A Community of Caring


July 22, 2014 by Jean

Atsuko at CMBG 2013Last week, my friend Atsuko Hirai died at home, having lived six months longer than the most optimistic prognosis she was given when she was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer 2 1/2 years ago.

Atsuko had what I consider a good death. She was able to stay at home and to participate actively in life until the end. Less than two weeks before she died, she invited me to have lunch with her by picking up take-out from her favorite Thai restaurant and bringing it to her house. She was having a good day – up and dressed and able to move around on her own – and we had a delightful visit. I visited her again just a few days before her death. On this day, she was in bed and having some trouble conversing in English (not her native language), but her sense of humor was intact. At one point, she was trying to make a point about the way Americans eat a certain vegetable, but couldn’t remember the English name of the vegetable. We had one of those hilarious ‘twenty questions’ conversations, with me trying to gather clues to identify the vegetable.

Atsuko was a single woman without children and without family in this country. But she had a gift for friendship, and her good death was made possible by a caring community of friends, colleagues, and paid helpers. Many people participated in making Atsuko’s final years good ones, and some (especially Judy and Anne, of my W.O.W. group) made heroic efforts in organizing health care and providing emotional support and practical help. In the days since her death, I’ve found myself reflecting on the nature of Atsuko’s gift for friendship. She was proactive in reaching out to people and initiating friendships. I first met her through a mutual friend, but it was she who took the initiative to follow up. She loved to entertain, and was known for hosting large gourmet dinners and parties that brought together an eclectic group of people. She had many, many interests and used these to establish points of connection with many different people. Although Atsuko and I were both academics and had many friends in common, our major point of connection was gardening. One year, when the Maine Music Society, of which she was a member, hosted a local garden tour as a fundraiser, she invited me to attend the tour with her. This became a regular outing for us in the years that followed. When I spent a summer exploring newly-discovered specialty nurseries in Maine, Atsuko was one of the friends I invited to accompany me. In the summer of 2013, when she was not in active treatment and was feeling stronger than she had earlier or would later, Judy organized an outing for the three of us to the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens.

In the summer of 2012, when Atsuko was undergoing a course of chemotherapy that made her feel sick and weak much of the time and found it very difficult to be alone, friends rallied to make sure she had company every day. One friend and colleague, Joe, organized and maintained an on-line system where people could sign up for times to visit. I spent every Saturday afternoon with her that summer. Sometimes, when she was not feeling well, I sat and read a book while she napped. Some Saturdays, we sat and visited for a while and then would end the day with a 1-mile walk around her neighborhood, followed by dinner at a favorite restaurant. When she was feeling better, we sometimes planned more ambitious outings, including one memorable Saturday when we attended the lakeside wedding of a neighbor that she had known since childhood. I still remember the Saturday I couldn’t get to Atsuko’s house (about 25 minutes away from my own) because I had a flat tire on my car. She was very disappointed, but she rallied by calling another friend, Bill, getting him to drive her out to my house, and even getting him to remove my flat tire and put on the spare while we were visiting!


At the time she became ill, Atsuko was working on a book manuscript about Japanese history. But her illness and chemotherapy left her unable to focus and to do the kind of intellectual work this project required, and she began to despair of ever being able to finish it. Even when her treatment ended and she went through a period of feeling better, the work needed on the book seemed overwhelming. This is when a friend and retired colleague, John, uttered four important words: “Maybe I can help.” Atsuko accepted the offer, and John took over responsibility for getting the book revised, edited and into print. Atsuko sometimes found him a demanding taskmaster, but she also knew that without him pushing her, there would have been no book. Just a few weeks before Atsuko’s death, she received a box of advance copies of the book, and friends Judy and Michael organized a book launch party at Atsuko’s house. This event felt very much like the parties Atsuko had hosted in the past – only this time she let other people prepare the food. She was up and dressed, glowingly happy,  and holding court on the sofa in her sunroom. She also asked guests to sign and write notes in a copy of the book designated for that purpose. Two of her history department colleagues hung a large image of the book cover on the wall, and Michael made a perfect toast for the occasion. It was a delightful and happy event, a celebration of Atsuko’s life as well as of this crowning achievement.

I have been thinking about the lessons I can learn from Atsuko’s example. One important lesson for me is to be more active in seeking out new friends and nurturing ties with old ones. Although I’m never going to be a person who hosts gourmet parties for thirty, I am like Atsuko in having a wide range of interests; she has helped me to realize that each of those interests provides an opportunity for connection. The other important lesson for me is to ask for and accept help gracefully. Thank you, Atsuko, for being my friend and for providing a role model of how to create a community of caring.

12 thoughts on “A Community of Caring

  1. This was such a heartfelt post about someone so dear it made me think about how family is not always by birth but sometimes through friendship. You lost a wonderful member of your family and for that I extend sincere sympathies. She sounds like a wonderful woman and may many people enjoy her book for years to come. She may be gone but she certainly won’t be forgotten because of all the special friends she had.

    • Jean says:

      Judy, You are right that Atsuko will live on in the hearts and memories of her many friends. A memorial services is being planned for the fall, and I think it will be a more joyous than sad event. Those of us who are single and without children worry about how we will be cared for when we are old and ill, and it was very reassuring to see how Atsuko managed it.

  2. Jean, I am so sorry for your loss of your friend, Atsuko Hirai. It seems she provided you will a compassionate community of friends that can both appreciate her friendship and grieve her loss together. May you comfort one another and carry on as lifetime friends. ~ Rachel @ Grow a Good Life

  3. When I read your reflection at the end Jean I had come to the same conclusion…I need to learn from Atsuko’s example and nurture relationships more. I needed to hear this story as this lesson has been on my mind of late! My deepest sympathy on the loss of a a very special friend and thank you my friend for sharing her life and special story.

    • Jean says:

      Donna, I also need to take these lessons to heart; it is all too easy for me to emphasize the values of independence and solitude, and these can isolate me from a caring community that is available but needs to be nurtured and kept active.

  4. Melanie says:

    A lovely lesson in how to live to the end.

    • Jean says:

      Melanie, Since Atsuko was a dedicated teacher, it is only fitting that her final years provide important lessons that others can learn from.

  5. Jean says:

    What a wonderful tribute to your friend you’ve written! Atsuko will be missed but it was so heartwarming to know she got her book launching party with friends. Like you said, she had a good death and she was teaching the value of friendship right up to the end.

    • Jean says:

      Jean, The book launching party was a wonderful event — and Atsuko wasn’t above using the state of her health to make it happen. At one point, when there was yet another delay from the press (typical and academic book publishing), she shamed the editor into action by saying, “Look, it’s a race here to see which will happen first, the appearance of this book or my funeral!” I do love the fact that, even after her illness forced her to retire from teaching, she was still teaching us all by her example.

  6. Diana Studer says:

    years ago my mother told me – you have to look after your friends. Still learning to do that. SO, not a people person.

    • Jean says:

      Diana, I, too, have to make a special effort to nurture my relationships with friends rather than lapsing happily into life as a solitary hermit!

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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