Mom’s Got Cancer – Entry 6 – One Thousand Cranes

The month my mom spent in hospice care was tough on the whole family. We thought it was the end for her. I was doing my research on what to do if someone dies at home, in another country, crematory services, etc. I felt like a heavy, dark cloud of death was hanging over our family.

Her days were filled with sleep and the most she could eat was a cup of yogurt in an entire day. She had lost her taste for food and life. It was hard to see her deteriorate. Her ambition and drive were quickly escaping her. I told my husband, Scott that I wanted her to move in with us. We live in a small, two-bedroom apartment downtown where our girls share a bed but we were going to make it work somehow. There are four generations of my Japanese family living in Tokyo sharing one full bathroom so I justified three generations of us living together.

I gave notice at my mom’s studio apartment and started packing her things. Because she was on what seemed to be her last weeks of life, she didn’t care what I kept and what I let go. I came across a journal of hers that was written when she found out she was pregnant with me. It said “I am so happy to finally be able to please Mike-san with a child.” It went on about how she felt inadequate as a wife and wanted to be better. I couldn’t read anymore. It was her handwriting but I could not fathom that these submissive words were coming from her! Of course I had witnessed her subservience over and over again, but have always tried to block it out. I ripped up her journals. They reminded me of my own subservience during a darker time in my early twenties. I then came across a note that she had kept all these years from my dad which was written on yellow pad paper, “Miki, please forgive me. I will do anything you wish. All I ask is that I have a part in Danielle’s life.” Writing this brings up a lump in my throat but at the time, I was pissed about that too and tore it apart. I went on a purging spree, throwing away boxes of memories, not only in her apartment but ours. Scott stepped aside during this time and let me do whatever I needed.

I regret throwing away these memories and our kitchenware to make room in our apartment for her things. The only “room” I needed to make was in my head. My mom used to tell me “Never make decisions when you are emotional.” It was damn good advice I didn’t listen to. I understood my mom in her journals, although I cringe even admitting that. She is a first generation Japanese woman who lived during a time when women were considered inferior to men. She ran marathons before women had equal rights in sports or anywhere else. Husbands were allowed and expected to have affairs and wives were supposed to accept it. There was an old Japanese expression, “A good life for a man is to eat Chinese food and have a Japanese wife.”

Just when we thought it was time to let go, my mom’s oncologist called. He said, “The biopsy results came back and there’s another treatment I’d like to try if she wants to.” Although my mom was weak, I knew she wouldn’t want to give up without another fight. It was a combination of weekly Erbitux infusions and 20mg’s of Afatanib oral pills taken daily. This was going to change everything though. I did not want to drive across the border weekly for my mom’s treatment. It had already been more than four years of this commute. I decided to move my mom into the retirement home next to the cancer clinic. She agreed, maybe, because she didn’t have the energy to argue about it.

My mom started on the treatment right away and we couldn’t believe the response. Her energy levels improved immediately and she started eating again. The side effects were harsh but the light in her little frail body lit up. She broke out into a rash on her face (especially around the eyes), torso, arms and hands and was constantly itchy. She was having a pitta imbalance but how could she find balance when the drugs were so strong? I can hear my anti-chemo friends answering this question right now, very clearly. And I have to say: I love you guys but we’re not going to Tijuana for a carrot juice cleanse and coffee enemas!! Not now, anyway. Perhaps at another time we can ride off into the sunset of the Mexican border like Steve McQueen.

We moved her into her new room at the retirement home, which resembled a dorm. People were hanging pictures, posters, wreaths and even paper cranes on their door inviting their other dorm mates. I chose a south facing unit so she would get a lot of light to combat her tendency towards depression, an upgraded kitchenette and balcony although barbecuing is not allowed there. I guess they don’t want to take any chances with 90 year olds and a grill.

It wasn’t easy to let her go. I looked at several different retirement homes and assisted facilities. Some of them were so depressing and I vowed never to move my mom into a place like that. I connected with the staff at her retirement home immediately. I was crying through most meetings and orientation, signing of papers, and they understood. I was receiving hugs from strangers who were telling me they would take care of my mom. Even the on sight maintenance man is a compassionate soul.

