by Tammy Stone Takahashi
To tell you the truth, there is a habit I have not yet broken.
In moments of anger that come like flashes of unexpected lightning in a quiet summer sky, I catch myself rearranging the contents of my will much the way I reorganize the crystal figurines on my dresser. I hardly know I’m doing it, but it doesn’t surprise me when I do. I have been doing this since I was a little girl.
Anger and fear, busy hands and busy mind, are all such close companions, aren’t they?
I guess this ever-changing will is my way of keeping track of my feelings. Some might write in a diary or watch emotional movies to release their feelings. Or even to discover them, taking note of what makes them cry, or laugh, or feel despair, or elation. As for me, my coping method is the unending and sometimes all-consuming act of revising the ongoing, certainly non-binding will in which I leave my one precious item, a diamond, to one of my people on rotation.
Another truth: it’s not actually a diamond.
I guess I knew from the start it wasn’t real. But as a little girl, I believed that all diamonds were created in mythical times by the tears of creatures that no longer walk the Earth. Or maybe they do, but most people can’t see them, including, sadly, myself. It is because the gems are made of tears, the emotions of those who have wandered here before us, that they are so valuable.
I also believed that all stones were diamonds. It’s just that some of them had fewer tears in them than others. The emotions in those were buried so deep inside that not everyone could see how precious the stone was. Mine was a stone that I picked up on a beach while on a family vacation on Japan’s seaside. It didn’t look like the diamonds I’d seen before on TV, and I knew right away that it would become shinier and more precious the more of my tears I gave to it, that one day, at the cost of a likely heartbreak, it would become a true diamond and that the lucky recipient of it upon my death would have the most special part of me.
That was the last vacation I ever took. Soon after that, I started having trouble breathing, and I was tired all the time. The doctors found that I had a hole in my heart. An actual hole! They said it wasn’t serious enough for surgery, but that I needed to be careful, and not strain myself. But my mother started treating me like a doll after that, and hardly let me out of the house when I wasn’t in school. Then she took me out of school altogether.
When you have a hole in your heart, I eventually learned, it is called Atrial Septal Defect, or ASD, and it means that more blood than normal flows through the heart and lungs. This might cause damage, or might not. You might go your whole life not knowing you have this hole in your heart. Or you might, like me, learn to become terrified of your own heart, and of the torrents of blood that wash through it. Like a tsunami.
The discovery of the diamond, and of the hole in my heart happened so closely together that I’ll never know which of the two inspired me to write my first will. I do know that I have always intimately connected these two things. Sometimes, with a child’s logic, I imagined that if I could get the diamond shiny enough, I could plug my heart with it. Conversely, I always looked at the diamond, and saw suffering, and pain and a big, gaping emptiness. Certainly a harbinger of bad things to come.
I wanted so badly to watch my stone turn into the diamond it was destined to be. But I didn’t want to cry. My mother had always been an on-edge, nervous person, and the hole in my heart took things to a new level. I didn’t want to add to her worries. As a fearful girl living with an even more fearful mother, I tried to hold my feelings in. I was scared to the point of tears, though, all the time. Really, it was constant. It wasn’t just the hole that left my heart wide open to who knows what. Sometimes I imagined the hole inside of me to be so big that it could consume the entire, tiny country I live in. Our fates were always intertwined like this, in my mind.
My country, Japan, is an island country, as you know, a dot on Earth’s map. How is it we have not yet drowned, been subsumed en masse somewhere under the Japan Sea and the Pacific Ocean? It was so easy for me to picture Japan simply floating away, and then giving up, and sinking at any time. It still is. What anchors an island to the earth? What tethers a heart to the body, so that it does not collapse definitively, and completely?
It’s not just the fact that we are an island. We are also a country of so many mountains that we can hardly drive anywhere without winding up in the many tentacles of an elaborate tunnel system, like we have entered the belly of an eel, or an octopus, or a swarm poisonous snakes. And how have we not yet been buried under a torrent of volcanic lava, or turned to ash?
When I was growing up, I remember so many earthquake drills at school, before I stopped going. Alongside learning how to count and multiply, or learning how to write the labyrinthine slate of Kanji characters, we were given lessons in what to do should the fault lines below us slip, and the tremors and shakes get so bad that we might be swallowed up by the earth in one fell swoop. We learned to hide under desks. We learned to listen to our teachers. We learned, in the worst case scenarios when the earthquakes were followed by a tsunami – and the water is never far behind in Japan – to run for the nearest hill, in desperate hopes of being faster than the beast-like waves.
