By the time you read this, Christmas will have passed, and we will be diving headlong into the new year. Still, I can’t help but reflect on what this Christmas holiday has meant to me. I am reminded that while searching for artwork for our annual Christmas party invitation, I came across a Charles Addams cartoon depicting an unhappy Uncle Fester-type character sitting at a window staring out at a beautifully picturesque winter scene with the caption, “Suddenly, I have the dreadful urge to be merry.”
It usually doesn’t take much to make me merry during the holidays. I felt it especially this year in the smells and sounds of Christmas: the fresh scent of pine trees and Christmas wreaths; chocolate cookies baking in the oven; cinnamon-y hot apple cider on those wintry cold nights; brand new Christmas songs playing everywhere. All were reminiscent of the little things that make Christmas that “most wonderful time of the year.”
However, this year was shockingly different: my dreadful urge to be merry turned into a dreadful urge to be morose. Too many dark things to count threatened my cheerful holiday spirit. On the national front, it began with the horrific killing of 26 students and teachers in that outwardly idyllic community of Newtown; on the community level, it was the death of Japanese America’s own true hero, Daniel Inouye; and on a personal level, it took form in the untimely death of my only brother Victor. No other Christmas in memory has been filled with as much tragedy.
I can’t help but think of how our parents and grandparents would have dealt with events like these. They lived through deaths, world wars, and many Christmases spent away from their homes in conditions too bleak to imagine. Shikata ga nai and gaman come to mind. But I can’t help thinking that the state of resignation with dignity can often be used to mask pain and sadness, and perhaps even lead to inaction. In our family we learned how to laugh as a useful and bright cover-up. As I sat at the recent family gathering for my brother’s death, I watched all of us try to smile as if it were just another holiday get-together.
But I have found no way to distract myself from December’s devastating events. Beginning with Newtown, learning that one 6-year-old child was shot 18 times was incomprehensible. And to hear the national mourning led by a president who couldn’t help but break down in tears is inescapably agonizing.
Similarly, the huge media coverage of the death and memorial service for Sen. Inouye has made it impossible to avoid hearing about the enormous void he leaves for us as a community still fighting for recognition of the wrongs committed during World War II. His support of that cause had major positive repercussions for our community.
And on a deeply personal level, knowing that my too-young brother passed away without my getting to talk to him a final time has left me saddened beyond words.
If the passing from 2012 to 2013 has taught me anything, it’s that we must acknowledge our grief and move on with new urgency to make a difference in the world.
NBC news personality Ann Curry, who managed to emerge from her recent firing from the “Today Show” with new resolve, recently became a beacon for such change. With her “26 Acts of Kindness” campaign on Twitter to honor of the 26 lives lost at Sandy Hook Elementary, she has inspired social media fans everywhere to use this tragedy for good. People are doing everything from volunteering at a homeless shelter, buying McDonald’s hamburgers for needy children, paying off others’ layaways, or even giving money to a barista for 26 people to get coffee. Fans report looking forward to waking up each day to discover new ways to act kindly.
Perhaps more important, the Sandy Hook tragedy seems to have sent an important message about the need for better care for the mentally ill and the desperate need for gun control. It’s good to see that this conversation might lead to true reform.
Action is the key word, and in that vein we can also do something in 2013 to keep Sen. Inouye’s memory alive. In a country with a short memory span, it is important to tell and retell the story of the WWII incarceration. We can begin by dedicating ourselves to honoring the sacrifices made by the brave Japanese Americans who both fought for our country or took action through dissent to protect our civil liberties. A conference dedicated to “Democracy, Justice, Dignity” is now being planned by the Japanese American National Museum for the July 4th weekend to do just that. More details are at www.janm.org or by calling (213) 625-0414.
Not only do I plan to attend the conference, I will try to honor the legacy of my family, including my brother, who survived the heat, dust and indignity of Poston with perseverance and gaman. I will also try to pay tribute to the memory of my parents and try to keep learning what makes this family what it is. I’m only sorry that it took the passing of my first sibling to remind me that we must honor the past and grieve it in order to lead way to a better future.
Here’s to a compassionate and productive new year!
Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey and can be reached at [email protected]