I tried not to get emotional in front of my mom though. Our roles have completely reversed and I can’t pinpoint when that happened. It’s kind of like having a baby and then suddenly, she’s almost a teenager. When I lived in Europe, my mom would visit me every year. Every time I dropped her off at the airport, my throat would contract and my heart would ache. I’d sob for hours sending her back on the plane. My mom on the other hand, would always leave me smiling, waving and sending positive energy, similar to Benigni’s character, waving at his son in “Life is Beautiful” before the Nazis took him. There is a powerful need in every parent, to protect their children. I knew as soon as she went through security, she’d be sobbing too but she never let me see.

She has been living at the retirement home surrounded by Evergreen Trees, for three months now and walks next door to receive treatment. She takes chair yoga twice a week and attends an art class for cancer patients at the clinic every Wednesday. She even got on the treadmill the other day and said, “I want to run a 10 minute mile.” She has a three-course dinner with her dorm mates every night at five, although she’s full after the appetizer. She still has metastasized lung cancer and it’s not in remission but she’s living with it. Looking at her CT scan, you’d think she was on her last weeks but people are more than scans. It’s not my dream to live apart but it’s working for the moment. Just like her treatment, we take things one day at a time. She will be eighty this year and I think she’s going to make it.

One thousand paper cranes in the Japanese culture signifies hope and peace.



  • Tracy

    Your Mom has always inspired me, since the days you shared her running stories, though never moreso than now. Lots of love to you all. xo

  • cindi zirilli

    i love and miss you Danielle…i am raining love upon you and your mother’s head…xoxoxo

  • 'Sumita

    Dear Danielle and family! It makes me so sad to read, how much you and your family has to suffer, and how much pain you have to go through – especially since I only remember your mom and you as such sunshine-persons! Your mom always positive and friendly – and strong! Which shows now, when she fights against every other expectations! She is such an inspiring example, whenever people tend to moan about little things, that are not essential for our lives. It reminds me again of my life-mantra: It’s not important what you have, it’s much more important, what you’re gonna leave behind. Your mom wil leave so much love, power and inspiration behind. I send you best wishes to stay strong, but to allow tears and anger. I am praying for you all and hope, that your mom will be able to spend more time with and amongst you. Es tut mir sehr leid Danielle, dass Ihr das Alles ertragen müsst und ich wünsche Euch Gottes Segen, sein Licht scheine auf Euch und gebe Euch Kraft für die noch verbleibende Zeit! Ich drücke Dich und Deine Mom ganz fest!

  • Hiiro Prince

    Thank you for sharing this Danielle…. means a ton to know more about your life and what is happening in this way. So much love for you and your family…. And you are right, all we have is the present and one day at a time.

  • Ross

    choice 🙂

  • Michael Cassity

    I have been reluctant to post in your series of essays because you don’t know me and I don’t want to intrude on a discussion that is so personal, even intensely intimate at times. Still, your words reach out and touch others far beyond the closeness of your family and it is important to let you know that your thoughts, your mother, your love for your mother, and your experiences provide an inspiring and moving message for a great many people. Those of us who have been through this kind of caregiving experience for a parent (and each one is different with its own unique challenges) can admire, and occasionally identify with, your heartfelt compassion, love, and energy. I am grateful to you for sharing. I wish you and your mother the very best as you forge ahead. Just as you have been very fortunate to have her example and love, she is fortunate to be able to draw upon your own strength and clarity and love now. I send you both warm and supportive thoughts in my meditations.

  • Debra Kato

    I was so heartened to read this post! I have thought a lot about your Mom lately, like a couple of weeks ago, when it was the Boston marathon this year and now, three days before I run the Vancouver marathon. As I mentioned to you when I met you at your yoga class, I have been inspired by your Mom since all of her marathon wins in the 1970s when I was a high school runner-so happy to find a Japanese woman runner as a role model. I was never a fast runner nor am I now, but I like to think that I got some of that strength and tenacity from your Mom–and to keep at it even as I get older.
    I am so happy to hear that she has continued with her strength and tenacity in her fight against cancer. It is so evident that you are much like your Mom in this regard.
    Thank you so much for writing about this journey! All the best to your Mom, you and your family!

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