I was never a fast runner. Later, of course, I found out that running could stop me dead before a tsunami ever could.
I don’t know if it’s like this in other countries (how I’ve longed to live in a place like Canada, where there is so much land stretching for miles and miles, so that you can go days without even the hint of water), but I learned fear like it was another subject in school. I also learned fear at home, where there were books lying around about various natural disasters, predicting when they would next come and how many tens of thousands they would affect. I learned it on the television programs my mother had on at all times, tracking the weather for any abnormal patterns, and droning on with non-stop coverage every time there was the merest hint of a geographical or social calamity on the horizon. I learned to fear walking barefoot, because the ground itself took on monstrous, claw-like dimensions in my imagination. If it wasn’t a threat today, who knew what it would be tomorrow? And what is scarier than not knowing when the disaster is coming?
Yet, when fear morphed into anger, there I was, drafting wills as though there was a future in which my possession would be valuable. As if only I was going to die one day, while this world would carry on without me. It’s amazing, the contradictions we live with. I was sure that my country, if not the whole world, was on the verge of complete annihilation, yet I was wrapped up in the pastime of planning for a glorious future world in which my diamond, in my place, would shine.
I was never aware of this contradiction, this commingling of fear and hope, despair and optimism. It also never occurred to me, when terror over the next possible natural disaster struck, that we never know what is coming, disaster or otherwise, that not one single person among us knows when we are going to die. I guess like all young people, death was not a palpable reality. I had no framework that could hold the idea that we were going to die, even if we managed to live our whole lives without experiencing a single earthquake or extreme typhoon. Death, to me, was something that came big and ferocious, and only once in awhile, and only to the few, not the whole. Like a punishment, and I was learning that our whole small country was guilty.
And where there is guilt, there is blame. Which is how I wound up in the game of playing God with the would-be recipients of my one treasure.
The more scared I grew, the more quickly I was prone to casting blame on anyone who had slighted me. I had no siblings, so the obvious culprits were out. My father was a salaryman and was hardly ever home. This in itself was a reason to banish him from my fortune on one or two occasions, but it was also hard to nitpick his wrongdoings when we spent so little actual time together. The recipients of my will fluctuated like this: my mother, and her mother, my oba-chan, and my two dolls, Naomi and Naomi.
They were identical. I got the first Naomi for my birthday when I was five. By the time my sixth birthday came around, I was so attached to her that I begged my mother to get me another one just like her, in case something happened to her. She tried to talk me out of it, but I was pretty relentless, and she caved. I gave her the same name; to me, they were my same best friend, like a back-up limb. When it was convenient, though, and I needed someone to blame, I found the slightest differences among them so that when forced to choose, I would pick one Naomi over the next.
I never lost either one of them, so I’m not sure how I would have handled either of their departures. I used to take them to school with me, long past an age when little girls were prone to play with dolls. Because of this, I had no friends. Not even one girl who would tolerate me or the bullying she would get for daring to be my friend, like my next door neighbor I used to play with at the park near our houses. There was no one. It seemed I wasn’t even worth bullying, and there was a lot of that going on at my school. I was basically invisible. Mari with her two dolls with the same name and her crazy stone in her pocket.
And then I stopped going to school, and it was all I could do to open my eyes and brave a world in which a typhoon could whip through our house and obliterate the three of us, or in which the earth would crack open to swallow us, or in which I would drown, either in the Japan Sea, or the nebulous fluids of my own heart’s blood.
I took my diamond into the bath with me every night, and when it all proved too much, let silent tears come, and waited for the diamond to emerge. Then, I dried off, went to my room, and rewrote my will, poring over the day like a glossy picture book looking for who had wronged me the most, and who had been most kind.
The thing about fear is that it knows how to breed more, so that you are always waiting for something else to scare you, while you are simultaneously trying to be in control of all the things that already do. You start to feel like if you could just have a neat, ordered list of all the things that frighten you, you might be able to take even one deep breath worry-free (every time I take a deep breath, I wonder if it will be the last, if the hole in my heart will widen so much that any number of toxins or clots will pass through like rivulets of doom, spelling my end.)
