It felt so nostalgic driving through San Francisco the other day, despite all the construction, changes, and gentrification of the city. These changes have been raising much controversy; however, for the first time in a while, the city felt like it once did some time ago. The sun was out, the skies were blue, and we had the windows of our old red Mustang rolled down with the crisp air circulating around us. Not only was it a beautiful day in San Francisco, but Tj, my lover, my partner, was driving us to our double date with my childhood best friend, Aya and her husband, Julian. It felt like such a profound coming together of both my past and present life (and self.) We were driving from Oakland to Japan Town; and, because of heavy traffic, we were routed through Pine Street. As we drove up the historical, steep hills of San Francisco, we were both commenting on and appreciating the beautiful Victorian homes. We fantasized about maybe giving city living a try.
Looking out the window, I started thinking about how much Mama loved this city. She has always been romanticized by this city and so was I. I thought about how we once lived here, shortly after I was born in Hawaii. I thought about how incredible it was that she, a woman, born and raised in Japan, managed to break through the societal norms of her time, to find herself traveling the world, Go-go dancing for the Air Force troops in Vietnam, having children with an African American man, living in all the major cities, opening a little punk-rock fashion boutique on Polk and Post, and employing gay boys in her store. She was truly brave, open minded, and unchained by social reform. I thought about how courageous it was to be a woman of that time; with English as her second language, to actually open a business in the heart of San Francisco. I wondered what the apartment in Japan Town we lived in must have looked like and if it still existed.
I thought about how this incredible city will always represent a part of her that will live within me forever. This city was once a home to her, to us, and over the years, we created wonderful memories exploring it together. I felt my tears streaming down my face, trying hard not to let Tj notice. I started to feel a deep and profound sadness over the struggle she endured in the last 10 years of her life. She could not enjoy growing old the way she deserved to and endured such a debilitating illness that caused her so much suffering. She lived in such discomfort for as long as she could for the sake of her children. I cried and cried and couldn’t seem to stop the flow of my salty tears for all of her pain and suffering. Although the hardships brought us close together, she didn’t deserve them. Her rapid decline in her health with an untreatable autoimmune virus, Sjogren's syndrome, was a life altering condition that forced her to withdraw into herself. She could no longer be the busy business woman she once was. She could no longer go running, play golf, practice yoga, drive her real estate clients around, eat out, travel, or socialize. Even something as simple as being outside, feeling the cool island trade winds, being under the warm tropical sun, or going to the store became almost impossible with her condition. Everything in her life came to a screeching halt; and because of her cultural influences of never wanting to be a burden to anyone, her condition was kept a secret. To the outside world, it was as if she fell off the face of the earth. I thought about how isolated her life had become in her solitude and how insecure she felt about herself and her appearance—although to me, she was still so beautiful.
As I cried these tears of painful sadness, we came to a stop at an intersection and a cable car passed by. In a matter of a few serendipitous moments, my tears became a deep and comforting reassurance. It was as if this cable car intercepted my heartbreaking sadness and reminded me of the immense joy we shared. I was flooded with memories of Mama and the cable cars of San Francisco. She once gifted me a wind-up wooden cable car that played the melody of “I Left my Heart in San Francisco” that I kept in my room. I would look at it and fantasize about how one day I too, would travel to that romantic city.
I thought about the trips we took in her last 4 years here on earth and how we would ride the cable cars throughout the city. It was the only handful of times during her 10 years of being confined to the interior of our home in Hawaii that she would just somehow miraculously pull herself together. Her sister from Japan would join us and Mama would step outside of her suffering for the sake of us. It made us think that maybe she was going to be all right and that maybe she was getting better. Unbeknownst to us, she was still struggling.
I thought about one particular memorable ride on the cable car, she was seated behind me and she wrapped her loving arms around me. It was one of the rare moments of physical affection. She gave me the most loving embrace and squeeze that said “I love you” more than words could ever express; I was her bambino, her baby. I always felt so loved by her, without the reenactments of TV-moms that I grew up watching on television that lavished their children with hugs, kisses on their scraped knees, and endless “I love yous”. That wasn’t how we were; but it never mattered. I understood her, I understood the Japanese culture, and I always knew she loved me. There would be moments where she would just stop and take a moment to look at me with such love and adoration. She would touch my face or come and hug me out of the blue and those moments were so incredibly powerful. I saw how other kids would roll their eyes at their overly adoring mothers and I couldn’t relate. I appreciated her love. The moments we shared stood out; they meant a lot to me, and they were so precious. I knew on that ride that that moment would never leave me; I knew that it would forever echo the incredible love that only a mother could give, and in that moment, when I needed it the most, I felt it all over again.
The double date with Aya and her husband ended up being momentous. It was the perfect meeting and experience of the propensity of both life and death. We watched a movie at the iconic Kabuki theatre and ate delicious Japanese food. During our meal, Aya had an important announcement to make that she had been waiting to tell me in person; she was pregnant! My childhood best friend, who was both a beautiful woman and yet, the 10 year old little girl, who showed me true friendship. Aya was going to be a mother. I was utterly overjoyed. Tears of happiness flowed from my eyes. I felt absolute, pure unconditional love; the love of a child for a mother and a mother’s love for her child. I felt that love in its entirety and in every fiber of my being.
My joy and my sorrow hold hands with one another; they are two sides of the same coin, just as birth and death are. They both stand beside us and are our life long companions. Birth welcomes each one of us to exist here in this world and death is that which will see us all out. We also experience them alternately for we die and are reborn many times within a lifetime. Both joy and sorrow visit me continually. One always greets me while the other awaits its turn, and sometimes they keep me company at the same time. I have been blessed with such profound love and joy and with that comes inevitable, deep sorrow. The depth of my sorrow is an equitable reflection of that boundless love; a union that could not exist without the other. I have learned that joy and sorrow will continue to co-exist in my life, that both will tenderly embrace me—just as Mama’s hug on that cable car ride will continue to embrace me for the rest of my life.