After Me, The Flood

(Originally published in The Huffington Post, 2013)


That the flash flood felt, by Toronto standards, Biblical in scale, brought Noah and his ark to mind. I had made it to the airport minutes ahead of the news of submerged cars, power outages, and flooded subway stations. The 4:25pm Tokyo-Toronto plane circled above the angry clouds for an hour, then diverted to Ottawa to refuel. The six-hour wait for the plane's return to Pearson International gave me time to think. Torrents of rain pummelled planes on the tarmac, and I thought about what Noah fed his family during the 375 days they were on board the ark.
Fish, of course. And with no refrigeration, mostly raw fishsushi.
I imagined Noah and his sons out on the deck, bracing against the heaving waves, the unrelenting rain, casting their net into the bottomless ocean. Nobody in their right mind would have started a fire in an ark made from willow branches and palm leaves. No point burning the house down when you are the only house left floating in the world.
I also thought about the conversation I had with my daughter's mother three weeks before, after receiving word that our daughter's sobo had passed away in Japan. Should she take our daughter with her to engage in the potentially traumatic Shinto rituals around her sobo's cremated body? We were mindful of the gravity of it, knew that it would be a watershed moment in our daughter's life; a rite of passage as defining as when she uttered her first meaningful word, took her first step, strung together her first coherent question. We thought she was ready. So did she, our brave eight year-old.
We were all wrong.
Nothing leaves a more indelible impression than the death of a family member, even if time will make- gratefully- smudges of it. Death confuses the child in us all. Our minds tell us one thing and our bodies another. We know it is a natural phenomenonolder people told us so; yet we feel that it is somehow alien, like the way disease feels alien in our bodies.

In the car on our way back from the airport, our daughter referred to them as "the shivers".
"It feels like something hurting in my feet and then moving up to my head."
She had been feeling this way since the day she picked up the bones of her somo's cremated body and placed them in a ceremonial vase, a custom for family members of the deceased.
At home that night, we spread out a mattress on the living room floor. She didn't want to sleep alone.
"I can't stop thinking about it."
"About what?"
"About mommy dying."
I offered some meditation advice: lean into the thought, become friends with it, be gentle.
"Think Monsters Inc. Remember Boo? The monsters were no longer scary when she wanted to hold them. They were just cuddly things that needed her love."
She clung to her stuffed Hello Kitty doll each time the shivers came up her body, seeped into her head.
It didn't help.
I massaged her feet and legs and asked her to describe as specifically as she could just what was bothering her.
"Picking up the bones of somo's nose to put it in the jar. And not wanting mommy to die." Later that night, the second storm rattled our windows, and the torrent began: "I want to die before mommy so that I could spend the rest of my life with her. I want to die before mommy because it would hurt too much if she died before me. I love mommy and I don't want her to die."

The tears were of a new kind, came from a different place. The cries were appeals from some other primeval time. Tears and cries that break the hearts of even the most hardened parents. She was no longer the same child I said goodbye to at the airport three weeks ago. And this annihilated me
"Daddy, why do people have to die?"
Clich├ęs issue easily from us when we see a loved one suffering. Who wants to utter naked truths at such a time, especially when it is to your own eight-year-old child? The existence of the Tooth Fairy and Boo is one thing; but a death in the family? I understood something in that moment: forgetting is long and she will never forgive me for the platitudes, the bullshit. And yet I wanted to feed my daughter lies so that she could sleep, feel better when she woke; feed her lies so that I could sleep, feel better when I woke. But it was still afternoon in Japan; sleep would not come easily. So we stayed up all night and cut to the chase. I needed to hear that crushing incoherent noise that was at the source of my daughter's pain. I wanted to lie to herto the one person I loved most in this world. But I could not.
"How do you know if mommy won't die tomorrow?
"I don't, my love. Mommy might die tomorrow. We can't know. But because of you she is trying to be around for a long time, to watch you grow."
"Daddy..." A thought, brilliant and alive with possibilities is taking shape.
"What if we all died together? Then we can meet in heaven together at the same time, right?"
"There is no heaven out there, sweetie. What is beautiful and what is horrible is inside all of us."
"But if we can't meet somewhere after we die…it doesn't make sense."
"You are right. It makes no sense."
"Daddy, I wish people didn't have to die. I wish they could live forever. Don't you?"
"No, I don't. When we know that people die, we appreciate them more. Don't you?"
"No, I think that I would appreciate them more because I see them all the time."
You stop yourself. You don't want to argue anymore with a child's logic of love.
"I feel it coming again."
"Describe it to me."
"Like my brain is about to explode. It doesn't stop time. Everybody changes. I wish I had a time machine."
"I understand." I held her. She held Hello Kitty.
All night.
The next morning, when the clouds broke and I thought the sun would never rise, she said: "Daddy, can we make sushi for mommy when she wakes up?"

I washed and prepared the rice. We emptied the fridge of left-overs: grilled chicken, pork, raw salmon, vegetables. She set out the rolling mats and sheets of nori on the backyard table. And we went to work. Silently, in unison. We piled everything we could onto full and half sheets. We rolled. We cut the rolls. It was messy.
Like love. Like life.
And death.
We gave each other high-fives and hugged.
The sky began to darken again, so we moved everything inside. Storm clouds and more shivers. I thought about Noah, about his family safely ensconced in the ark, imagined him muttering to himself as he waved a contemptuous farewell to a world gone superfluous, emptied of meaning: Apre moi, le deluge.

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