Scarsdale station area

Kuniko Katz's essays, articles and letters to the editors

Sayonara Mom
: Scarsdale Inquirer, May 4, 1999

I believed, until that moment, that Mom would recognize me instantly. I had been warned about her condition, but somehow I thought I was special. I was her youngest child and she loved me dearly. Of course, she would be happy to see me.

As soon as I arrived at my brother’s house, I dashed into Mom’s tatami room where she was quietly lying on the futon. “Mom,” I said, breathlessly leaning over her, “I’m back!” Mom slowly turned her head and fixed her gaze on me. Feeling a huge lump blocking my throat, I waited eagerly for her haggard face to break into an exciting smile. Mom didn’t show any emotion. She stared at me emptily with her dull looking eyes. Taken aback, I asked her, “Mom, do you know who this is?” Mom extended her shaky, bony arms toward me and spoke in a trembling voice. “It is so nice of you to come, Ma’am, but have we met before?”

“Of course we have,” I laughed through my tears, “Don’t you remember you have a charming daughter named Kuniko?”

“Aa, Kuniko-san, is it?” she said, as if we were meeting for the first time. She was wearing the smile she used to wear when she had to be very polite to other people.

“I have a daughter named Kuniko, too. She lives in Nagoya.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Mom remembered she had a daughter named Kuniko, yet she didn’t recognize the person to whom she was talking. I grabbed her tiny, fragile hands and said, “Mom, this is that Kuniko. I was the one who used to live in Nagoya. Don’t you remember, I came to see you from New York six months ago with your favorite son-in-law and your grandson?

“My daughter lives in Nagoya.” Mom repeated narrowing her eyes as if she were thinking about her child who was living some place far away.

“Mom,” I insisted, “Your Kuniko is right here. Don’t you see?”

“No use, Kuniko,” my brother Shigeru interrupted me from behind. “Let her rest.” He said looking at Mom with a weary smile, “We thought by some chance she might recognize you.”

“Don’t take it personally.” Shigeru’s wife Kikuko said as if to cheer me up. “As we told you on the phone, she doesn’t know anyone anymore.” I wanted to shout at Kikuko that I wasn’t “anyone.” I was her special daughter! But I held back my words. I knew I couldn’t possibly explain how I felt about Mom so I just thanked both of them for looking after her. Still, feeling so disappointed, I couldn’t help but wanting to shake Mom’s shoulders violently and scream at her, how could you forget about me, Mom? You’d told me so many times that having me was the best thing that ever happened to you.

I was born when Mom was forty-three. She used to tell me jokingly that I was an “accident” child because she didn’t expect she could produce a baby at that age. She had a first child, our brother who died at age one, when she was twenty-six, my sister Chiyoko at thirty-four and my brother Shigeru at thirty-six. She said she was so embarrassed when she found out that she was pregnant again she tried to hide it from her friends and neighbors as long as possible. Once I was born, though, it didn’t matter. She was happy because “I made her feel young.” She doted on me so much Chiyoko and Shigeru used to ridicule me saying I was like “goldfish droppings.” Wherever Mom went, I was always right behind her. At the moment she disappeared from my sight, they said, I raised a wail of sorrow until I found her again.

When I told Mom that I was going to leave home and go to Nagoya right after junior high school, it was she who cried bitterly. My father had been dead since I was five, and Chiyoko and Shigeru had been working out of town, I was the only person who had lived with Mom for the last three years. I knew it was hard for her to let me go. I told her that the hospital in Nagoya, where I decided to work after consulting with a vocational counselor in our school, had offered not only to help workers receive higher education but also such a substantial amount of salary that I could send some money to her every month. Three thousand yen a month, which is about equal to fifteen dollars today, was so incredible for me that I remember how excited I was to tell her about it.

Mom was absolutely adamant about my decision. She said it was too dangerous for a young girl like me to leave home and to live alone in a big city such as Nagoya. “It takes fourteen hours to go there by train. How can you go to such a far away place?.” She lamented and begged me not leave. She said she would do anything to send me to high school. No matter how and what she said, though, I knew it was an impossible task for her to pay for my high school tuition. She had no special skills and had to work hard and long hours just make end meets. She had been working at the nearby restaurant for the last few years and I could tell how tired she was when she came home. There was no way for me to ask her to let me go to high school. At her age -fifty eight- I thought, she was too old to be depended upon. I told her that I wanted to support myself and help her.

