Mom’s Departure — Liberation

by naoko on February 16, 2016


My mother was Okinawan. It was a shadow cast on her life, which influenced mine. In the end, however, it liberated both of us. What connected her and me in this journey together was my name, Naoko (直子).


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Tree in Okinawa


Born into a very poor family, she came to Japan to work, with minimum education. The innocent 17-year-old girl was full of hope but didn’t know that in the conqueror’s country, Okinawan people were regarded as “below human” and severely despised and discriminated against. No decent jobs were available for them. A mean man targeted her to be his victim. He approached her with a mask of kindness, threw it off and raped her, then threatened her that he would reveal what she’d done. He also threatened her that he would disclose her Okinawan origin to her possible employers. Unless she agreed to see him whenever he wanted her. She was so afraid that she succumbed to him. It took her some time before she managed to escape from him; she found a job at a far away place – at a textile factory notorious for exploiting women.


The girl did endure and survive long hard working hours, and then studied nursing; she needed a licence in order to equally compete with her fellow Japanese women. While she was working hard to become a nurse, she met someone who she loved dearly. He accepted her as she was, including her being Okinawan. She was happy that she met someone who she could trust. He proposed her, which flew her to heaven, but the next moment she was dropped to hell; she realized that she’d lost her virginity. She loved him so much that she felt unworthy for him; she’d been ruined. She was too ashamed to accept his proposal and left him – in tears.


She started working as a live-in nurse at an isolation hospital for highly infectious diseases. As being hospitalized there meant death in those days, all people hated the hospital. (She might have sent there because she was Okinawan.) There she met a widower almost as old as her own father. She thought he would be the only, last remaining bet that she could turn the tables and win the game as a ruined Okinawan woman. He was old and often sick – he too was a “ruined” man like herself, a good match, she thought. “My youth may pay off my being a ruined Okinawan woman. As he is Japanese, if I get pregnant through him and become a mother, I would be recognized as a human being.” Out of the desperate desire, she grabbed her last chance.


All the children of the widower became furious to learn that their father had gotten married to an Okinawan woman of their age, a “below human” (or an outcast). They tried everything to force her to abort the fetus. But the girl, from the sheer desire to become a human being, protected her baby. The baby, while being protected, was assigned a mission in return, to become its mother’s sole hope and ally, to protect her, to console her and to wipe off all her shame as an Okinawan woman.


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Naming paper: I name you as “Ikeda Naoko”


This is how I was born. The aged sickly widower found it convenient to keep a young female nurse as his future care taker but he was not prepared to take the parental responsibility once again. So he refused to name me. My mother gave me a name “Naoko (尚子) ” – “Nao ()” meaning noble, “ko ()” meaning girl. My father, then, officially named me as that, took a brush and wrote it down on a piece of paper. When he went to the registry office, however, the name, or more exactly, the kanji (Chinese character) used for Nao was refused; that particular kanji meaning noble was not allowed for names in those days. The officer suggested to my father that he go back, think of a different name and return. But my father wanted to get rid of this name business as quickly as possible. He asked the officer “Which kanjis are allowed for Nao?” The officer presented several possibilities, but my father was too impatient to listen and interrupted him, “The first one will do.” Thus I became Naoko (直子), a straight girl.


On the paper, he had already written “I name you as Naoko (noble girl).” He handed it to me saying, “This is you.” But whenever I saw it, I wondered who this Naoko was. As I had never used it, I couldn’t feel any association with it; it just wasn’t me.


My mother, on the other hand, kept telling me, “It was me who’d given you your name” as if I had to repay her for her great favour.



One day, she said to my face, “You know why I wanted you? I needed to be recognized as a human being.” It was an unexpected information for a child, but explained her daily speeches and behaviours well. She was making desperate efforts to prove to the in-laws and to the world that even an Okinawan woman could make a “good mother.” She expected me to understand her perfectly and to live for her – in other words, to mother her. So I had to read her expectations and behave accordingly to meet her needs, and be a very good girl in each and every aspect. Just like a child cannot feel the pain of the parents, she could not feel mine – her mother’s. She never protected me from the ferocious beatings of my father as well as his alcoholic son, even when I was a baby.


