ESSAY: On Death

“Fate worse than death.” How many times have we heard or used that phrase? Yes, it’s true, death is final–leaving our family, friends, and work we love, or being left behind by someone we love, is frightening. But the reality is, if we live, then we will die, and there’s no other way to look at it–or is there? How do we accept our mortality? How do we prepare for death, and is it possible to embrace it?

In April, people of Japan view spring’s awakening when thousands of sakura, cherry trees, blossom en masse enveloping the landscape with clouds of pink and white blossoms. Parents, with their intergenerational family of elders and children, relatives, friends, and colleagues go to the parks for hanami–parties and picnics, under the sakura’s grand canopies and welcome mother nature’s wondrous show of alchemy. It’s also when the Japanese engage in mono no aware–appreciating the beauty of all things ephemeral. Cherry blossoms, indeed, are ephemeral as its life is only for a fleeting week after its emergence. The viewers turn to the introspection of the poignant impermanence of life, as well as death and renewal. It’s when they contemplate their lives and how they can fulfill their present and future aspirations because they know, like a cherry blossom floating from the tree, they also will one day float from life and let the wind take them on their next journey. Cherry blossoms are a lovely metaphor for life and death. Understanding the fragility of life and accepting death makes one’s life immediate, in the present, and dynamically move forward with purposeful aspiration and inspiration.

“In the Japanese Buddhist tradition, awareness of the fundamental condition of existence is no cause for nihilistic despair, but rather a call to vital activity in the present moment and to gratitude for another moment’s being granted to us.” (Keene, 120)1

Mono no aware is a cultural awareness to which children are introduced perhaps in teachings, absorbed through societal practices, or even during their yearly viewings of cherry blossom season. The children assimilate to the notion of the impermanence of life and are grateful for the time that graces them. That theme develops throughout their lives as they apply mono no aware to their art, music, philosophy, and generally, to their being.

Conversely, having lived through childhood, young adult, and parenting, I felt immortal–the thought of my death and to those I loved was a rare occurrence for me. But later in life, I became more introspective and developed a fear of death when I alternately walked the paths alongside my aging mother and my friend, Margaret, who was diagnosed with stage-four squamous carcinoma of her tongue. My fear was not for myself (as I still thought I was invincible), but rather for the two women I loved.

Having gone through the grief of loss, I am just now absorbing the notion of life’s transiency as Japan’s people have practiced since they were children. Is it too late for me to “catch up?” I don’t think so. I am, myself, Japanese, albeit Japanese American, hence not fully immersed in Japan’s culture. But my second-generation Japanese parents, closer to their parents’ culture,  imparted the essence of their culture to me. Curiously, my mother became fascinated with cherry trees–at the time I didn’t understand why. I recalled in my book about her sudden interest in the sakura:

     Inside the doctor’s office just past the receptionist’s desk, she saw an impressionist style painting at the end of the hallway. She walked up very close to it, stopped, and said, [sic] “sakuda.”
     “Pretty, isn’t it?” I asked. It was a painting of a tree with a broad habit filled with pink blossoms.
     Squinting, she examined it intently and whispered, “Sakuda. Yes, sakuda.”
     “What’s a sakuda?” I asked her. But she was focused on the painting and didn’t answer me.
     I didn’t know what she was talking about––it looked like a magnolia tree to me, but I didn’t argue with her…

I was with my mother during her final days, and believed she felt resolved and was ready to die a few weeks before her stroke took her from us. In my book, I described a scene where she had a remembrance of her deceased beloved father.

     Sitting in her living room one afternoon, we listened to a tape of classical Okinawan folk songs playing on her boombox. My mother sat behind her walker, eyes closed, both arms raised, slowly waving with the beat of the music.
     “Oh my gosh,” she said, suddenly opening her eyes. “I just remembered how I used to dance with my father. I forgot all about that until just now!”
     “When did you dance with him?”
     “When I was a little girl. We danced at parties.”
     “What kind of parties, Mom?”
     “All the farmers on my father’s farm got together and had a party with food and music, and I danced with him. It’s been such a long time since I’d thought about that,” she whispered.
     “Mom, how old were you?”
     “I don’t know, I can’t remember. I’m so tired–I think I’ll take a nap now,” she said, her voice barely audible.

A few days later, Editha, my mother’s home care provider, urged my mother to tell me about a dream she’d had:

     As Editha made some tea for us, she said to my mother, “Tell Susie about your dream.”
     “No, no, she doesn’t want to hear about a silly dream,” my mother said.
     Editha insisted.
     My mother spoke slowly.
     “I had a dream–
     “I heard a knock on the door in the middle of the night, and it scared me–
     “I opened the door, and it was your father–
     “He came to visit, and told me, he mi–he missed me.”
     A heavy sense of heartbreak swept through me. It had been six years since my father had died. What does this dream mean? Does she know something, I don’t? I was beginning to feel myself unhinge–I felt lightheaded…”
     My mother and I hugged each other tightly, longer than usual–the kind of hug two people share when one of them is departing for a trip. Tears filled my eyes, and I tried my best to hide them. She tried to hide hers too.

While my mother and I never talked about mono o aware, I sensed, retrospectively, its spirit was within her, and she was ready to join her father and husband. After her dreams, I believe she reconciled her mortality and embraced her future. Reflecting on the events that followed, I think death gently extended its hand to her, and she chose to accept it with grace, dignity, and peace. These are the kinds of lessons my mother taught me all my life–not through words, but her actions. Is it possible for me to learn to embrace death? I think, or at least, I will try when the time comes.

1Parkes, Graham and Adam Loughnane, “Japanese Aesthetics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2018/entries/japanese-aesthetics/

.