Ignorance, I decided, truly was bliss, as I wouldn’t be so profoundly frightened of the steps I took had they been leading to anywhere but my hometown in Kyoto. I felt pure isolation as I paced through the busy streets, my courage deteriorating faster than that of a bullet train. This was not a good idea, I told myself, the two decades spent abroad hadn’t been nearly enough to prepare me for this day. Taking one last glimpse at my childhood picture, I tried to remind myself that there was not enough time in the world to prepare me for this day: Reality wasn’t an audition that you tried out for, it didn’t come with a script you could memorize, nor did it give out a set of instructions you could follow.
It was unpredictable and unattainable, slipping out of my reach each and every time I dared to get near. Fully improvised, reality was, quite possibly, the most terrifying thing on earth. The burden this knowledge created was far too heavy to carry, it interfered with the ruckus of modern life. After all, a good night’s sleep was mandatory to perform our daily duties, but who could get any sleep while worrying over the reality of things? A coping mechanism was what we certainly required, and a coping mechanism was what we created. The concept of raw and plain truth was replaced with a fabricated truth, one that appeased our wants and needs, so that little by little, the burden of reality wouldn’t feel so heavy any more.
But the problem this created was that in time, we humans no longer could tell the two apart, and if somehow we did, the weight hit us all the more hard, as if we’d just woken up from a comatose state only to find ourselves in an entirely different era.
That’s what happened to me when I first left Japan to study overseas. Far away from the influence of a strong and manipulative voice, for the first time, I was able to think for myself and realized that the beauty pageants my mother entered me in as a young child were not, in themselves, beautiful at all. Teaching a child that their aspirations in life should be higher quality for the silk they wear and making them believe that their beauty depended solely on a soft and smooth complexion were horrible things. Children had wishes like meeting a spirit on their way to the festival, innocent things like more takoyaki in their bento (lunch box) or a new bike simply because the color seemed pretty. When I visited the shrine, however, my only wish was to win in the upcoming beauty pageants so that I could make my mother happy. Each time I lost, she would be disappointed in me -her scrutinizing gaze has yet to escape my memories- and acted as if I was undeserving of her love. In time, I was convinced that I could not and would not lose, that would be my one-way ticket to motherly affection. And as if the gods above, or anything of the sort, had listened, I started winning in the pageants more often. Victory was a glorious thing when you were rewarded with genuine smiles and warm hugs, and you never wanted it to end. I was, for the first time, happy and believed that everything would finally be alright, that my mother was finally by my side.
Tears in my eyes, I got off the train, only a short distance separating me from my long anticipated destination. Facing reality would be the only way I could ever go on with my life, painful or not, I knew I had to go through with this. I no longer had the strength to fabricate anything.
Of course, I recollected, this was only my perspective to things. I doubt there is any mother who truly tries to make her daughter miserable on purpose. What I didn’t know at that time was that my mother was gravely ill. It was not her disappointment in me that kept her away, that yelled at me to get out of her room, that refused to comfort me at nights when I had woken up in a cold sweat because of a scary dream. It was her beautiful young face that had aged in just a matter of months because the medicine just wasn’t working, it was what this implied, it was what it made her fear:
having to leave me behind. She could not muster the courage to face reality. Instead, she ran away, wreaking havoc as she went, and I could never run fast enough to catch up with her speed. Unaware of this all, I was preparing for my ninth beauty pageant. If I won this, I would be rewarded with the highest rank possible at that age. I would wear my nine medals with honor as they placed a crown made of golden leaves upon my head. My mother would be more proud of me than she ever was before and I would hold her affection in my hand like a signed contract.
I walk up to the cherry tree in full bloom, its beautiful pink petals dancing like little angels in the wind, and sit down right next to the grave beneath it with shaky legs.
My mother, I remembered, never got to make it to the ceremony. She had a stroke on the way there, and that was all there was to it. That was the end of her story. The victory that would win her heart for the rest of eternity, it was now nothing at all. Informed of her death as sugar-coated as possible, I had gone into a state of shock. I could not understand anything, I was afraid, and I felt alone. There were no wishes the gods could grant me anymore, as my mother was gone. Already convinced I was undeserving of her love, I felt undeserving of her life, as well. There was no other explanation. I felt absolutely and completely ruined.
And well, the picture, it was taken right before these moments, the moments in which I’d realize that my life would never be the same again. But all you could see from the surface was a pretty little girl. All you’d ever see was a pretty little girl. You wouldn’t see the misery it held or the helplessness I feel even now, knowing that my only connections to her are through insincere photographs which carry even more insincere truths, photographs that are nothing but another form of fabrication to help ease the burden reality created.
With the determination to end things once and for all, for the sake of my mother, because she herself never had the courage to do it, I take out my lighter and set the picture aflame. The raw and plain truth hits me like a tidal wave and is placed upon my shoulders, but for once in my life, they are no longer too heavy to handle.