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'n Berg en 'n boom en 'n waterstroom

My mother passed away on the 24th of September. It was a spring day in South Africa, but in Japan autumn had arrived in soft rain, fallen leaves and a blood-red bloom known as the flower of the dead.

Earlier that same morning I had referred to higanbana as the most spectacular flower in Japan, not realizing that I would never again be able to look at it without sadness.


It's called higanbana because it flowers during ohigan (お彼岸), a Buddhist celebration that takes place twice a year on the spring and the autumn equinox. Ohigan roughly means "the other shore", in other words, enlightenment. The ideal during ohigan is that you should focus on the so-called six perfections; the more practical application is that you return to your hometown on these days, clean family graves and pay respects to your ancestors.

Although it wasn't unexpected – my mother was frail and had contracted pneumonia – the news was a shock. Earlier this year I had promised my mother that I wouldn't return to South Africa to attend her funeral (she was the kind of woman who had conversations like that with her children), so I did the only thing I could do: I walked, non-stop, eight hours a day, for several days, through Tokyo, up mountains, to ancient shrines.

The first day I was too shaken to plan anything. I simply set off, but wasn't surprised when I realized I was standing in what has always been my refuge in Tokyo: Yanaka Cemetery. It was raining and there were no other visitors, but I was surrounded by whispers, glimpses of the past, memories of the future.



That was the first time I realized that higanbana are actually planted at graves, to flower during ohigan. Above the flowers, in the mist, the maples' leaves had just started yielding to winter's distant call.


Later that week I fled into the mountains, because I knew I would have to say goodbye on a mountain. When I turned 21, official coming of age in South Africa, my mother gave me this card:


She wrote a message inside: "Liewe kind, ons hoop daar is altyd 'n berg en 'n boom en 'n waterstroom iewers in jou lewe." Translated into English: "Dear child, we hope there will always be a mountain, a tree and a river somewhere in your life."


She's always known … she always knew … me better than anybody else.

This is for you, Mom: beautiful mountains, a tree that's a thousand years old, and a stream in an enchanted forest. You loved them as much as I do. You gave me life, you shared your love of books with me, you taught me to value my independence, you encouraged me to follow my dreams, and you never reproached me for my choices. Thank you.

The mountain photos were taken on Mitake-san in Okutama.

This cedar on Mitake-san is more than a thousand years old.



PS: I hesitated about writing another post about my mother, but I decided to share my thoughts with you since this is an experience most of us will go through. One thing Japan has taught me, I now realize, is to be calm about death; to be sad, but to be unafraid. I'm reminded of the Japanese phrase 物の哀れ, mono no aware, an awareness of the transience of things and a sadness at their passing. Life, and death, and now we move on until our own moment arrives.


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