Mrs Sasaki’s birthday

Monday was Mrs Sasaki’s 65th birthday. And there was something really special about this day that I can’t quite put my finger on, and has nothing to do with asking you to sponsor anything, nor has anything to do with updating you on progress here, but I want to write about the day, partly to record it, and partly just to simply share it with people who follow my adventures on Oshika.

Mrs Sasaki’s birthday did not start well. In the early hours of the morning, the first cat that Mrs Sasaki adopted passed away. This kitten had turned up one day soon after the tsunami, blind and with some kind of neurological condition. Mrs Sasaki nursed it back to health, but the cat never regained her sight. Occasionally Tora-chan would have fits and in recent weeks those fits had become more frequent. We had been talking about how perhaps Tora-chan might be ready to say goodbye.

Mr Sasaki buried Tora-chan in the mountain behind their home, next to their dog that had passed away the day before the tsunami. I didn’t know about Tora-chan, and arrived that afternoon with a birthday cake, turning the lights off and lighting a candle on the cake before entering the room singing happy birthday. A young musician from Okinawa was visiting, and played the shamisen for the Sasakis and two young friends from an Ishinomaki restaurant. We shared the birthday cake and once the guests had left, Mrs Sasaki sat stroking a photo of Tora-chan and telling me what had happened that morning. We were both in tears … my beloved Tommy’s passing still feels very recent to me and her words reminded me of how I felt when I said goodbye to him.

After a while, Mrs Sasaki announced that she wasn’t going to sit around all day crying, and that the three of us would go into Ishinomaki that night and go out for dinner at her young friend’s restaurant. Mr Sasaki and I raised our eyebrows at each other — we had wanted to plan a surprise dinner but Mrs Sasaki’s tooth has been playing her up and eating isn’t fun for her at the moment so I had told him I’d just get a cake. But she said her tooth wasn’t hurting her today and we were all going out, no matter what.

So that night we drove onto the mainland for a birthday dinner. Mrs Sasaki insisted I sit up front with her driving, saying that Mr Sasaki is short so he could sit in the back. She never misses an opportunity to comment on how short he is (she’s very tall), and he always responds with, “These legs may be short, but my third leg is HUGE!” He’s said it so often now that sometimes I pre-empt him and comment on the size of his “third leg.” And Mrs Sasaki always rolls her eyes and tells us that we are both disgusting.

Mrs Sasaki has an ABBA CD playing in the car. She says she likes to play one song over and over again but doesn’t know any of the words. It’s “The Winner Takes It All,” and I sing it for her, explaining what the words mean. We listen to more of the CD, and talk about ABBA, and Mrs Sasaki is surprised to find out that they are Swedish and not American. I say I know that I’m not a very good singer but I tell her I try very hard (ishoukenme) and don’t give up (gambarimasu) — this really tickles her. Mr Sasaki lies asleep on the back seat and wakes only for Mamma Mia because he really likes that song. He calls them “Baba” (old woman) instead of ABBA, and thinks his joke is hilarious.

Dinner is incredible. A young woman who came to Ishinomaki as a volunteer soon after the tsunami has set up a Spanish restaurant. The food is delicious, and the Spanish wine goes down just a little too easily. I don’t usually drink much on Oshika — my mind tends to be too busy thinking about what I’m working on to let itself be quiet. But the restaurant is warm, and beautifully designed; the staff are kind and attentive; and I’m so relaxed and content to sit quietly watching the Sasakis look so, so happy, as they chat to the three staff and two women in their twenties who have joined us for dinner. All five of them were drawn to Ishinomaki after the tsunami, and decided to stay. One owns the restaurant, two work for her, one is a veterinary nurse, and another works with young children. All of them help out with the Sasakis’ wakame business during their days off. They are teasing each other about how inept they used to be at doing wakame, and Mrs Sasaki is laughing and laughing. I am lost in the moment. Lost in Mrs Sasaki’s laughter. And then lost in the thoughts that her laughter brings to me.

Terrible things happen all the time. Life throws all sorts of unexpected shocks, traumas, and sadness at all of us. I haven’t been through anything like the Sasakis have, but life’s thrown me a few curveballs in the past. As I watch the Sasakis with their “shinsai-go” friends (everything is described as pre- or post-disaster here — shinsai-mae or shinsai-go), I think about the people in life that we never would have met had it not been for some horrible experience or another. And how some of those people end up having such a positive impact on your life, and bring you so much happiness, that their ongoing presence somehow takes you further and further away from the horrible experience. And here’s an impossible question … If you had a choice not go through that horrible experience, and that choice meant that you would never have met a very special person or some very special people, what would you choose? It’s a very complicated question, and one that my Japanese isn’t good enough to be able to ask in a sensitive way. Maybe the only way to answer to that question is that you have to try to come through horrible experiences with an open heart, open to the love that people want to give you when you’re ready to receive it. Maybe it’s the only way to move on from them. Yes you still think about that horrible thing every day, yes you still have nightmares, but the nightmares become less frequent as daydreams of the future replace them, and the horrible memories are gradually shifted aside by beautiful new ones. And it is perhaps the new person or people around you that help that to happen.

ABBA is playing again on the long drive back home. I’m singing away, and Mr Sasaki is sleeping in the back. Mrs Sasaki and I get a bit sentimental.

“Life is interesting, don’t you think?” I say to Mrs Sasaki, “I’m here singing songs I knew when I was a child, driving up and down windy roads along the coast of a country on the other side of the world.”

“Yes, life IS interesting, isn’t it?!” she says. “It’s my birthday, and this English woman is here, alongside me, singing all my favourite songs.”

“I wonder what he thinks,” I say, indicating Mr Sasaki in the back.

“Probably nothing,” she says, “He’s fast asleep. Idiot.” and we both cackle away loudly, and turn the music up.

“No, no,” Mr Sasaki says, “I’m awake. I’m listening to everything. And yes, life IS interesting.”

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