“$20 for memorizing Longfellow’s ‘Psalm of Life.'” “Deal.”
My grandfather lived permanently in Japan, but twice a year, he came to visit my family in America. Play his favorite golf under the golden California weather, drink and talk to my father, and play cards pretty much sum up what he came to visit us for. Oh, and maybe to visit his grandchildren. Just kidding, not “maybe.” For sure.
He was such a diligent scholar until the end. Having admiration and excitement towards America during the Second World War, he started working for a trading company where he got to travel back and forth from Japan to America. He was fluent in three languages (Spanish, Japanese, English) and even as a 77 year old, he still studied the Spanish language once a week with his Spanish mentor. He was an avid reader, but he never read fiction unless it was a classic. I don’t know anyone who was so knowledgeable on global news and read so many books. I still remember him sitting on our gold leather couch, reading Don Quixote in Spanish, checking the stock market, or playing sudoku with a pencil in one hand.
I’ll never forget the time when he introduced two of his favorite poems: “A Psalm of Life” and “The Arrow and the Song” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. As a 6-year old, I didn’t care much about poems. I was however interested in money (a secondary reinforcer that people put value on). He told me that if I memorized and recited both of those poems, he would give me $20. A $20 to a 6-year old is basically a million dollars. It wasn’t a short poem, so I spent a good three days memorizing with my limited memory storage. I started with the first line, mumbling “Tell me not, in mournful numbers..” 10 times. Then, I combined the next line with the first, mumbling it 10 more times. Man was I proud, when I finished reciting up to the last line:
A Psalm of Life
Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.
Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!
Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,— act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.
The Arrow and the Song
I shot an arrow into the air,
It fell to earth, I know not where;
For, so swiftly it flew, the sight
Could not follow it in its flight.
I breathed a song into the air,
It fell to earth, I know not where;
For who has sight so keen and strong,
That it can follow the flight of song?
Long, long afterward, in an oak
I found the arrow, still unbroken;
And the song, from beginning to end,
I found again in the heart of a friend.
I don’t even know what this means. I got $20, is what it means. 6 months later when he came to visit us from Japan, he asked me to recite the poem. I had totally forgotten it. I was seven or eight.
“$20 for reciting me both poems.” “Deal!”
I memorized again. And again, I recited. And he gave me $20. In psychology, this would be a perfect example of positive reinforcement. One year later while visiting again, he asked me to recite the poem. I still remembered 70% of it, but had forgotten some parts. He told me he would give me $20 to recite the poem. I memorized again. And again, I recited. And he gave me $20.
He hasn’t asked since then. We haven’t discussed the poem for years, actually, and we never will. But the poems that he bribed me to memorize and recite, are what he left me, along with the other great memories. “Not enjoyment, and not sorrow, is our destined end or way; But to act that each to-morrow, Find us farther than to-day.” My grandfather often said the word “life.” Almost annoyingly threw them into casual conversations like he knew what “life” was.
“Have you heard of the valley of tears?” he would say. “Life is tough. Lots of sadness, lots of failures.”
“Can’t life be all happy and engaging?” the optimist (me) would ask.
“Valley of tears.”
For 10 years (10 because I don’t remember much about him before I came to the United States), I fought with him countless times. I cried when he spoke badly of a girl like me doing martial arts, and ran upstairs while my parents took my side, telling him ‘It’s not okay to say that.’ For 10 years, we discussed everything, from international politics to the economy to racial issues in the South to golf clubs. During the 10 years, he took me on three to four cruises, just so I can be exposed to new parts of the world and gain insight. For 10 years, he cared about my future and my success more than ANYONE else, including my parents.
My 77 year old grandfather passed away on May 12, 2017 in Japan. He had sudden brain hemorrhage.
The day after hearing the news, we flew to Japan. My grandma picks us up from the train station. She is the same as always, other than my grandpa not smiling next to her. The 15 minute car ride to her house in Saitama is awfully quiet. I walk into her cute little house, take off my shoes and put my stuff down. “Are you ready to see him?” dad asks. I stand in front of the closed tatami door, close my eyes, and slide the door right. There he is. A handsome man. Tears start rolling down my cheek. Nonstop. I kneel 6 inches away from him. Hands on my knees, looking directly at his face, I can’t escape this reality. No more faking. He’s gone. I go hug his body, but there is a long dry ice box over his body. I don’t care. I still hug him. Sitting there for over an hour, I write. I write so I don’t forget. So the memories don’t start fading away. The next day, I dress in all black to attend my first ever funeral. A Buddhist (Joudo-Shinshu) monk who doesn’t seem to care about his job but money recites prayers. After the prayers, about 30 close relatives fills him up with lots of flowers. Yellow, pink, white, blue—unusually comforting for his preference for simplicity and “gray.” My hands tremble as I slowly take the flowers up to his face and if I look straight at him, I wonder if my heart could’ve taken it. We go to a crematory, wait an hour in the waiting room while people drink green tea, and come out to a bucket of his bones. It’s a strange feeling. A metallic room and a metallic table, a man in suits presenting us his bones. We pick up his bones one by one in pairs with chopsticks. Our worldly currencies have no value over death. What’s left is our hearts, and our hearts only that we take.
I grew up in a decently religious/spiritual home. My mother heavily influenced my philosophy, and I was raised with a belief in reincarnation, and human existence doesn’t really vanish after death. It’s a continuous, never-ending (?) journey to Enlightenment. Thus, I stubbornly thought I wouldn’t shed a single tear even if my close relative passes away. I mean, it’s not really the end, right?
Boy was I wrong.
I wonder where you are. Are you floating around, convincing yourself that you’re not dead? Or are you heading there, taking a next step forward. I still can’t believe you’re gone. Just 5 months ago, you came to visit us in CA, played golf like always and had a good time playing cards together. Last July when I came to visit you in Japan, do you remember taking me to a mountain nearby, climbing to the peak together huffing “Wow I’m getting old, this is tough?” When we got to the top where we got a perfect view of the Saitama city, we stared off into the distance under the warm summer sky as you told me that life is short, and to keep working hard. I loved every moment of it. Because as I got older, I became more dry. I started being tired of you coming over and doing the same things every time. I was tired of playing cards together and went upstairs after dinner to log-in to my world so I didn’t have to deal with loud voices and laughter and shouting. When we grow up, there are things we lose, huh? I wonder if some people are aware that they’ve lost those things. We can’t take things for granted. There’s no way of gaining back those times I missed spending with you. I can’t thank you enough for the doors to new paths you’ve shown me.
I miss you so much. When I got the news back home, I couldn’t believe it. I literally said, “Haha you’re kidding.” I still can’t believe you’re gone. The grandpa who loved meat and red wine. The grandpa who wished to live to see me go off to college, the one who wished to live until my marriage. Also, please take care of grandma up there because she loves you so so much, it hurts to see her in pain.
I still have the little pocket book of classic American poems that you had since the 1950s. I turn to the two poems and some other ones you liked, and read them over and over and over, every time soaking it with my existence, piercing my heart.