THROUGH THE FIRE: Around the Old People

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By traci kato-kiriyama
(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on Dec. 29, 2011.)

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I woke up the other morning feeling heavy in the heart and light in the head. I dreamt that I was at a family gathering, post-funeral, for a real-life situation I’d just learned about in the waking world the night before.

My friend’s grandpa had passed away some weeks ago and I heard about it through his Sensei and a mutual community mentor-friend to both of us. My friend, E, doesn’t do what I do – call in the troops in time of need or mourning.

It’s not like he doesn’t mourn or go through his own ritual and memorial. He just doesn’t seem to need a whole lot from others to do so. He’s a totally low-maintenance guy who goes out of his way to be there for mid-to-high-maintenance friends like me.

When I woke up, I thought about three things –

1. I was sort of bummed that my dream was just a dream.

2. I didn’t know E’s grandpa’s first name. I just knew him as “E’s grandpa.”

3. “There’s nothing fun about getting old.”

In that dream, I had visited with the family and gave them each a huge hug, paying respects to E and the memory of his grandpa. E sacrificed a lot to move back home years ago and be there for the last chapters of his grandparents’ lives. He saw his roots to their end and they surely appreciated how he in turn was willing to be there.

It was never a burden to him — just a sacrifice that he was grateful to make. I was bummed that I hadn’t been there to actually show my appreciation for his grandparents’ journey and for E’s journey with them.

It wasn’t just their history of hard work and the influence they had on E that impressed me over the years. It was just how cool they were — a kind of easy, straight-shooting cool that I associate with folks from places like Chicago, where E grew up.

I basically have two memories of E’s grandpa.

One time, E picked up three of us from the airport at the crack of dawn because we took some red-eye into O’Hare from LAX to save some money. Because it was cold (it was Chicago in the early morning) and we were too tired to want to do anything, E took us to his grandparents’ home so we could rest a bit.

Of course, E’s grandpa was already awake and greeted us with a brief and unaffected “hello.” Without saying, he signaled to us that we weren’t exactly a burden, but he also wasn’t going to go out of his way to play host at 5:30 in the morning. In a sort of collective fatigue, we just sat around in our respective chairs and recliners watching him as he moved about between the fridge and the stove.

A few minutes into some egg he was cooking up for himself, he stopped to look at all of us staring at him, and said in the most brusque manner possible, “Whatchu, waitin’ for, breakfast?”

You never saw four sleepy, young adults get on their feet so fast – “Oh! No! Oh, we’re fine! Yeah, oh, we were just resting … just about to leave! Um, do you want anything?  Any help? Any … thing?” We were emphatic in realizing our place. E’s grandpa went back to cooking his egg.

The other strong memory I have is from the same stay. We ended up sleeping over one or two nights at E’s grandparents’ house. And it was yet another early morning instance.

I slept until I could no longer keep my small bladder from keeping me awake. In a rush, I walked down the hallway to the bathroom and noted the door was closed while bursting it open.

Oops. Too late. There was Gramps, in a white tank top and little boxer shorts, brushing his teeth. Just like he did at the stove, he slowly looked up, then over to find me looking with remorse back at him. We were clearly not expecting each other. “Intruder!” I thought to myself. Yet again! Here’s this young person interrupting this old man’s routine!!

You’d think I would have quickly shut the door. And maybe I did – quickly enough for him. But to me, it felt like I stood there for 30 seconds just staring at him, following with incoherent but profuse apologies.

How embarrassing and rude so early in the morning! E tried to have me feel better by joking that it may have been the most excitement his grandpa had seen in some years. Again, that comforting, Midwestern cool.

When he initially moved back to Chicago, I marveled at the sacrifice E made to be a supportive grandson to his ailing grandma and later grandpa. I used to wonder if he was going to find happiness for himself, as if it was somehow a separate journey.

Here at home years ago, my dad got sick and needed rides to see various doctors after being diagnosed with liver cancer. The nature of my self—(and sometimes under-) employed situation lent itself to me being the adult kid who could mold the time to be there for him. My brother, George, a broadcast journalist in the Bay Area, is beholden to where the career (and the station) will take him. He wasn’t able to be there when we lost our last grandparent or uncles or our dad. While missing some of the heavy load, he sorely missed the privilege of being present for those times.

Last month, my mom broke her hip and now that she is in recovery mode, George has a small window of time while he’s home for the holiday to help out at her house and with her errands. While somewhat stressful as we look ahead to what the next decades may bring, it’s been a distinct opportunity to step up and take responsibility for each other, and bring about the conversations lurking about in the back of our minds.

Our older folks are truly the ones who carry the burdens of aging. My mom is asked by a much younger, eager daughter to think about what that means for her and us. Yet, I have no idea what it is to be a woman in her seventies looking down on a hip that broke from a mere fall on the kitchen floor. I often hear writer Wakako Yamauchi say, “There is nothing fun about getting old.”

Hopefully, I can let the memories of cool, old folks remind me that something we do have is right now … and the fears of future, the weakening bones, visits to the plethora of doctors, the stress, the fleeting moments, the laughs however brief, are all part of the journey…and it’s a great, simple privilege just to be around.

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traci writes from Gardena in a privileged seat next to two indoor-outdoor cats named Peanut and Thelonious Oliver. www.traciakemi.com. feel free to drop her a line at [email protected] 

 

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