I stand before you a man shorn of his mate. My partner, the mother of my beautiful daughter, my best friend, my soul mate taken cruelly from me at the far too early age of 42. All of you here knew Hitomi, or Waka as most people called her, and knew what an inspirational example she set. The truth is that up until the very end Waka was focussed on fighting her illness and staying with us. She refused to give in. Her will power and her strength borne of love was unallayed, undimmed, undiluted by medical opinions. It is a cruel thing that such inestimable valour fell short of the mark.
I stand before you as the only one. The only one to talk about Waka. No minister or humanist, no professional emollient proclaimer of hackneyed phrases for my wife. Just my words. Waka knew me so well. She never discussed her funeral with me because she knew I would find my way. She knew me.
Today I want to tell you about the life of Waka. After which we will hear a few words from Waka’s mother, xxxx and then a Buddhist chant. Finally we will sit in silence until it is time to go. Then we will re-enter the daylight world of the living and take with us our own unique memories of Waka.
Waka was born in xxxxxxxx- a medium sized city on the coast of Honshu Island in Japan, living in the shadow of Mount Fuji. She was the second child of xxxx and xxxxx. Her older brother is xxxxxx who can’t be here today.
xxxxxx and xxxxx thrived through hard work and dedication. First they ran a vegetable shop outside their house and when supermarkets happened father moved to a factory job and mother sold insurance. They bought a house and could give their kids a good education.
Hitomi was a happy, chubby child. As she grew older she was teased for her size at school. This became worse in her teen years until she embarked on a tortuous diet to drastically reduce her weight.
By the time Waka graduated high school she was a tall, voluptuous, stunning young lady. However, Waka did not transform herself without consequence. Food became an obsession. She binge ate and then threw up damaging her body and teeth. She also drifted in life, not finding love or a good job, or a place in society. As another roll of the dice she signed up for a year course studying Mandarin Chinese in xxxxx’s twin city in China called xxxxxx. She arrived in xxxxxx in September 1997.
I first saw Waka when I was at my skankiest. I had been on buses and trains for 5 days getting back from Lhasa, Tibet all the way across China, west to east from Tibet to xxxxxx Prefecture. I smelt, I had a giant cold sore, my hair as always was in mad professor mode. Nothing to fancy. I pulled up in the college taxi and saw Waka with the other recently-arrived Japanese students in the college chatting outside the block of flats where all the foreigners lived.
I fell in love immediately. Waka was gorgeous, bubbly, lively and not cynical. Myself and the other VSO teacher in the college soon got to know all the Japanese arrivals and to everyone except Waka it quickly became clear that I was silly for Waka. She was perfect, pure and seemingly unattainable. Night after night we played cards, drank low quality booze, went to local dancehalls and discos and ate out in amazingly cheap restaurants. We hung out in a gang and had fun. Like an Elizabethan poet looking to complete a sonnet sequence I was not going to give up.
Just before Christmas in 1997 Waka held my hand under a blanket and then kissed me. From that moment we were together. We quarrelled rarely and quickly forgive each other after arguments. We travelled the world together. My bookshelf is full of dusty photos.
In 1997 that was all just beginning. At Christmas that year Waka and I went to Thailand for the first time. We feel in love with the beaches in Koh Phangan. We also made it to Laos which back then was just awaking after decades of slumber under an isolationist communist party. I was 27 and Waka was 23. Life was as perfect as the warm blue skies of South East Asia.
At the end of our first holiday together we returned to xxxxx in China and lived out of each others’ flats. Although Waka’s was much cleaner and the food was better. That continued until the summer of 1998 when I had to go home because of a problem with my heart. That was the first time we were apart for any length of time. I had an operation and went back out to my post in China the following spring.
It was joyous seeing Waka again and at that point I recognised I loved Waka dearly and didn’t want to let her go. I didn’t want to be parted from her again. We made plans for me to take my next job in Japan. Waka left China a few months before me and we promised each other to be together again.
That was the second time we were apart.