Every day that nothing comes to attack and obliterate is another day closer to the source of terror drawing nearer. And then one day, something comes along, and it was not on your list, and it is invisible, and it begins its reign of terror on a cruise ship in a harbor of your country, and it causes people to wear Hazmat suits, sit home glued to the news, and sew masks, and it causes you to be as scared as you’ve ever been of catching it and not being able to breathe, and then just ceasing to be.
An earthquake, the worst thing I could imagine before, takes so many in one fell swoop. A tsunami devastates by the hundreds and thousands, leaving you bewildered and lost and grieving, leaving a hole in the very center of you so big you are sure you will get lost inside of it. Now, though, the numbers creep up, a few today, a few more tomorrow. The numbers are small enough, that you can picture each person, lungs caving in, heads splitting open, bodies lying hooked to machines that are breathing for them. Each one with a history, a hope, a regret, tears that could turn diamonds to stone.
The fear grows bigger. We are scared to touch each other, to see another person smile. We cannot offer a friendly touch of sympathy and understanding. We are afraid of every single thing we can touch.
Which is the greater disaster, the one killing our bodies or the one killing the deep hearts inside of our hearts that need love and connection to go on?
I still have my two Naomis, though I don’t talk to them as much as I used to. A life has passed since my childhood. My grandmother died, at 92, peacefully in her sleep. My mother is in a nursing home, and suffers from dementia. Her fear, in the end, did not die as her mind started to fade. I see a worried look on her face every time I visit, though she can’t remember her name. I now have a husband, two cats and several colleagues among whom I surreptitiously take turns apportioning my worldly possessions. I have a few more of these than I used to, but I still secretly hold my stone-diamond as most valuable. It is still not translucent, or gleaming. A part of me believes it’s because I have not given it enough of my tears, though I also started to wonder if maybe tears of terror are not the the tears it needs to shine. The tears of heartbreak, of sadness over the suffering of others, or even – and this was a revelation – tears of joy, maybe these are the tears a stone requires for the alchemy to take place.
Sometimes I look back on the days I spent playing with Naomi and Naomi, my grandmother sewing her little purses she didn’t have enough people to give to, my mother making dinner while watching news of the latest national floodings and blackouts, and am filled with the kind of longing that makes the hole in my heart feel larger than usual. Why is it that we miss a past that has been at times so cruel to us? I want to hold the little girl I was then, much like I held my dolls, and tell her, “I can promise you from the future that you are going to make it. Why don’t you try turning the fear off and see what life might look like?”
But if had been able to do that, I would not be here now, wondering, and ruminating in a world gone positively mad with fear, as though it spiraled right out the hole in my heart, a whorl of windstorm and destiny.
I have come to see that we are all flowering in different ways, in different lives, all within one life. I imagine it like being in a room with every single will everyone has ever drafted, all in one giant room, one great pile representing all the items of the world that have belonged to and been precious to people. There is no one person who is going to find the whole pile valuable, but there is also no denying the value of any single item. It depends on whom you are asking. The perspective.
I’ve realized over time that the value in my stone is not that it will one day be a diamond, worth a lot of money, to be coveted by others. It is a relic of my own power to imagine, to invent and create, and above all, to believe. My world is still smaller than it can be, because I choose to be confined by my geography, and now by a contagion that has shown me no one in the world is immune from calamity. But I can choose. I can try to catch a breath that does not take in the virus that will kill me, and notice: the world grows bigger. The virus knows no borders. I can decide whether or not this is an expansion of fear or one of connection. I can choose people to leave things to in my will, or people with whom to live and share a life.
I can’t choose not to have a hole in my heart, but I can choose what, in my mind’s eye, I am filling it with. I see this now, that people are getting sick and dying and falling into the earth and drowning, but also smiling and having tea together, reaping harvest and seeing hope in the shape of the clouds.
After all, a DNA test can predict if I’ll get this or that disease, and of course, I can find out any time if I have the virus. But can any of these tests predict not only how my body will respond to illness and crisis, but also how it will learn to tolerate obstacles, or learn to love, or how much those things can save me? It is only I who can test myself in these ways that will change the entire course of the world.
Today, I bought a special rag and polish. Tonight, I will have stopped waiting, for the end or for magic. I will turn off the TV, take my stone, and see which gem it will become.