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April's theme is
MOTHERS & SISTERS.
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Hanami – that special time of year in Japan where everyone overcomes any sense of personal space and claustrophobia to bear witness to tapestries of pink and white cherry blossoms. Living near Kyoto, going to hanami is a cultural birthright of sorts and I tried to share in the collective fanfare for flower viewing. My friend Erin was nearly squealing with joy as we drifted between the clumps of photographers, tourists, and families of Nijo Castle. The trees were lit up with Christmas lights and carefully situated spotlights; against the backdrop of the castle grounds and the rhythmic beating of taiko drums, the trees give off an eerie aura, casting shadows in inexplicable directions. Still, even in that mystical atmosphere it was hard to deny the trees their exquisite demonstration of life, branches bending under the weight of their blossoms.
Erin dodges in and out of the crowd taking any number of seemingly uncomfortable poses, searching out for the perfect camera angles. “Isn’t this aaaa-mazing!” Not wanting to deter her enthusiasm and generally be a Debbie Downer, I concentrated all my energy to manipulate my facial muscles into an imperfect expression of wonder. “Yeah, it really is.” (I have never been a great performer). The moment she scurries off, my face slackened. I could not look at the cherry trees without thinking about Julius.
* * *
Julius Akira Takahashi was a small boy who I only know from photos, stories, and the deepest recesses of my subconscious. A child with dark full curls and eyelashes so thick they would crowd out his eyes, Julius was my effervescent older brother who my parents would jokingly refer to as ‘the prince of Japan.’ His story can be summarized with the New York Times headline: ‘Boy, 4, Drowns In a Lake’.
I was two years old on July 3rd, 1994. Julius and I were playing on a humid Connecticut day as my Obachan, visiting from Japan, barked orders at my father. At some point, we disappeared. My father went out looking for us and encountered our neighbor’s dog with a vaguely incriminating expression on his face. The dog lead my father to the lake across the street from our house. By the time my father pulled us out, it was too late for Julius. I woke up from a coma two days later.
It was awhile before I realized that Julius wasn’t buried anywhere, had no grave. When my family wanted to pay their respects we would light incense for him or visit the Japanese cherry tree that was planted in his memory at our elementary school. In contrast to the grandeur of the trees in Kyoto, Julius’ tree was just a sapling; its trunk scrawny enough to wrap your two hands around. Aside from its brief blooming, the tree mostly looked like a disheveled mop of hair, whose green leaves tousled rather than swayed in the wind.
I would visit the tree sometimes when I felt lonely, meaning that I visited often. I felt like Julius had abandoned me, leaving not even a trace of memory. Instead, I had to settle for this tree, transplanted far from its home. Other times I felt I was the one that had abandoned him, leaving him behind in the lake forever, betraying him with my survival. As I grew older, fat and muscle pinched and pulled in every which way, my guilt hardened into some impenetrable, murky core. I could not say with any confidence exactly what it was I was mourning, only that the scale felt geological.
* * *
Quick pangs of guilt shuddered through me as my bicycle wheels churned over the tissue paper petals. It had only been a week since visiting Nijo Castle with Erin but already the cherry blossoms had begun to scatter to the ground, quilting the grass like freshly fallen snow. Even in their moribund state, the flowers maintained a majestic quality. During my meditative wanderings I felt a dull rumbling, the tectonic plates of my psyche shifting imperceptibly. As the sun drifted lazily toward the horizon, I thought of my father and his Buddhist musings about the impermanence of life that would border on cliché if not for the stern expression on his face and the gravity of his voice. I thought of all the fleeting moments that people try to hold on to, like fireflies on hot summer nights, only to slip through our fingers into a gentle nostalgia. And I thought of my brother Julius, whose life burned so bright that I would feel his absence forever.
It was no accident that the tree planted in Julius’ memory was a Japanese cherry tree. Julius and the cherry blossoms encapsulated mono no aware – their brilliant blossoming and quick death epitomizing appreciation of the transience of things. I too, was just an ephemeral being in bloom. I realized then that I had to recognize that all the wisps and flickers of life contained in them equal parts joy and loss. And within my own evanescence, I would have to search for beauty in my own tragedy. If not for myself, then for Julius.