S's goodbye gift to me – a beautiful, colorful shawl and her lovely note which said, “It's very sad that you leave Japan. But is already decided with your husband. I understand because a Master wonderful to you is in a side. On Thursday, I remember, and miss you every week. Thank you for the great time. Please, don't worry, and don't hesitate. Everything OK!! Because it's you. I'm believe your future. I hope you and your family's happiness and health far from Japan. Keep in touch. See you again!”
At the start of my previous post, I mentioned that talking about my final weeks has been much more emotionally difficult than I expected. I feel that words are insufficient to convey the experience and that what I say may come across as overwrought and much ado about nothing, particularly to those who have not been in such charged situations. For an impassive people, my departure certainly brought out a lot of passion in those that knew me fairly well. Being on the receiving end of that over a compressed period of time was trying to say the least. Today, I'm going to talk about the hardest one.
One of my students was one of the best souls that I have ever known. For simplicity's sake, I will call her "S." S. is/was a nurse who was born in the countryside and came to Tokyo to work as a surgical assistant. She wasn't walking around taking temperatures, blood pressure measurements, and setting up bags of saline to go into I.V.s. She was setting up operating rooms, monitoring everything that happened and assisting, and cleaning up afterward. When a sponge was unaccounted for, she had to find out what happened and she had to do a ton of paperwork documenting everything that occurred. Sometimes, she'd do 8 operations in a single day. She also was called in for emergencies, not infrequently in the middle of the night. Her work was exhausting and required a high level of skill, ongoing training, and a lot of time on her feet.
S. had lessons with me in the evening after doing an early full shift at the hospital. On an "easy" day for her, she would assist with only three surgeries. Often, she would have the personality problems of her coworkers to contend with in addition to the rigors of the job itself. At the start of every lesson for each student, I sincerely asked about their week and how things went for them. For her, it always sounded exhausting, but she said it was okay. She said that she had chances to rest and spend time with her friends to help her relax. This often, but not always, included drinking and copious amounts of eating, though S. generally made up for the indulgences by eating little to nothing the next day and she only drank when she went out with people. She never drank alone.
When S. discussed her week, something which she had to prepare carefully to do as her English level when she started taking lessons with me was very low, I always expressed my admiration and sympathy for her. I was truly amazed at what she could do in a day, but even more impressed by her compassion for her patients. One case was when she told me that she recommended that an older gentlemen receive a particular pain killer injection because the more common type would be painful for him to receive. S. explained that old folks, with their thinner skin, couldn't tolerate conventional injections very well. The doctor on duty rejected her recommendation because that medication was more expensive than the conventional one. She told me she felt very bad when the man cried out in great pain when he received the shot.
I taught S. for about three years. She came on Thursday nights most of the time, and rarely missed a lesson. Despite her lack of English skill, I learned a great deal about her personally. She had a depth, warmth, and wisdom about her that was impressive for her young age - she was 26 when I started teaching her and I was in my mid 40's. I never had the sense that I was her "elder" in the lessons. Her energy and character were more mature than her age, even if she did have a tendency to wear clothes and make-up which were more akin to what you'd see in Harajuku like short shorts and tights and cat-eye eyeliner.
S's. limited English skills couldn't cover up the fact that she was clearly very bright. She was an expert on the abacus when she was younger and had won contests in which people did calculations on them. She carried a medical Japanese to English dictionary and used it to talk about her work and did her homework and improved markedly over the time that I taught her. Her progress was all on her. Unlike many students who expect to magically improve by sitting down for one hour a week with an English speaker and refuse to do anything else, S. put in the time at home, too.
Among the many things S. and I talked about were spiritual beliefs. I rarely talked about such things with students, and I didn't speak exhaustively about it with her. However, she had visited some psychics on occasion and I always asked her about what was said. Generally, she did it for fun, but sometimes she was told things which were on the nose or struck her as having a strong personal resonance. One of the things was that she was told when she was quite young that she'd be a nurse. This was no surprise to her as she told me that she had decided to be a nurse at the age of four, though she hadn't shared that information with the psychic. A few years into my lessons with her, she saw a psychic who told her that her soul was very old and that she'd been through at least 70 incarnations on this earth. Given her personality, it certainly wouldn't surprise me if that were true.
She had often struck me as an old soul in a young body. There was a peaceful acceptance and a calm warmth about her that was uncommon. That being said, she was not invincible and sometimes the pressure and difficulty of her day would break through in a lesson. We'd be practicing something and she'd burst into tears. The fatigue and psychological pressure of the day or week would just wear her down and she couldn't concentrate or focus on the lesson. I felt terrible when this happened, and she felt bad as well, but she also told me that she found studying English liberating and relaxing despite these (rare) breakdowns.