My name Naoko (直子straight girl) which I’d been using to identify myself felt like a curse telling me that no one loved me. Whenever I used my name, or heard someone call me, I could not but feel uneasy. (Especially when called, as beatings usually followed).


Therefore, I had to search for who I really was, and for love.


My mother didn’t like my search. When I was thinking about getting married, my father died. She had expected it a matter of course that I sacrifice my marriage in order to support the family. I didn’t. So we had a lot of emotional arguments and she swore at me for being a betrayer. Which didn’t discourage me, contrary to her wish. I just went ahead. The betrayer deserved the punishment of disownment. But, when I walk in her shoe now, I can see how dreadful it must have felt for her to see her daughter stepping away from her; she was losing her lifetime guaranteed protection, understanding, and console. She had to cut the mother-daughter bond – herself.



It was only after I’d lost my parents – physically father, and emotionally mother by having been disowned – that I became able to observe them as human beings, free from their role as my parents.


My father, being aged and sickly, might have gotten irritated seeing an innocent young child who was constantly reminding him of his parental responsibility. There must have been times when he got caught by “If only she weren’t there,” and he couldn’t help beating me. My mother, feeling so empty and helpless in Japan, had to remind me, from time to time, of my assigned role as her mother.


During the long disownment, as I took care of my own wounds, I discovered that my parents were no different from me; they were the same wounded people. We were human. I began to love them as much as I accepted and loved myself.


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Shuri Castle (Rebuilt)


When I passed the middle point on my healing journey, one of my students came to me to chat. She said, “You know, I used to live in Okinawa and I love it. The Ryukyu Kingdom was ruled by Sho () Family for a very long time…..” Sho () Family?! Mom’s “Nao” ( noble) came from that?!! I was thunder stricken. In severe humiliation in the conqueror’s country, the girl named her baby, the only means of becoming a human being, after the great Okinawan soul, the family name of their king. “Be noble. Soar high beyond the humiliation and shame! Live with pride!” My heart trembled hard as I learned my mother’s wish for the first time. A wish for her new born child. And for herself – a new born mother, a new born human being.


Instead of cancelling the disownment, my mother developed dementia to call me back.


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Shureimon: second gate to Shuri Castle


When I visited the main island of Okinawa in November, 2014, I learned the history of Ryukyu Kingdom or Sho dynasty. During 450 years, the Sho family seemed to have produced many kings who were highly loved and respected by its people. I felt Mom’s wish again. When I sat in front of the family alter to greet the ancestors, I was looking back at the path I’d walked – my journey, her journey, our journey around this name.


I have never used “Noble girl” as my name. So she never saw me use the name she’d given me. I wonder how she was feeling about it.


The night when I showed some fresh pictures from my short trip to Okinawa, she dropped her “Energy Saving Mode.” She was awake and fully engaged. Wasn’t it because she knew that I’d finally connected to the name she’d given me? Integrated it as myself? This must have liberated her from the long confinement of humiliation. In peace, she let start her final journey gracefully. To soar strong, high and free.




Mom’s Departure — Sunny Spots

by naoko on February 9, 2016


Mom kept everyone around her nervous and worried, but did survive the first week. Not only that, she started to show some subtle signs of stabilization after the mid-second week! At the end of the third, she “lent out” her multiple monitor to the patient who was hospitalized with much worse condition. Then, even though still on IV and oxygen, she finally moved out of the private room into a 4 bedded one.


It was soon after this when Keiko heard Mom’s low voice responding to her nurse: “Mrs. Ikeda.” “Yes.” She got thrilled to hear Mom’s voice after more than a month.


Different from the private room, visitors were allowed only between 1:00 pm to 8:00 pm. Keiko’s burden became half, so did the email communication. For one week, she was relaxed because Mom’s oxygen level was stabilized and her fever gone. She even left her cell phone at home and forgot to email me. No news is good news.


