk about.”
“Two years? Why two years? What about this year? Come now! I have some money just sitting in the bank in San Francisco. I’m going to send it to you so you can come to Kyoto this year.”
“That’s very generous of you Naomi, but I can’t take your money.”
“What do you mean? Of course you can. I’m sending you a check today, so make plans. I’ll also send you the name of my friend who’s a travel agent – she can find a great deal on flights,” she insisted.
A few days later, a check arrived in the mail for $3000. I brought it down to Chris’s house.
“Look – she really did it – she sent me the money! What do I do with this?” I held the check up in disbelief.
“What are you talking about? That’s great – you go to Japan – what do you think? What a good friend you have.”
“I have many good friends, including you guys. But Chris, I can’t take this!” I waved the check.
“Why not? She wants you to have it or she wouldn’t have sent it to you.”
“But it’s too much!”
“What if she had sent you airline tickets instead? Would you accept them?”
“So what’s the difference? You have to go. You need this and Molly needs it too.”
We were sitting in Chris’s kitchen drinking red wine. Molly and I came here almost daily for the warmth and comfort of being with this family, sharing both tears and laughter. Chris was right, if Naomi had sent tickets, I would use them. We would go.
In late August, Molly and I wandered through Kyoto’s sweltering streets as if in a dream. We often spoke of Neil on this trip and I continued to try to make sense of his suicide. We wondered aloud to each other why he chose to give up a chance at having even one day like we were enjoying. This sadness ran like an undercurrent through everything – wading into the Kamo River trying not to disturb the elegant egrets, ducking under the noren into tiny restaurants where Molly learned the etiquette of slurping her noodles. How could he have chosen to miss this experience – to miss life? I imagined him here with us, too tall for the little Japanese souvenir shops near Kiyomizu-dera temple, flirting with uniformed schoolgirls, giggling behind their hands at the attention of so handsome a foreigner. They would have thought him a movie star and he would have played along, rattling off the movies he’d been an extra in. Molly watched as smokers made their way into the designated smoking car on the Shinkansen train and said, “That’s where Daddy would have been!”
Conjuring him like this, we laughed affectionately, his phantom presence always with us. I had often imagined the three of us one day making this trip. Now as Molly and I visited spots I once described to Neil, I wished he were.
My life in Kyoto had been a time of solitude, contemplation. It was the perfect place for me to be now. Perhaps I might rediscover the centered person who had spent hours wandering temples and gardens for inspiration. Back then, I’d pedal my bicycle back from the rock gardens to paint or carve wood sculptures in my postage stamp sized garden. After a decade of obsessing over Neil, I needed to find my way back to that self-possessed person once so alive to the world. Kyoto was also where I first recognized the longing to be a mother, to have a family. I held Molly’s sticky hand in my own as I led her through my old neighborhood.
“That’s where I lived.” I pointed to the heavy wooden gate hiding the patch of garden and an old wooden house. I stood on the hill over the little river listening to rush of water over stones, remembering that at night, as I lay in my futon under the open window, how the flowing water sounded to me like the cacophony of chattering party guests.
We got lost in the narrow streets, stopping into gardens and temples, stepping across mossy boulders and gravel paths. We sat in the shade of verandas looking out at the sculptural gardens of gravel and rock, the cool wood and tatami mats beneath our bare feet. Meditation came naturally in these ancient spiritual places. I felt I was learning how to breathe again.
It had been 15 years since I left Japan, but some of my expatriate friends still made their homes in Kyoto. Jenny, an Australian with flaming red hair and freckles, now had two daughters around the same age as Molly. Jenny’s marriage to a Japanese man had not worked out either. We had a lot to catch up on as we traipsed the girls around Kyoto together. Climbing up the rocky path through the tunnel of seemingly endless orange tori gates of Fushimi Inari – a huge Shinto shrine south of the city we smiled at each other as whooping and laughing, our girls ran ahead of us.
“Well, mate – it’s a credit to you that Molly is wonderful. She seems like a really happy child,” Jenny said.
“Do you think so? I feel like she is okay, although the future will tell. It’s amazing for us to be here together and it feels like coming home to me.”
“Yes, Kyoto really gets under your skin. Would you ever think about living here again?”
Moving back to Kyoto was tempting on so many levels: the safety of the place, the beauty still felt so exotic. And while I knew it was a ridiculous notion, I couldn’t help thinking that by dramatically changing our world, our painful memories might fade faster.
“You know, in some ways I’d love to but it would be too much for me now – and not the best thing for Molly. Besides, my Japanese was never great and I don’t have enough brain cells to really learn to speak it well now. And, I’ll never be able to read which would drive me crazy.”
