We are walking along the concrete that outlines our neighborhood street. Pink snow is swirling around us. Every April the trees lining these roads explode in fluffy blossoms. It happens nearly overnight. I take a deep breath; after three years of witnessing the trees’ rebirth, at last, my body accepts the pollen filled air.
I love our life here.
I remember when he got The Call.
His phone is tethered to the outlet in the kitchen wall, charging. I hear the default ringtone play in sequence with a demanding vibration. He groans; it’s work. He is on his third week of paternity leave. Immediately, he sounds confused, aimlessly inquisitive. He keeps asking absurd questions. I wish he was closer so I could hear better.
I am sunken into the couch, breastfeeding my colicky newborn for the twelfth time that morning, and concerning myself with my milk supply. I try to decode the conversation while only hearing one end of it, all the while trying to hush Anabel. I am tired, unable to focus, but still fixated on the anticipation of this mystery call. Why does he sound so concerned?
He hangs up and inhales deeply. Then, he says six words that would change everything.
"We have to move to Japan."
I hold my breath. I am blindsided. I try to swallow, but the knot that was coiling in my stomach is now stuck in my esophagus. I instantly start to weep into my three week old baby's already damp onesie. I sink deeper, dissolving into the sofa. My body hasn’t even healed from childbirth yet - and here we are getting news that feels bigger than willing new life into the world. I feel undone when I imagine my daughter's first moments going unwitnessed by our support system. I feel like a branch being involuntarily taken from its tree by a hurricane.
This wasn’t part of my plan.
Five months from The Call, we are gathered with nearly everyone that we care for. Our village. We are circled around a giant wooden table eating crab legs and boiled potatoes. I am twiddling my thumbs, taking my time to get the meat out of the shell. I know when the meal is over I will have to say goodbye for what feels like a lifetime. I don’t think I will ever be ready. I embarrassingly, awkwardly, sob into the arms of my family. I choke on my words, trying to laugh through the parting. My grandparents, God bless them, they're so old, and I am not sure when I will see them again. I think that is the hardest part.
My aunt grips my shoulders as we try to say four year’s worth of words. Through stifled sobs she says something that feels like a lie,
"You. Are. Brave."
The next morning we climb onto a Boeing 757, and fly across The Pacific. When the airplane’s wheels touch Japanese soil, I look at my sleeping baby, her profile glowing next the the oval window and I cry again. It is all a lie. I am not brave. I am terrified.
I am at the bathroom sink, looking through the medicine cabinet trying to find the Allegra. The trees are flowering outside and my respiratory system is protesting. My own body rejecting our new place of residence. I see Anabel’s reflection in the mirror. She's pulled herself up onto the side of the bath tub. She's dancing, bobbing her head like a pigeon when it walks. Laughter is thundering out of her tiny body. My sweet, cheeky nine month old. Her smile makes this brand new barren house feel a little bit like home. I talk to her in a sing song voice trying to encourage her to keep moving. And then all at once she slams her toothless gums on the porcelain. Blood is pouring out of her mouth and she is screaming. I’ve had nightmares about this, so I panic. My fingers fumble over the face of my new phone and I realize I wouldn’t even know how to call 911. And I don’t have my international license yet. Eventually, the blood slows into a paper towel, like rainwater seeping into dry earth. A sliver of guilt is alleviated when Google confirms it is just a torn frenum. I fall to the floor in my trashed living room, and I lose it. I am fenced in by cardboard, isolated by my own belongings. My daughter could have needed emergency help and I wasn’t ready. It felt so dramatic in hindsight. I feel the opposite of brave. I feel inadequate. I feel like a coward.