There was a bond between S. and I that built up through the time we had. It was one that she felt more acutely than me, though I was not aware of it until the end. During our last lesson, she told me that her time with me "saved" her. It was a beacon in her life that helped her get through the hardships. As she said goodbye, seemingly for the last time, at my apartment at the end of that last lesson, she cried and cried and I hugged her several times, but she could or would not leave. Standing there with nothing else to say, watching her sob and hold her hand on the door knob, all I could do was occasionally hug her, thank her, and tell her that everything would be okay. She would be okay without me.
It took ten minutes of emotion-packed talk and reassurances peppered with expressions of gratitude for what I'd done for her before she left. This was incredibly draining for me. It was a drawn-out process that came from a good place and displayed the meaning I'd had for her all too clearly. Dealing with that much emotion, and knowing that my decision to leave was taking something that she had found so profoundly important in her life, was extremely difficult for me to manage.
I'd like to say that that was the end of it and that that one exhausting goodbye was all there was, but she e-mailed me and asked to say goodbye the morning of our departure from Japan. I couldn't bear that on top of everything else that was to come on our last morning, so I told her that she could come by the evening before instead. I wasn't happy about this because things were so chaotic and difficult for us, but it was hard to refuse. Once more, I went through another emotionally exhausting goodbye with tears and talk of how important I was to her and how she could not have survived emotionally without me and my lesson to help her cope. It was an even longer and more difficult repeat of the first goodbye.
The truth was that, I did find her to be an extraordinary person full of strength, intelligence, and personality. Because she seemed so strong and capable of managing her life, I had no idea though that she would feel so strongly that I had "saved" her. She said "you saved me" so many times during those two wrenching goodbyes that her voice saying those words is etched in my memory. It was a compliment, to be sure, but it was also a burden.
This was a person who genuinely had a need for me above and beyond the trivial exchange of my teaching talent for increased English ability. What was more, she was a person who did an immense amount of good in the world and deserved support and kindness. She needed me more than I realized, and I was leaving her behind. The size of the hole in her life that I was leaving was made clearer by the need for the second incredibly difficult goodbye.
What was worse was that I knew that this was a relationship that had no future whatsoever at a distance. I wanted to keep in touch with her. I wanted even to continue to be a source of support, but I knew from experience that it takes an immense amount of effort and communicative capacity to conduct friendships by distance. After returning to the U.S., I tried to e-mail her and keep in touch, but her English messages were a word salad and I couldn't follow her much. I wrote to her, but I'm sure that she couldn't follow me well either. As bad as her English was, my Japanese was worse. It was pretty hopeless.
S. had talked many times in the last year - before she knew that I was leaving Japan - about moving out of Tokyo. It was clear that she wanted to advance her career and she felt her life's journey would be better served by moving on at some point. Because of this, I thought that I would lose her as a student long before she would lose me as a teacher and that telling her I was leaving would be easier because of her plans. She still cried and cried when I told her that I was leaving, but I didn't know that was just the beginning of her grieving process.
There was a truth about life in general that years of having and losing friends in Japan taught me. I was never happy about it, but I learned a long time ago that it is extremely rare to keep the same people in your life for the duration unless you stay stuck in one place and never move or grow. S. and my lives were never meant to travel along the same track indefinitely.They were meant to touch and we were to walk along together for awhile and learn and grow as we would, and then we were to separate again. I could understand this, and I think she understood it, too, but I think that she found the reality emotionally more difficult than I did. Part of that was that I had a significant other to travel on my separate path with, and she was spending much more of her journey alone. As the supported, it was harder for her to say goodbye than me as the supporter.
Many people think that English teachers are self-serving, greedy, and lazy people who reluctantly wile away the time in lessons and take the money from their students' pockets. I can say that I cared about every student who I taught. I cared about them as human beings and I approached how I managed them at all times with a regard not only for their English skills and their status as paying customers, but also as people who I had the privilege of impacting with my presence. When I asked about their lives, I did so with genuine interest. When I heard about their problems, I listened with genuine concern. I didn't realize this at the time, but this was a gift I gave those who needed this sort of presence in their lives - and many of them lacked such a presence.
The wrenching nature of no small number of goodbyes that I had with people who were generally composed and impassive illustrated this in a way that I could not ignore or dismiss. Much as I may desire to be humble (and much as others will desire to humble or degrade me), I mattered to people in Japan. I mattered in a way that I don't feel that I do in America because people treat others here as another disposable party in a conga line of people they can use and discard because it's so easy to find ears to forcibly bend in the U.S.
Since Japanese people don't impose themselves on people in general as it is not part of their cultural norm, my offering myself as I did was a rare opportunity. I didn't realize that then, but I do now. By and large, Americans don't wait for someone to make an offer to be there for them. They just impose upon you when they want something and make you wriggle free if you don't want to play that part for them. For reasons of culture or situation, my presence in the lives of my students was important in a way I expect I will never experience again, and nothing proved it better than the goodbye I had with S.
(to be continued)