Hisashiburi! Or as we say back home, Mehlo’madala. I seem to have dropped off the face of the earth for a little while there. Last time I hit publish I was rushing off to a driving school lesson, eager to get it over and done with so I could finally write a piece about getting your drivers’ licence converted in Japan. Needless to say, it’s been almost 4 full weeks since then and as they say: Life has happened.
On the Monday morning of the 13th of March, around 3 am here in Japan, I got a call from home. My sister-in-law had gone into hospital on Friday so a part of me knew that this 3 am call couldn’t be good news. I didn’t go to work that day. Broken, because somehow I had managed to lose another in-law within the space of 2 years. With the whole world going into lockdown around me due to fears of CV-19, I knew it would be impractical and expensive to try to catch a flight home for the funeral. It hurt knowing I couldn’t be there with my family, but I won’t lie, a part of me is thankful for the distance.
If you are new here, you might not already know it but two years ago my eldest brother lost his wife. Her death shook our family so much that I feel like most of us still haven’t healed or truly dealt with that loss yet. I lived 15 minutes from my brother’s house at the time and I remember vividly the drive that I took to his house to begin that period of mourning. It’s been just a few months shy of two years and we’re still not okay. This time around, it’s the youngest of my three elder brothers that lost his wife. She’d been sick for a while but the truth is death remains unexpected, regardless of the circumstance. I went to school the next day expecting to be as broken as I was two years ago. Something about being so far away made the pain feel distant this time. Despite this, I cried all morning as I got dressed in my formal wear for school and the kids graduation day. At least I would have a nice cover-up for my tears, I thought to myself. Graduations are an emotional time for teachers here so I knew there would be an appropriate and assigned time for me to cry at work. I wouldn’t need to sneak away to the bathroom or take a long walk around the block to “clear my head”.
I survived the ceremony with no tears but I just felt hollow. Afterwards, the teachers headed to the classrooms to take down the decorations which we had worked hard to put up just the week before. What a contrast. I had put those clovers up with such joy in my heart because I was getting a chance to bond with a few of my fellow teachers at the end of the school year. Now it was just me and one of my closest coworkers. Having confided in her earlier about what had happened, she did her best to comfort me as we took down those decorations. She’s also still recovering from losing her mother last year. It was in the silence of that empty classroom that I realised that that is what grief is: a constant and changing road to recovery. Unfortunately, unlike the physical sicknesses that attack us, I don’t think we ever truly heal from this.
Since then, CV-19 has taken the world by storm. I remember my dad telling me that he went to the police station to check if it was okay for them to hold the funeral as there was going to be many mourners attending. And just a week or so after the funeral, South Africa went into full lockdown. The news of the virus, subtle in its approach at first, had now consumed everything. Alone in Japan, all I could think about was the virus now. I would go to sleep at night, watching and reading news updates, see the death tolls rising and just weep. I hated those nights because those tears weren’t for CV-19 to have. I was in mourning but my tears were being stolen. My grief was being stolen. I’d call home, wanting to check in on how everyone was handling the loss and all we would end up talking about was the virus.
For a long while now I’ve been ashamed at the lack of time I’ve spent grieving my sister-in-law. I loved her so much. She was funny and spoke her mind and you can’t help but fall in love with a spirit like hers. I spoke to a friend recently about this, and she said something that blew my mind. When I said that I didn’t feel okay that I didn’t feel as destroyed as I did the last time there was a death in my family she reassured me by saying that that was okay, “…it’s supposed to be different because your relationships with both of them were different and you were also a different person when you experienced both(deaths).”
I don’t think I have ever heard truer words. Two years ago we had no idea what loss looked like from that close-up, my parents probably knew, but us “kids”, nope. Now we know better. We understand better. We’ve made peace with God and his ways. Our hearts are armoured differently. In this messy time of trying to deal with the anxieties of CV-19, trying to be present where I am and trying to hold on to the memory of my sister-in-law, I still feel hollow sometimes. When I think about all that’s happening, when I really get down and look it in the face, it all threatens to overwhelm me. I think that’s okay though. It’s better than feeling nothing.