After a while, she gave in. “My own child doesn’t listen to me anymore,” she said between sobs, “I wonder what the world coming to.”

After I began working in Nagoya, I wrote Mom at least once a week to let her know what I was doing. I also sent about one third of my salary to her every month. I spent another one third for myself and saved the rest in the bank to do something for Mom someday. By then I realize that three thousand yen didn’t have as much value as I had thought when I was home, still I thought I was doing fine with money. I lived in the hospital dormitory where meals and lodging were free and except Sunday, I went school every evening after work. I didn’t even have time to spend my earnings.

Mom wrote me back from time to time in calligraphic ink saying she was happy to know I was doing well and thanked me for sending her money. Although she didn’t like it when I told her it was my time to help her, it seemed that she gradually learned to accept it.

When I was twenty, I took a week vacation from the hospital and took Mom to Tokyo the first time. My increased salary and saving afford to pay all our travel expenses so I sent Mom a train ticket before she left Kumamoto so that she didn’t have to spend a penny to visit me. When we went an Imperial Palace in Tokyo as the parts of our sightseeing tours, she was so moved she wept. She said she had never even dreamed of coming to the place like this if I hadn’t invited her. The Emperor was considered as a “living god” while she grew up, and it was incredible for her to even have an opportunity to glance at his place. She told me then that having me, as a daughter, was the best thing ever happened to her. I remember feeling so proud that I could make her happy although I didn’t particularly care about our emperor or his royal family.

The following year, I took her to Kyoto, Nara and Osaka area and spent another week with her. Then the next year we traveled around Shikoku. Our once a year travel continued until I came to New York three years later. Even after I married in New York, I visited Mom at least once a year to spend time with her and it was only six months ago that my husband and I came to show our son. She was so ecstatic to see her newly arrived grandson I had to beg her so she didn’t wet him with her tears.

Looking at Mom who was laying in front me without showing any emotion, I just didn’t understand how she could lose these precious memory we once shared.

Three months earlier, Mom fell on the ice on the way to the temple near the house. She was immediately taken to the emergency ward, and stayed there for the next four weeks to be treated for a tiny fracture in her hip. While suffering from the pain, her mind was still very clear. Around the end of the two weeks, however, her behavior drastically changed. As her pain abated, she began walking through the hospital corridors as if she had important tasks to perform. On many occasions, she even managed to run out of the hospital, only to be brought back by the hospital guards. She needed constant supervision. Finally, the doctors asked my brother to take Mom some place else. They said the hospital didn’t have enough people to watch her twenty-four hours a day and that she should be taken to a hospital with a psychiatric ward. What Mom had was “Senile Dementia” and she needed special care. Her dementia might have been triggered by the fall, but considering her age, she was seventy-eight then, it might have occurred sooner or later regardless. With that doctors’ urging, Kikuko and Shigeru went to a few psychiatric hospitals near by to see if any of them were suitable for Mom. What they saw, however, was so terrible- many old people were sedated by drugs and looked like zombies-that they decided bring her home no matter how difficult it would be.

For a few months afterward, the life of my brother’s family was very chaotic, to say the least. Mom wandered around the neighborhood whenever she felt like it. She was often found sitting in neighbors’ living rooms having conversations with people who lived only in her mind. When she slept during the day, she was busy at night. Shigeru and Kikuko asked their children to take their turn to sleep in front of Mom’s room so that she wouldn’t escape during the night. My sister Chiyoko stayed with Mom every weekend.

Then one day, a strange thing happened. Half of Mom’s body suddenly stopped functioning. A physician who came to examine her said that she’d had a stroke. Normally that wouldn’t have been good news, but at that time it was a great relief for everyone in her family. She was no longer able to move around by herself and at least nobody had to chase her. By the time I went back to be with her, she was completely bed ridden, and a certain peacefulness seemed to have been restored in the house. It was obvious, though, how energetic Mom had been trying to open the Shoji-screen from inside. The paper was all torn apart as if bandits had looted the house.

