Jiritsu [自立]. Independence. Self-reliance. Autonomy.
Standing in the small foyer of a restaurant in a rural area north of Nagasaki, Japan, I am trying not to cry. I am thousands of miles and many days away from my son, working hard to be a “real” person, a professional, to hold it together until I can get home. The little book in my hand threatens to crumble my resolve. Here, in a most unexpected place, my child speaks to me.
When the opportunity arose to take this business trip to Japan, my little boy was nine years old, in the midst of a rough year at school and a full-time schedule of therapies designed to coax him out of silence and shore up his abilities to learn and do things on his own. How could I go? Twelve days? Overseas?
Yet, how could I not? My work as a researcher for an author writing a book about the atomic bombing of Nagasaki had been providing a part-time reprieve from my duties as a special needs mom, allowing me the precious gift of digging in to a project that was completely un-autism. The opportunity to accompany my boss to meet the survivors of the bombing, support her final interviews with them, and complete research at a few sites in this historic city? We had to make this happen.
Besides, there is nothing like talking to people who lived through the horror of a nuclear bombing to put one’s own little problems into perspective.
After sharing a social story of “Mom Goes to Japan” that explained what my son could expect when I disappeared for two weeks, I left my fabulous husband at the helm while I went off across the ocean. I cried when the two of them dropped me at the airport, torn between guilt and excitement, anxiety and anticipation.
The trip has been a whirlwind so far – we crammed our schedule morning-to-night to take full advantage of our time. Since I do not speak or read Japanese, my brain is in overload just trying to decipher what is going on around me at any given moment. I don’t have much chance to worry and wonder how my little boy is coping while his best translator is gone. I try to keep in touch with home through Skype, but the time difference makes it difficult for my husband and me to catch each other.
My determined focus on my work was almost derailed yesterday when we visited an elementary school. We stood in the back of the auditorium as the students filed in for their monthly “Peace Education” assembly, during which they learn about the atomic bombing on their city in 1945, and pledge to work for peace. As the kids sat down on the floor in straight rows, I saw him: a boy a bit younger than my own, walking in next to his aide, with all the mannerisms that I’ve come to know so well. As he settled on the floor, practically lying in his aide’s lap, he had a mischievous grin that reminded me of someone.
Then, today one of our interviewees invited us to lunch at this restaurant where her niece works. As we drove up the winding road outside of the city, taking in the luscious green hills, terraced rice paddies, and small farm plots, our host revealed (and my boss translated to me) that the restaurant is connected to a day school for young adults with disabilities.
I am curious to browse in the gift shop as our table is prepared. Many of the goods on display were made by those enrolled here or by their family members. The money raised from the sale of these trinkets (like the fan-shaped coasters made out of summer kimono material that found their way home with me) supports the school.
On one of the tables, I spot a small hardcover book (with English on the cover!). I open it up to a random page, and my heart leaps in my chest:
You’re always worrying about
I am worried about your anxiety
I turn back to the first page. What is this? I have to place my hand on the table to steady myself.
Gaze at my eyes
For I ain’t got the words
to express myself
Oh, oh, oh. And, then:
Feel for me
Though the silence is long
and the words are sparse
Please sense my yearnings
Without much ado
This little book is going to do me in. I have happened upon a collection of brief poetic letters in English and Japanese from a boy to his mom, recounting shared memories, imploring patience, expressing fears and joys, and attesting to the unmatched bond between a mother and her special child.
I close the book and set it down. I can’t cry here. Don’t cry here. I concentrate on anything else on the table except this little book that is saying too much with its sparse words.
My boss comes to my shoulder to see what I am reading, and is concerned by the look on my face. “Are you OK? What is it?”
I pick up the book, cradling it almost, and whisper: “This… is my kid. This is him.”
I flip through the pages more slowly, thinking the hardest shock is behind me. It’s not. Partway through the book, the rhythm shifts from an all-too-familiar child seeking comfort to that child offering sweet, lyrical gifts of reassurance to his mother.
You don’t have to be strong
You don’t have to protect
You don’t have to try hard
Live your life
These tiny words surge through me, pushing against all the guilt of being away from my child. The guilt of trying to do something else, be someone else for a time, besides a mother, an advocate, a caretaker. This simple poem holds out a sliver of hope – the promise that my son may someday grasp why I do all that I do for him; the vision that, as I urge him toward his own independence, he might, one day, openly welcome the same for me; the possibility that he might somehow come to understand how very much I love him.
Little by little
Slow and steady
I can achieve it
I’m almost independent,
I can even quarrel with you now
I think of the boy with his aide at the school the day before, and I think about his mother. We share a connection and an understanding that would need little translation. I imagine that we both hope our sons might someday be able to express these words. The world feels small, indeed.
I turn to the back page and see that the author of this book is the mother of two. In an effort to better understand her son, born with a disability in 1979, she began to write. This book is one of the results.
I am unsure if her son wrote the poems or if she did, but their collective words simultaneously break my heart and lift my spirits.
My boss murmurs some consoling words and tells me our table is ready. We laugh as I try to pull myself together. With effort, I return the book to the table temporarily. I will not leave here without it.
Our hosts insist that my boss and I take chairs next to the windows to enjoy the beautiful scenery. From my vantage point, the L-shaped building affords me a clear view into what appears to be the students’ workshop. In between the bits of conversation my boss translates for me, and amusing our new friends by taking photos of the amazing, exotic (to me) food we are served in this seven-course “lunch” of traditional Japanese dishes, my eyes keep returning to the window to catch glimpses of a few young men at their workbenches.
I wonder which of them is like my son.
I wonder if my boy would ever find contentment in this kind of place.
I wonder if their mothers ever stop worrying about them.
For believing in me
Domo arigato gozaimasu
to the day school we visited and especially to the Nagasaki mom
who brought me closer to my son at a time when I was so far away.
The poems quoted and illustrations appear in: Itoh, Kuniko. Feel Me: Part I. Translated by Minako and Wesley Salvadorai-Tuda. Warney Company Translation Dept. Illustrated by Yumiko Ishihara. Nagasaki: Warney Company, 2005.
A revised version of this essay appeared in Pentimento magazine, December 2013.