My grandma was always proud of me.
Even as I grew old enough to be mildly embarrassed by her fawning affections, every little thing I did seemed to please her immeasurably, lighting her eyes with an otherworldly spark. My sisters’ and my report cards from middle school onwards all hung proudly on the chalky wall above her bed. She similarly preserved and displayed our yellowing elementary school finger paintings and crayon drawings (ugly things, really) with great care, shouting our adolescent accomplishments to her whole world. I always felt at home in her smile, among her quaint Nikkei phrases and mannerisms; I could always nestle safely amidst her soft hugs and warm, croaky voice.
My grandmother loved us first and then it spilled over to everybody else. She spoiled us the way that only a grandmother can: Pogo Sticks, tubs of popcorn, motor-controlled Stegosaurus toys – quarters and dollar bills stuffed inside walnuts, fuzzy pajamas, gift cards and Power Wheels. Superfluous hoodies, fleeces, and all varieties of snacks also made an appearance: packets of jerky and cheese, wonderfully home-cooked fried rice and spam musubi.
During the summer, my grandpa and her would take out my siblings and I every single day, to Brookfield and Lincoln Park zoo, to the Shedd aquarium, the Field Museum, and then the Museum of Science and Industry. We visited these sites every day of the week on repeat, dozens and dozens of times, and we never once got tired of it, this maternal quest to imbue us with the oceans of latent knowledge that surrounded us.
My grandma, a veteran schoolteacher for the Chicago Public School system, set me up a unique reward system that carried me all the way through elementary school. Every time I raised my hand in class I earned a nickel and every time I answered a teacher’s question my grandmother promised to press a quarter in my palm. (This made me quite literally care about paying attention.) I painstakingly kept track with notes, sheets, and chickenscratch journals chock-full of little marks that only made sense to the two of us. She taught me the value of finance, and to save every penny I was given. Eager to impress her and earn these rewards, I worked diligently and quickly gained the reputation as the smartest student in many of my classes. (This was of course before my eventual slide into clinical procrastination and academic sloth.)
Yes, my grandma was always proud of me. Except for once, I think. This is the first time I’ve told anyone that story.
I had a really hard time getting out of bed in high school. Like, really hard. Though I still manage to miss the occasional morning commitment because I’ve slept in, my affinity for sleep is no longer motivated by death – that is, by a desire to stop living. But back then, long-term depression and anxiety had riddled my brain with such diseased thinking that I truly believed nothingness was better than being alive. The ghoulish thought of actually instigating my own death was generally too scary a prospect for me to fathom, but I clung to a half-decent alternative instead: every night, I was able to disappear for a few hours, able to find refuge from my mind’s constant lows by slipping off to sleep.
I can remember this clearly: for years, the worst part of my day was waking up, remembering that I was alive, that I had to get out of bed and exert undying energy to make the day happen. The day, I knew, would not please or soothe me at all. The task before me was to go through motions until the sun receded and everything would climax into lovely, vanishing night, when I could cut out and fade away once more. Yet sometimes the thought of even going through the motions paralyzed me in place.
This is why I was often physically unable to get up in the mornings. My bed, I wrote one night, is my home. Sleep is my original narcotic. It was like a drug to me, like morphine. I could skip the stigma and shame associated with drink or needles or pills (and other more conventional methods of self-medication) and just shut my eyes and slip away.
Needless to say, I missed a lot of classes and a lot of early morning band practices. School deans and counselors made gentle threats and continually chastised me for my failing grades and rising absences. (At one point, I had a 1.6 GPA and 30+ unexcused absences). What I needed was help. What I got was shame. I can think of one time in particular when two of my otherwise well-meaning band teachers followed me from my second period class one day to the counselor’s office, where they waited in the hallway for my meeting to conclude, then publicly pulling me aside, telling me how disappointed they were in me, how ashamed I should be for letting everybody down.
Teachers didn’t understand and neither did my parents. They didn’t know what to do with me, how to coax a mentally sick child out of bed when he miserably refused at all costs. Threats were made. Tears and stories and screams came from all sides. When words failed, I was at times physically dragged from my home.
Here is the part of the story that’s about my grandmother: one night, I closed my eyes and slipped into bliss. A second later, I opened them and the morning light was upon me. I decided to try and crawl back into oblivion, squeezing my eyes shut and hoping to slip hard into sleep once more. I couldn’t. I’m sure my father came to the door and pleaded with me to wake up, to get ready for school. He might have tried to dress me. Maybe I was crying. Desperate pronouncements were made and I probably didn’t care because I just wanted to not be awake anymore.