I spent two weeks with Mom. After a few days, I had to accept that she was no longer the person I used to know. As I had been warned, she lived in her own world and didn’t share any memory with anyone. When she spoke, she addressed me as if I were her mother or one of her sisters, all of whom were long dead. Sometimes, I was her childhood friend. Whoever she thought I was, I went along with it.

At the mealtimes, I spoon fed Mom, mostly tiny amount of porridge or soup. It wasn’t an easy task because I had to plead with her to eat. “Now, Mom,” I said, “Be a good girl and take more.” I told her she should get better by eating well so she could see my second child, who was to be born in a few months. After a while, I decided not force her. It seemed that she was preparing her body, as well as her mind, to join Buddha by not consuming much. Occasionally, though, she was funny. She said “delicious!” so loud as if she was drinking the real thing when I helped her drink water by saying I was serving the special brand of sake which Mom used to enjoy.

Changing Mom’s diapers was another matter. I had to fight with my tears each time I did it. It was hard for me to see that anyone could lose an ability to perform such a basic task as going to the bathroom. I hated this job so much that I appreciated Kikuko, my sister-in-law, more than ever. She had been taking care of Mom for all these months without ever complaining. When I told her how thankful I was, she said with a chuckle, “This may be our future, you know.” She said that her own mother was being cared for by her brother’s wife and that she hoped her son’s future wife would do the same thing for her. It was her responsibility, she said, as a wife of the first son to look after her mother-in-law. Still, I knew it wasn’t easy for Kikuko to take care of Mom by herself. Despite her calm appearance, I could tell she was tired and also angry at my brother who apparently disappeared hours at a time to pachinko parlor when things got hectic. I overheard her talking to her own sister on the phone one day how lazy and irresponsible my brother was. She didn’t know I was there. It was clear that Mom’s illness was taking a tall of their life. I told Kikuko to take a vacation from her daily life while I was there. I said she needed some change. Then she said she couldn’t. How could she enjoy when she knew her mother-in-law was suffering. What their neighbors would think of her if would avoid her responsibility? After trying to persuade her a while, I gave up. She lived in the world where what others said or thought of her was so important that she seemed to be able to suppress her own desire. I realized that she might be enjoying playing a role of a wonderful wife endured the hardship and took care of her mother-in-law without complaining. I was disappointed that she didn’t go anywhere to relax, I was nonetheless appreciated her devotion

In the evening, we carried Mom to the bathroom to wash her with warm water outside the bathtub as we do in Japan before soaking in it. Mom couldn’t sit by herself, so Kikuko supported Mom’s body on a stool while I washed her. Mom’s entire body was so emaciated and dried up that she looked like a fasting monk.

One day, I noticed an old scar on one of her nipples that looked like a raisin. It was very tiny but I remembered it because she used to tell me how painful it was when I bit her. I was then about two years old. When I asked her in amazement if she was still nursing me when I was that old, she said nonchalantly that everyone did in those days.

“Mom, who made this scar?” I asked her jokingly while I was scrubbing around her nipples. Mom didn’t respond to what I said but thanked me for helping her bathe. “Oh, Ma’am,” she said with her hands clasped in prayer, “You are so kind. It feels so good.”

Two weeks passed and it was time for me to leave Mom. My suitcases were in the trunk of my brother’s car and he was waiting outside to drive me to the airport. I sat next to Mom and whispered, “Mom, I must go back to New York now.” Looking into her eyes, I was desperately wishing that once, even for a second, she would recognize me and call my name before I left. But Mom didn’t respond. She smiled faintly and said politely as if talking to a stranger, “Oh, Ma’am, please come back soon.” I was struck with deep sadness. I knew Mom was dying and I would never see her again. And yet, we were unable even to say good-bye to one another. I sat there not knowing what to do. Then I heard my brother’s impatient voice urging me to get into the car. I hugged Mom and said, “Sayonara, Mom. Take care, OK?” She was staring at air. Holding back my tears, I said “Sayonara,” again, and left there quickly without looking back.

Top    Letters from Scarsdale