Sunday, August 8, 2010

To Lead a Life Worth Living

Written 5 August 2010 (Note hyperlinks in orange)

Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to talk with entrepreneur Ben Huh, of I Can Has Cheezburger, Fail Blog and other memes.

When I asked him about his ambitions, he responded without hesitation: “I want to lead a life worth living.” And since that day, his comment has continued to resonate in my mind.

Recently our oldest son, Andrew, was home from Germany to spend time with us before his one-year deployment to Afghanistan begins next month. It was a joy for all of us to be together.

Whenever he’s home, we make a pilgrimage to Hood River, Oregon, the breathtakingly beautiful place where my paternal grandparents settled after they immigrated from Japan in the early 1900s. As a teenager, Andrew spent summers working in the orchards during the cherry harvest. He is the only fourth-generation (yonsei) kid in the family to do so.

Beside learning the ways of a new country, my grandparents' early days were physically tough—clearing land, planting trees and growing strawberries between rows to earn money until their orchards were mature enough to bear fruit. "Nakamura Ranch" grew cherries, pears and apples. My grandparents built the small home where they raised three sons and lost two daughters. They endured internment at Tule Lake during World War II and were met with bitter hostility when they returned after the war ended. 

Van cherries are not commercially sold.
My two uncles worked alongside my grandparents, and now, decades later, it is a third-generation farm, owned by one of my cousins.

Whenever we visit during cherry season, my aunt and uncle send us home with a large box to share with family and friends in Seattle. This year they included two types of cherries: Lamberts, and my personal favorites, Vans.

Among the people we share them with are our long-time neighbors across the street. Kathy, like me, also is a breast cancer survivor. But unfortunately, after years in remission, two years ago she was found to have bone cancer that had metastasized throughout her body.

She went through chemotherapy and became so weak and sick that I was sure she wouldn’t make it. But somehow she rebounded, and on sunny days I would look out the window to see her tending her beloved gardens.

So you might be wondering how this relates back to Ben Huh?

Today I stopped by to visit Kathy and drop off some cherries. I knocked on the door and there was no answer. I was about to set the bag down in a shady spot when she opened the door.

About two months ago Kathy underwent surgery for necrosis of the jaw bone, a condition where the jaw bone dies and becomes exposed, sometimes caused by drugs used in chemotherapy or for treatment of osteoporosis. Her surgery was extensive and left a great deal of pain in its wake.

She looked thin and frail, but she invited me to sit and visit with her on her front porch bench.

We talked about her family, her health and her prognosis.

She spoke with some difficulty, but told me she has only a few months to live, and at some point soon will be receiving hospice care. For those of you who don’t know, hospice is palliative care for the last leg of life’s journey. I asked her how she felt about dying, and she told me she is ready. She’s been ready.

She took a cherry from the paper sack and put it into her mouth, savoring its sweetness. It was a small act, but it represented the fruit of my grandparents' struggles and made me mindful of how the simplest of things can give a moment of joy.

As I said goodbye, I offered to help in any way a neighbor can, and walked away feeling great sadness about what lies ahead for her.

But I knew one thing:
She’s lead a life worth living.


Kathy passed away Thursday, October 21, 2010, surrounded by her family.

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