(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on May 26, 2011.)


Celebrate good times, come on! (Let’s celebrate)
Celebrate good times, come on! (Let’s celebrate)
There’s a party goin’ on right here
A celebration to last throughout the years
So bring your good times, and your laughter too
We gonna celebrate your party with you

—Kool and the Gang


What would you do if you were told you had six to nine months to live?

Chieko Merz with friends

Marion and I have known Chieko Merz for the past five to six years. In that time we have grown to love her for her great heart and irrepressible personality. She is full of life. Marion always makes sure she has at least 45 minutes to spend before calling her.

Back in September the lung cancer she thought was gone came back. Chieko, without much hesitation, said, “After my funeral I’m sure my sisters will have everyone stay for a reception. There will be people there, I know, I have not seen in a long time. I want to be there with all my friends and family now, before I’m gone.”

Chieko, being an avid golfer, chose to have the party at the Los Robles Golf Course Banquet Room in Thousand Oaks on Nov. 7 of last year. She had a disc jockey who gave everyone a chance to sing karaoke or sing independently. Chieko was surprised, but pleased, by the many who got up to participate.

Chieko Merz sings at a party she hosted last November to celebrate all the friends in her life.

Her San Fernando Valley Buddhist Temple choir sang “Dust in the Wind” and “Imagine.” I, along with my friend Barbara, sang “It’s a Wonderful World.” My sister, Evelyn, sang “Evergreen,” and Karl Nobuyuki, who also captured everything on DVD, sang “Destiny.”

For me, the most memorable moments were at the close when a large number of people, white and Asian, crowded the dance floor to sing “Celebrate” and “I Will Survive.”

In the ’60’s and ’70s I used to hear about “happenings.” At the time I didn’t know what they were, but now I realize what I witnessed that night was an honest-to-God happening …

Some of her friends found out about two things on her “bucket list”: Taking a hot-air balloon ride and singing with a live band. They accommodated her by going up with her in a balloon in Temecula, and were pleasantly surprised at her talent as she sang with a live band at a coffee house in Redondo Beach.

So, what does this all mean? Chieko says she wanted to have a big party where there were no sad songs. It was her final chance to say “I love you” to all her friends and family and thank them for being in her life. She is thankful that she was able to reconnect with the Buddhist temple in Arleta, and particularly for Rev. Patty Usuki, her minister there. She says she is able to get through her days by truly appreciating all that life has brought her.

I told Chieko she has inspired me to be more expressive of my appreciation of all the people who have entered my life over the years. Recently, Marion and I had a chance to subscribe to the programs at the newly opened Valley Performing Arts Center. We enjoyed seeing “Swan Lake” performed by the Russian Ballet Company, and the Beijing Philharmonic Orchestra. This was something of a stretch for us, but we found we really enjoyed them both.

For the time we have remaining on this earth, we, too, intend to celebrate.


Phil Shigekuni can be reached by email. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.


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