Jenny laughed, “Yeah, it’s embarrassing how us gaijin live here for all of these years and are still functionally illiterate.”
“I know – my reading ability only goes as far as identifying what bathroom to go into!”
Up ahead the orange tunnel of gates opened into a small clearing with a temple and teashop. The girls stood expectantly, obviously hoping for a treat. Jenny bought them all a drink then we stepped into the little temple. Rows of flickering candles reminded me of my Catholic childhood then the gentle notes of wind chimes, rushing stream behind the temple and Buddha, eyes closed, surrounded by more crudely carved, smaller figures, brought me into my exotic present. I knew the little figures to be jizo, each face and mood different: smiling, laughing, angry, serene, many with little hats on or aprons wrapped around their simple stone torso. The O-jizo-sama is believed to ease suffering and shorten the sentence of those in hell.
“Do you want to light a candle for your Grandpa?” Jenny asked her girls. Her father had died the year before. The girls nodded solemnly. Molly looked over at me.
“Yes, Moll. Light one for Daddy.”
Jenny dug in her bag for coins to give to the old man who sold them their drinks. Each came back with a long match. Jenny showed them how to use a flint stone at the altar to get a flame. The girls carefully chose one of the unlit candles as their own. Molly watched as the sisters expertly lit the wicks, turned to the benevolent face of Buddha, clapped two times then bowed their heads for a few minutes, eyes closed.
“Mommy, do it with me.” Molly whispered, tugging on my arm.
We stood side by side, the air thick with the smell of incense. I watched as she lit a candle in front of a laughing figure. He appeared to laugh even harder in the flickering light of Molly’s candle. She extinguished the long match into the ashes as she’d seen the girls do and side-by-side, we clapped to get the attention of the gods, bent our heads, eyes closed over our prayer hands. A cool breeze broke through the humid air and the leaves on the trees made a strange rustle that sounded like laughter. Molly and I opened our eyes and looked at each other, eyes wide.
“It’s like Daddy is answering us!” she whispered.
“I think he is honey. I think he’s telling us that he’s okay. I can almost hear him laughing!”
I felt it. Tears welled up in my eyes and a profound peace and lightness swept through me. I looked gratefully again at the laughing jizo and silently thanked him for delivering Neil and for delivering me, safely out of hell. Molly’s hand in mine, we stepped out of the temple onto the path. One of Jenny’s girls tapped her on the arm. “You’re it!”
Giggling, Molly followed her friends into the tunnel of orange gates.
The calendars of our lives become checkered with time, marked by anniversaries of wonderful joys, terrible sorrows. A certain day once just another measure of 24-hours is ever after associated with the thing that happened. May 1st is that day for me. I remember the cloudless, strangely bright morning I found my husband dead. But this year, the morning was shrouded in fog and I was grateful for one less trigger.
Grieving after suicide is complex. Rarely do people kill themselves completely out of the blue. Addiction and depression lived in our little house for years. After his death, mixed in with my shock, anger and anguish was also profound relief. “It’s over.” I said to myself even as I doubled-over in sobs when the policeman confirmed what I knew.
Molly and I were recently discussing the awkwardness of telling people what happened to her father, my husband. We reassure them after they say, “Oh, I’m so sorry” with dismay, maybe a little horror. Sorry to have upset them, we answer, “No, it’s okay, really!” And of course, that’s a weird thing to say – it’s not okay and it was terrible, and it’s still sad. But we have not forgotten how frightened we were as the man we loved was swallowed by addiction. Our day-to-day lives were unstable, his behavior so erratic that we ultimately felt released from a terrible insanity. We have largely made our peace with the bad parts and now remember mostly the good. Time has given us that grace.
The anger that gripped me for years has been replaced by forgiveness. But a desire to understand what damaged him remains. Was it something in his military experience – about which he was so strangely mum? Surely almost 20 years of cocaine use destroyed much of his brain, but I am certain he was self-medicating but for what? Bipolar? Every mental health professional he encountered failed him – and us.
The years pass and I still want to understand what destroyed this good man. As I look at photos, I remember the early days when I first met him in that crazy war zone. There he is standing amidst the ruins in Bosnia, making children laugh. Wasn’t he handsome! His personality filled the room and he made sure with well-told (if rude) jokes and crazy antics that he was the center of attention. What amends was he making, what demons were kept at bay as he helped to save rather than to kill people in that terrible Balkan war where we met? In the center of constant crisis seemed to work like a fix and he thrived on what traumatized me. He seized every opportunity to save someone – and in doing so, for those years at least, he saved himself. He was at his best there.
I am grateful for the grace of time that allows for sadness when I remember him on a date I can never forget.