The Survivors of Mount Obasute (Part 1)

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Do not cast me off in the time of old age;
Forsake me not when my strength is spent.
—Psalm 71:9

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be.
The last of life,
For which the first was made.
—Robert Browning

We see a very old man, hobbling up the last remaining steps of a dirt path, about to reach the top of a mountain. He carries a walking stick and a wicker basket.
Now, finally at the top, he stops to catch his breath, takes his time and looks around. He nods his head up and down (Yes, yes, I remember it; this is the spot) and smiles to himself.
He is Thomas. Thomas has long, white hair, a white goatee, and a wrinkled, smiling face. He is seventy-five years old and has lived in Japan for fifty years.
It is early evening, and the moon, a large, orange full-moon sits in the sky, like a peach hanging from a branch, seemingly within plucking distance. Thomas finds a comfortable spot to view it from, spreads out a soft green blanket to sit on and then takes out a notebook, a pen, and some sake, from his wicker basket. He gets comfortable and prepares to write.
He begins.

Dear Ume-san,

It has been more than twenty years since you died in my arms; peacefully, quietly, happily. How I cried that day, missing you so badly, you who were such a good friend to me, you who cared about me and looked after me—me, a stranger in Japan! For that, Ume-san, I will always be grateful to you.

And Ume-san, do you know that today is September 4, the twenty-fifth anniversary of our journey together up and down the slopes of Obasute-Yama? I’m sitting here now at the top of that same mountain (Oh, it was quite a climb!) and I am looking out over a large, beautiful full moon; one very similar to the moon we shared together that special evening twenty-five years ago.
When I came to Japan, Ume-san, I was a mere babe, only twenty-five, and you were fifty. Then, later, that day twenty-five years ago when I carried you up and down this mountain on my back, and you talked to me about your fears and sorrows, your dreams and joys; I was already fifty and you were seventy-five!
And now, I too am seventy-five and starting to feel that my time is near. But oh, what a life I have lived! And Ume-san, you were a special part of my life. We were friends; great friends.
Ume-san, today, I have come up here again, to be with you in spirit, to write to you, to reminisce about our friendship, and to celebrate that great journey that we made down the mountain together after a very difficult and painful journey up. Because it was the journey down, Ume-san, that was so glorious, that gave us hope, that was our salvation. We survived together, Ume-san! We survived! And so today, now, I dedicate this beautiful evening—to you.

Ume-san, I can remember clearly the first time we met. That real-estate agent with the little office near Mitaka Station brought me around to your place. He told me there was a small apartment available owned by a widow who lived with her son. After five or so rejections because I was a foreigner, he was starting to get a little tired, and I was losing hope that I’d ever find a place to live. But you (dressed in yukata, and hair up in a bun) greeted us with a big smile, showed me around, and then served iced tea. I remember you also served homemade cupcakes, and jabbered away in Japanese, asking me questions about my hometown, family, hobbies, and many other things. The poor agent had a hard time keeping up with you, translating back and forth between English and Japanese. I honestly wondered, Ume-san, if living there was going to work out because of the obvious communication gap that existed between us, but your warmth and sincerity made me feel comfortable there. Well, as you know, I decided to take the place and I moved in the next day!
I remember the first night, you came up to welcome me with a plateful of sushi. We managed to communicate somehow and had a really enjoyable time talking about this and that using body language, a dictionary, and lots of smiles and good will. Over the next few weeks you went out of your way to make me feel at home. You taught me a little Japanese, you helped me shop for a futon and a washing machine, and even pots and pans. And you brought up some food for me almost every day!
Then in the months that followed, our friendship grew as you often invited me to relax with you fixing up your rose garden, going driving with you and your son, and going together to sing karaoke with your friends. And do you remember, Ume-san, we even went together with a group of them one lovely evening to see the Sumida River Fireworks? Wasn’t that beautiful!

Well, Ume-san, as the years passed I learned Japanese and our friendship grew even deeper because we could finally, really communicate.
So, it was then, that I first really understood the serious and grave problems that had developed between you and your son, and daughter-in-law. How she had hated you and turned your son against you. How they refused to live together with you. How they insisted, as you grew older and suffered from arthritis, that you enter a nursing home. How they wanted to dump you off their backs at the top of a mountain—any cold, lonely mountain—called Obasute-Yama.

It was painful for me to see you in pain, Ume-san. At first you were angry and then you became sad. Finally, the emotional anguish of it all seemed to be too much for you to bear; much more so than what the arthritis was doing to you. The arthritis really bent you over and made it difficult for you to walk and even eat, but you stubbornly refused the nursing home. Amazingly, far from feeling exasperated over your stubbornness, your son and his wife merely ignored you. There certainly wasn’t any pity to be seen. There was simply nothing.

Part 1 | (Part 2) | (Part 3)


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