I’m sure dad left for work at some point. Yet as much as I tried to shut off my mind, I was unable to disappear. My grandparents were living with us at the time. They must have heard the fuss. Eventually, I heard the floor creaking, plodding in an unfamiliar pattern – my grandmother was still able to walk on her own then. This must have been was the first time in years and the last time in her life that she managed to make the trek across our home to visit my bedroom.
She coaxed and tried to encourage me. “Ryannn, wake up, Ryaaaaan.” I cried deeply, silently, hiding my face under the sheets. She became frustrated, and spoke cutting words that were sharply out of character for her. I was shaming the family, she said, being an embarrassment to myself and us all. Once again, what I needed was help. Treatment. Hope. What I got was shame. While her words hurt me then, I can’t blame her for saying those things. I don’t hold it against her at all. I think maybe she reacted so viscerally that day because she glimpsed some darkness inside me that she also recognized in herself.
I’ve written about my grandma’s life (and death) before. Today is actually the one year anniversary of her passing. I’ve written as well about her struggle with depression. But I’ve never quite connected the strands of her story and mine. Tsuyoko Nakamura and Ryan Kenji Keone Kuramitsu – we certainly don’t appear to have too much in common. Born on different landmasses, speakers of different languages, raised in different homes. Her family survived backbreaking poverty and incarceration, mine merely weathered a divorce.
But this morning, my mind callously made the startling, obvious connection between the two of us: our depression. I can’t believe I’ve never seen the similarities so clearly before.
See, particularly as her depression worsened, holidays often became very painful traditions for our family. Sometimes, we’d get a phone call from grandpa that my grandmother wouldn’t be attending the party. We’d drive over to her place and try to convince her otherwise. My sisters and I would file into my grandmother’s room and beg and plead with her, trying to coax her out of bed at all costs. Please, grandma, we’d ask, sometimes crying ourselves, grandpa silent nearby and my dad out in the hall or there with us breathing slowly. Please get up. “I can’t,” she’d moan miserably, sobbing. “I’m in pain. I just can’t. Please just go. Leave me alone.” We all understood that her pain was not primarily physical. “It’s all in her head,” my dad would say. “she’s lost hope.”
Sometimes we would be successful in rousing her, but more frequently than not we’d arrive at the family party with a sad and simple sorry, grandma couldn’t come, she’s not feeling well.
* * * * *
Two weeks ago, I had an article published in a local Japanese American newsletter. My grandfather’s neighbor got the article in the mail and showed my grandpa, who was happily surprised. When I heard this I couldn’t help but thinking how happy my grandmother would have been if she could have seen it. I stood alone outside of Panera Bread awkwardly holding the door open for other customers as I called my dad, bawling.
“She would have been so proud of me,” I told him through sniffles. Our Japanese American identity was always so important to her.
My dad didn’t hesitate for more than a second. He said to me: “hey, she is still proud of you. She is looking down on you. She’s not gone, you know that right? Her blood runs in your veins.”
I think I needed to hear that. He was right, of course. In a spiritual and biological sense, she lives through me. Her blood pumps thick and heavy through veins, as it did through hers, her parents’ before her. I claim the blood of the islands, of language, of culture and education and hospitality. Her story informs my life, encourages me to walk in the path of her hurting, kind, and human footsteps.
This gift, too, carries the histories of our shared pain. I can see that now. I have been imbued with her illness, given this genetic predisposition towards emptying, impossible shame and sadness. The pictures in my mind of my grandmother sobbing and refusing to get out of bed, they are my own story. It is all a part of my legacy, my inheritance.
One of my biggest fears is that one day, months or years from now, I’ll start to swirl down the emotional drain that is depression. I hope that if I do ever find myself in this trap again, this time I will receive greater support from people who understand that this is an illness, that it is treatable. I hope not to be dissuaded from medicine and therapy and slip into the sickness that took my grandmother, the way to dusty death.
Grandma, wherever you are, if you’re anywhere, I hope that you are still proud of me. I hope that I get to see you again someday. I miss you. I remember you in every inch of me, deep down in the seat of my soul. I carry you in my skin, in my marrow, in my blood.