It was never in doubt that we would reunite. I met her in Bangkok in the spring of 1999 and we travelled around South East Asia again and re-visited our favourite beaches in Koh Phangan. At the end of the trip we boarded a plan to Japan.
This is when the Japanese part of our life started. Teaching is easy and profitable in Japan and the combination of modern facilities and traditional good manners make it a great country to work in. Despite that I was still as much in love with the freedom of travel as with Waka. In 2000 we left Japan for a long, long holiday. Before going I knew Waka and I would get married, not just because Japanese mores preferred it, but because I realised that I didn’t want to change the cards I had been dealt in the game of life; I just wanted to change the scenery.
We went back to South East Asia before moving on to India where we got married in June 2000 in the Indian Himalayas in full traditional garb with Buddhist priest and musicians. All the neighbourhood turned out, both Muslim and Buddhist. Waka’s mum, dad and brother and my brother and his girlfriend made the journey out to the middle of nowhere. It was the happiest day of my life. I paid the priest $20. He disappeared after the long and complex ceremony. He was humble, shy and earnest. He also didn’t speak a word of English.
For our honeymoon we moved on from India to Africa where we travelled from Nairobi in Kenya to Johannesburg in South Africa. Much of the time we spent sleeping in a tent, eating any cheap food we could find and falling in love with God’s own continent.
By the end of 2000 we were reluctantly resigned to having to go ‘home’ and get a job. Sadly, the mayor of Manali in India was being changed and we had no one to sign our Indian wedding certificate. To avoid immigration problems Waka went back to Japan and I went to England to live with my friend, xxxxx in Brighton. That was the last time we were apart. 16 years ago.
By February 2000 I was back in Japan to have my Japanese wedding. Waka and I giggled as she watched me being helped into Samurai clothing and as I watched her face being shaved and covered in white makeup. Shortly afterwards we returned to England and to our new life in Brighton. I got a job teaching English and Waka worked in a sandwich shop.
In 2001 we finally got married in the eyes of the law as well as the Eastern deities. xxxxx, my brother and xxxxxx were the official witnesses. We dined in an Italian restaurant nearby in the Lanes. It was a rare sunny day in Spring. It was xx April. At that time I was 31 and Waka was 27. We vowed to be together for life. We took the traditional vows and we held true to them, until death did us part.
We lived a happy life in Brighton – clubs, pubs, house parties, £20 Ryanair Flights to continental Europe. The only blemish on an otherwise fine life was the fact that my bank balance wasn’t growing. The high cost of living, back in the early 2000s before working tax credits, meant that even two salaries and a reduced rent didn’t equal a steady increase in liquidity.
I decided to make another move. In perhaps a retrogressive step we went back to Japan to Waka’s birth place, xxxxxx. That was February 2004. It wasn’t easy but eventually we made a new life in Japan. I was a one-man band English school and Waka helped with the administration of the school and had a part-time job. I was right in concluding teaching was more profitable in Japan. We made great friends and became amateur DJs. And Waka was by far the better DJ of the two of us. We worked hard and played hard.
That lasted until 2007. By that time I was burnt out as a teacher and hankering for a new challenge, a new adventure. The opportunity presented itself when we went to Thailand for a holiday and put down a deposit for a piece of land next to our favourite beach. We had yet another leaving party in Japan, packed up and went to Thailand where we lived in a small wooden bungalow on a beach for 18 months. In that time Waka worked in a restaurant and dive shop and I worked promoting the villa with my brother.
The Thailand sojourn didn’t make me a millionaire not even in Baht but it did allow us to live in paradise. I also got to admire my wife in a bikini nearly every day.
In the end we ran out of money and returned together to Japan to look for employment.
Yet again we left one country and went to another to start again. Before I carry on with this history I would like to mention that Waka despite complaints and misgivings about my decisions always stood by me. Loyalty to her family, friends and husband and bravery to periodically re-locate were two of Waka’s central virtues. And later her loyalty to her daughter and her bravery when faced with the debilitating and painful side-effects of cancer treatment were most prominent. She never gave up and she never wanted to leave us.
