Departure

June 20, 2009   By KUMIKO MAKIHARA
The International Herald Tribune/The New York Times

TOKYO — My brother peered into the coffin lined with dry ice and tugged at the sheet of gauze that had frozen onto my grandmother’s cheek. “Let me do it,” I said, pulling the cloth away with the sound of tearing Velcro.

“You’re a lot less squeamish than I am,” he marveled.

Those are the only words of approval I recall from members of my family at the time of my grandmother’s death, even though I felt I had held down the fort while they were away.

I was reminded of that intense time many years ago as I watched this year’s Oscar-winning Japanese film “Departures,” about an undertaker and the dramas that play out around the deceased.

I was in my late 20s, a journalist basking in selfish freedom. One night after dancing at a reggae club, I came home to a message from the retirement home where my grandmother lived. She had suffered a heart attack.

When I arrived at the hospital, my grandmother was struggling to speak. “Eighty-eight!” she blurted out; perhaps a reflexive answer to all those dementia tests that had asked how old she was. She turned to the woman we had hired as her caretaker and said, “I caused you a lot of trouble.” She asked after my mother several times. I like to believe she wanted to apologize to her daughter-in-law for the years of belittlement.

Throughout the night and the following day, the caretaker, my great aunt and I kept vigil, rubbing my grandmother’s feet, holding her hand and sometimes laying our heads on her body to catnap.

A young German man I’d met a few days before in Seoul while covering the Olympics showed up, having followed me to Tokyo. I was touched that he had navigated the train system to the suburban hospital, hours away from the city center. But the whole time we sat in the café, I worried that my grandmother would die, and I would not be there.

“We could do surgery,” the doctor told me, to keep the heart alive until my parents and brother arrived from the U.S. I declined, unable to justify any more torment to her body. My grandmother died just before midnight.

Life gone from the room, nurses wiped the body clean and laid it on the bed in a purple cotton kimono, hands clasped together on the chest. A breeze blew in from a window, sending the curtains billowing. I thought I saw my grandmother raise her arms just as she had done the day before. I scanned the room for otherworldly signs.

At home, a relative had already turned the pictures around to face the wall to banish any festive signs, the first of many rituals. We lay my grandmother on a futon in her bedroom, head north like the position of Buddha at his death.

I rose at dawn, put on a black dress and saw the German guy off at the airport terminal. We joked that my grandmother really must not have wanted us to get together. And we never did.

When I returned, the house was stirring. My great aunt and her daughters were making rice balls and stewing vegetables for the anticipated visitors. My parents and brother arrived from New York.

My brother removed his shoes at the entryway and turned them around so he could slip back into them easily, a practical and polite gesture. “How thoughtful he is,” my mother observed, in habitual praise of the favored son. I lashed back, listing in a high-pitched voice all the family duties I had fulfilled over the last few days. My mother wondered aloud what was wrong with me.

The funeral director droned on about how the deceased must be well prepared to make her treacherous journey over to the afterlife as we tearfully placed straw sandals by her feet and banged nails into the coffin with a small stone.

At the crematorium, the staff propped my grandmother’s photo onto a large easel, and we placed our palms together and stared into the coffin for the last time, wanting to hold on to her body as the casket was eased into the furnace.

An hour later, my family surrounded a table of charred remains. Starting with the bones of the feet and moving up the body, according to tradition, we worked in pairs to pick up the gray and white remnants and transfer them to the urn. My brother and I carefully balanced a piece between us, delicately holding it together with chopsticks and, at least for that moment, standing on equal footing.