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There was more. The first email that came the next morning read: “Hi, Mom is hanging in. While stroking her face, I heard her say “Thank you.” Then when I was drowsing off, she said, “They taste good, tempuras.” “What tempura? Shrimp?” Nod, nod. “Squid tempura?” shaking her head no no….” They had a conversation! Mom used to love tempuras. Even though nothing was allowed from the mouth yet, she must have been feeling better enough to remember what food she loved. She might have wanted to eat it. I smiled at this email.



From time to time I had suggested to Keiko that she speak with Mom’s heart and soul while she was close to Mom. But now they had a verbal conversation! The topic didn’t matter. Exchange did. I was happy, simply happy.


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Two days later, Mom’s doctor came in late afternoon. Keiko hadn’t seen her since Mom’d left the private room, as she usually does her rounds in the morning. That day Mom was wide awake all day, talking and talking in a loud voice. Keiko would have understood what Mom was saying if Mom’d had her teeth. But she did at least that whenever she looked into Mom’s face, Mom would say “Hello!” Mom also said, “Goya (bitter melon) and sweet potatoes, they are so good!” Both are staples of her homeland, Okinawa. When she was younger and well, she seldom ate sweet potatoes, saying she’d gotten sick and tired of them. But she might have liked them. I smiled, realizing Mom always talked about food. Her doctor left the room, saying “Since she moved here, she is so far stable.”


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As soon as I read this email, though, a question flashed, “Could this be?” During my 16 years of volunteering at palliative care floor, I’d seen many patients experience agitation or sudden upsurge of energy (felt almost like remission) some time before they passed away. Could Mom’s condition for the last few weeks, and especially today’s talkativeness be this upsurge? If so, then…? However, like many patients’ families who believed in and expected miracles, I, too, was just simply happy that Mom was holding her own, and that Keiko was delighted to have talked with Mom. A hope began to grow in me that Mom might gradually recover. It outgrew my objective, experiential judgment.


Mom continued to greet her nurses every morning by an audible “good morning.” And thanked them too with “thank you.” Keiko began her day as usual — washing Mom’s face, gently talking to her, “Let’s become ‘Churasan’ (meaning ‘pretty’ in Okinawan dialect) and putting skin cream on her face. “Naoko is with us, you know?” she would say and talk about me while applying essential oils on Mom. Just like she’d been doing every morning for a long time. Then she would sit at Mom’s bedside and massage her swollen hands and feet. When Mom became relaxed and drowsy, she would stroke Mom’s hair and face. Despite some small incidents here and there, the days passed peacefully. Her emails became shorter and less frequent. Sometimes there was none. At the end of the week, Mom’s medical team started the paper work to transfer her to the long term care ward.


Monday morning, as soon as I woke up, I reached out, as usual, for my bedside glass jar that contained some coconut oil. Oil had become low and it would be the final scoop. I took a spoon and gently scooped it at the bottom when the jar made a light, high, metallic sound. I saw the spoon break out of the jar. The bottom fell out in the shape of the spoon!


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Something must be wrong. Feeling weird and strange, I picked up my cell phone.


Mom has passed away.” It was an unexpected email sent during the night (afternoon in Japan). Ahhhh! No wonder! So, it was the direct sign I’d asked for.


That morning, Mom woke up and said “good morning” to her nurse, as usual. The nurse finished her morning routine with Mom and left to prepare Mom’s new room on the upper floor. She returned only to find Mom’s pulses having dropped drastically.


Keiko got an emergency call, and rushed to the hospital which is 3 minutes walk from home. Mom had already lost her colours and her pulses were hard to feel. But she did recognize Keiko and shook her hand back. The nurse tending Mom left the room for a minute or so. Keiko took advantage of her absence, and wetted Mom’s lips with holy water from Lourdes, and put Frankincense oil on her third eye. She sat at bedside and took Mom’s hand. She and Mom, together, started to pray “Ave Maria” – “Pray for us now and at the end of our life.” Prayer continued.


Mom departed in forty minutes or so without suffering. In prayers.





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