July 22, 2014 by Jean
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.