I am half-naked and howling in the middle of the night. It is just after midnight, and it has been almost two years since The Call. Noise is bellowing from a depth within me that I didn't even know existed. It is animalistic, really, but it helps with the pain. The room smells like latex and rubbing alcohol; it is uncomfortably sterile. The lights are too bright. I am spastic, and tearing my IV from my right hand, but everyone else around me is more stoic than I am convinced that they should be. It is almost as if they are tiptoeing around me. There is a catheter halfway into the cavity of my spine, and simultaneously my second baby's head crowning between my legs. The anesthesiologist is silently begging me to hold still so that he doesn't paralyze me. The moment the okay exits his lips, I roll over and immediately Olive is born. I didn't plan to do this unmedicated, but I didn't have a choice. The OBGYN hands me my wet, wailing girl and says something that feels like the truth, "You did it. You are so brave."
I catch my breath and inhale my newborn.
I am now a mother of two living on a different continent than my village. No one comes to visit while we are in the hospital, but I don’t feel alone. I feel the roots of my own tree solidifying into the Earth. I finally feel a little bit brave.
Anabel is running by my side, her feet shuffling, kicking petals, while Olive shouts out at her echo in the stroller. This is our last spring living here. This place all the sudden feels like home and I can’t believe how much my heart hurts when I imagine leaving it. I think back to the Big Moments. Holidays, and birthdays and promotions, and sicknesses and accidents, pregnancies and births; triumphs and tribulations. The girls grew entire mouthfuls of teeth here, learned how to move their own limbs, and how to communicate. Anabel blew out her first candle here. Olive took her first breaths. I think of everything that has transpired since The Call. Some moments were hard, depressing, isolating, even, but we have gained so much from our life here.
I catch a glimpse at the light slicing like a knife through the popcorn on the branches. Just a few months ago these same branches were blazing orange in Autumn, and lush and abundant in the summertime. From here, I can see clearly all that we have acquired. For every day of anxiety, or loneliness or the absence of bravery, it is matched with an intense sense of comfort. Like seeds buried deep in the Earth feeling sunshine for the first time. The warmth can be felt, but it still encourages them to reach further to the surface. Comfort found its way in through steaming bowls of butter chicken curry, and hot naan slathered in melted ghee, and dancing to Disney songs with strangers. It was found in inhales of cold air in front of the magnificent mount Fuji, or standing, feet planted firmly into the floors of a subway, our knees shaking, while those around us smiled with sincerity. We have sat, cross legged on tatami mats while being offered delicious meals and teas and mortars and pestles to be part of a culture that is not our own. We have listened to taiko drummers boom through the skies, waving flags and walking on fire with bare feet. We have been loved on by the elderly, and walked with other young parents through parks while our children played together. We have learned so much from the people that live here.
The Japanese have shown us what humanity looks like. They have taught us the importance of kindness and respect to the people and places that surround us. In a country that caters to the convenience of young families, I am reminded that motherhood is the most important work, that I am recognized, and appreciated. In a city of rapid chaos, I am always seen. There is always someone looking for an opportunity to serve. I have never felt more protected, or more honored, in my entire life.
These years have taught us how find strength in each other when each other is all we have. This time away has bent us in ways that have made us love harder and love better. It has made us more confident parents to our daughters. It has given us the opportunity to stretch out of our comfort zones, and into something bigger than fear. It has taught us that having children doesn’t always mean staying and settling - sometimes it means chasing after our best lives and our best selves (even if it feels forced and uncomfortable). We learned that sometimes your village doesn’t look the way you imagined it. Sometimes, it is familiar, and sometimes it is foreign. Sometimes, it is a dinner table full of family and sometimes it is someone you don’t know, using broken English on the train to guide you and your babies home safely when you have gotten lost; or it looks like an old man in a suit who can hardly walk holding his umbrella out over you and your daughter while you walk across the street, and he gets soaked.
This country wasn’t part of my plan, but this country became our home.
A gust of wind whips through the tunnel of cherry trees. Some branches are getting stripped bare. I wonder if each petal is terrified to detach from its home. I wonder if they do not feel brave when they are forced to fly off, not sure where they will end up.
I wonder if they know that it is necessary to leave, so that the tree that’s left behind can grow stronger, and greener, and more abundant. I wish I could tell them to trust the process.
I wish I could tell them (and the new mom terrified and crying on her couch) to be brave.
Words and photo by N'tima Preusser.