Thursday, September 03, 2009

Cherry Blossoms

In and out
through the little gate
to the cherry blossoms.

-- Basho

I don't recall exactly when, but at some point I learned about the tern "hanami". I suspect it came from reading one of Eric Van Lustbader's novels years ago. I devoured them when they came out and re-read them several times.

Since I was little, I've been in love with all things Asian. I once had the nickname "ninja Bob" and was told I was probably a samurai in a past life. I don't know about all that shit, but I do know that I've watched hanami ever since I knew the meaning behind it.

This year, even though there was turmoil beyond belief in my life at the time, I sat in the cemetery I used to live next to and watched the trees for a few hours one day. Later that week, I watched them on a hillside elsewhere.

Hanami is the time of year when the cherry blossoms bloom. It's a festival of sorts - in Japan, people have outdoor parties during daytime or at night.

Thousands of people participate and observe it. Many openly weep, because of the beauty to be certain, but mainly because of the larger metaphor behind it the event.

Hanami is beautiful. Even in a light breeze, the blossoms rain down in a blush of pink to cover the ground. Their scent a light fragrance; the tender skin of a girl's neck, the subtle smell of a child's tears, and nothing more.

But hanami is mournful too. It lasts for a week or two at most, and in that time, the cherry blossoms bloom, show their extraordinary beauty, and die. It's the nature and cycle of our life in condensed form.

I've been to many funerals over the course of my life and even so, at 38, I find myself lucky to have avoided more.

I remember sitting at the kitchen table as a child and watching my grandfather - who lived with us - receiving phone calls about this friend or that who passed away.

He'd get this look in his eyes after he hung up the phone; this faraway look in his steely pre-cataract eyes, as he stared outside for a while and clicked his fingernails absently.

I didn't know what that look meant when I was younger but it bothered me. He was sitting still, but it looked like he was trying to hold onto something and I hadn't the faintest idea of what.

Over the years, his friends died one by one and each time it seemed as if he took it a little better than the last, but now I don't really think so. With a couple more decades under my belt and gray hair creeping at my temples, I think a little differently now.

I don't think my grandfather got better at accepting the deaths of his friends. I think he simply got better at accepting his own mortality.

I've brushed against the overcoat of death a few times in my life. Twice as a child, more as an adult. Those are the instances I can't argue with. There are a few that I just consider myself lucky. If things had turned a fraction here, a fraction there... well. Doesn't matter much either way, I'm here for the moment.

I remember the first funeral I ever went to. It was my great grandmother's. I honestly don't remember her age when she died, but I know she lived to a great old age. She used to smell like cinnamon all the time and feed me Sun-Maid raisins as snacks. She used to make the most amazing baked goods. She was a little hard of hearing and when you spoke to her, she moved her lips like she was whispering; some odd habit she'd picked up while trying to make out what you were saying.

I was fairly young, only about nine or ten I believe, when Granny died. At her funeral, there were lots of men and boys dressed in suits and women and girls in their sunday best, and I had no idea who most of them were.

A writer's mind is a messed up thing - as many an ex-spouse will tell you - but I remember so many little details from Granny's funeral. The fleur de lis wallpaper in two-tone gray... the smell of the flowers... my grandmother walking around holding a tissue... the sign-in book at the front with a fluffy white feather...
Stupid little things that just stuck.

As I grew older, I went to many other funerals. My best friend's grandparents. My wife's grandparents. A co-worker. An up and coming writer who was a great friend. My own grandmother.

No death is easy, and some I took harder than others, but over time, my perception and reaction to them changed. Maybe it was because I was getting older, viewing death in a different way. Maybe because I was starting to feel the tickle of my own mortality at the back of my brain.

I don't know, but the grief behind their deaths didn't get easier. But it became acceptable to a degree.

If we're going to live, then we're going to die. That's a given.

But in the same token... if we're going to die... then we'd damn well better live while we're here. There's having life... and there's living life.

Big difference between the two.

We all have our own beliefs or disbeliefs, but the truth is, none of us really know what lies beyond our own mortal coil. The only thing we know is that if someone is in pain, once they've passed on, they don't hurt anymore. They're no longer suffering.

They've gone through the little gates and beyond, falling like cherry blossoms in a warm spring breeze.

That's all most of us can ask for.

Isn't it?

Rest in Peace, Linda.


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