24 January 2013

Death may come invisible

On Yoko's birthday last week, we got word that the Kawada family dog died the night before. He had been sick for a while, so it wasn't a surprise. And he died quietly—Yoko's dad held him as his heart slowly stopped, his breathing laboured, they said, but not in any pain. Vita--my father-in-law called him Vita because it means 'life' and the dog before him had been killed by a car suddenly. Vita was a good dog and a good friend to my father-in-law.

The girls were already struggling to understand death, and Vita's passing did not help clear anything up for them. Naomi cried and cried even though she had only ever seen Vita when she was a baby. Mei kept asking question, But how did he die? How were you holding him when he died? Mei kept asking that question again and again, Grandpa, were you holding him when he died? Grandpa, but how were you holding him?  I told her to stop, thinking the questions weren't making things any better, but Grandpa patiently answered, showing Mei how he had held Vita.
In my stylistics class, I teach a bit of a Murakami short story that highlights the trouble of translating literature. The girls don't call Yoko's dad 'Grandpa' in Japanese; they use a much more affectionate term that is hard get right in English. You can't translate honourifics or pet names: they either sound silly or awkward in the target language when they're neither in the source language. Without the right word, though, I can't write the story accurately in English, I can only approximate. The story sounds different in Japanese; Mei sounds different in Japanese. 
Technology afforded the chance to see Vita before they buried him. We huddled around the computer while Grandpa pulled back the blanket and there was Vita, dead. I told my famed older brother about it via chat, explaining it terms of Japanese culture:
me: Anyway, they kept the dog's body in the house for a couple of days before they could bury it, so they could show it to people, including the girls.
Which is really important for the Japanese: to see the dead.
Beau: Yeah
me: But not in the way that the Americans do.
The Americans clean bodies up when they die, right?
Beau: Oh man
me: Oh, it looks like she's just sleeping, it's okay.
Beau: makeup
me: Right.
Beau: put them in suits
me: No, the Japanese, God bless them are like, This is a dead body. This person is dead.
Take their clothes off, put them under a blanket. Anyway.
The dog was dead.
Very, very dead.
My family had dogs for a long time, but we rarely had them until they died. I always remember giving them away, but none of them ever died until our last dog, Mariah. I was in Japan when it happened, but I remember how hard it was on my dad and how strange it was to be away. Grandma died while I was away. My grandpa will die too, I imagine, while I'm away.

The girls kept asking and asking about death and I could overhear them talking about it with each other. Mei, do you want to die? Do you want to go to heaven? I made a mistake and joked about it with Naomi, I said, You've already died, you're in heaven already. See? There's nothing to worry about. Naomi suspected this wasn't right, but Mei, talking to Grandpa, kept asking if Vita had gone to heaven, and after she was told that he had, she started talking about how Vita would be here soon in Malaysia and she could play with him. I've failed as a parent, I thought: I've confused my kids on one of the most basic questions of existence.

Naomi cried and cried. I cried a bit too when they pulled the blanket back, although I quickly recovered and no one noticed. Yoko and my father-in-law, who I just call Dad (it's not weird in Japanese), were crying too. Being separated from family is hardest at times like these. They had a funeral on Saturday, nothing too serious of course, but Vita was a part of the family and in an ideal world we would have been there.

Naomi and Mei kept asking, Why? How? Why? Sweethearts, it's complicated, I wanted to say, but instead hugged both of them and answered the questions whenever there was actually an answer. I don't know how you teach your children to cope with death without lying to them. At least when you're three and five, you can solve all problems with love and yes, daddy will keep you safe for now. We can all believe that for now, even if it's not exactly true.