So in 2009 I started working as an English teacher in xxxxx, just a few kilometres down the road from Waka’s home town. I worked hard and soon had made enough to quit yet another good job and go travelling. This time it was six months doing a big circle of South America south to Tierra Tel Fuego, north to Colombia, east to Ecuador and West to Brazil.
Both of us suffered stomach problems and spent desperate nights venting from both ends. It was hard travelling and all the hostels filled with gap year drunks didn’t interest us much. We made friends, visited amazing places and had a big adventure but by the end I had enough of buses, trains, hostels and street food that made me sick. Resting in her bunk in Buenos Aires just before catching our return flight to Japan, I suggested to Waka that we try for a child. Waka agreed immediately. I guess it was something she had wanted to do for a long time but had never mentioned anything. That was so like Waka. When she met a consultant after her second episode where I felt compelled to phone 999 she never told me that the specialist had only given her 6 months at the most of life. She never wanted to burden people with her troubles.
We went back to Japan after our holiday in South America. Within weeks Waka was pregnant. In October xxxxx was born. In our eyes she was perfect; she was the culmination of our lives. All those journeys across the globe only to discover that all we wanted was just to be with our new child. I had regular teaching work, we had a small flat, we visited Waka’s parents most weekends and I had plenty of time to experiment with making money through the internet. Nothing much was amiss. My goal then was to eventually take my 2 girls and live somewhere near a great beach in Japan.
March 11th, 2011, just before my forty-first birthday, an earthquake with a magnitude of 9 on the Richter scale happened just off the Pacific coast in the Tohoku region of Japan at 14.46. The earthquake was felt all over Japan. It woke me out of a nap. Our television turned itself on and started showing the most horrific pictures of tidal waves sweeping all before them as they moved inland. As of 2015 the death toll stood at just under 16,000 people. It was a natural disaster.
The waves breached the flood defences at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. It caused a level 7 nuclear meltdown. The power company has only been able to keep the reactor from over-heating. The sea water used to cool the reactor goes back into the sea. Radioactive particles continue to escape the plant. Higher than usual counts of radioactivity have been noted in several provinces, some far from Fukushima.
Night after night Waka and I watched the news in English about the nuclear disaster. The Japanese authorities were telling people it would be clean soon. They ‘decontaminated’ areas by picking up surface dirt and by using high-powered water sprays. Nobody asked where all this radioactive material was dumped. Nobody really questioned how water accelerated half-lives. We saw images on the news of school kids going out to play with mini Geiger counters around their necks. The local authorities had decided that one hour’s play outside a day was allowed before life threatening exposure. I felt physically sick with the mendacity of this spin doctoring. I also started to imagine earthquakes when there were none. I was permanently on edge. Eventually it got so bad that I decided to move our family to the UK. Foremost in my thoughts was xxxxx not developing cancer as a result of the fall out of the nuclear disaster.
It was a mountain to climb to get Waka a visa to live in the UK. After 2 years living in the UK we forgot that the visa had to be renewed and we were punished by having to climb an even higher mountain applying for a new visa. At the end of it Waka failed in her application but was given compassionate leave to remain due to her cancer, but I get ahead of myself.
We came to the UK in February 2012. By June of that year we were living in xxxx. A place I considered my home town. Times were hard. Employment was hard to find. We were stuck in the minimum wage and unsociable hours trap. However, we were making friends in xxxxx and living in a beautiful little town. xxxx was doing well in school and Waka was beginning to worry less about the future. Whereas in Japan I was a teacher on a good salary with the options of pensions and mortgages, in England I was a washed up ex-pat on a poor salary, dependent on the state and with no options for securing the future.
It all went awry in June 2014. Waka was diagnosed with breast cancer. We were distraught. Waka spent a few dark days before she determined to beat the cancer. The doctors gave her a prognosis of possible recovery after treatment. We gritted our teeth and plunged into a world of chemotherapy, hair loss, tiredness, sickness and constant hospital visits. It culminated in a mastectomy just before Christmas and radiotherapy in January 2015. Shortly after Waka was given the thumbs up. We had our life back. Despite the British Government wanting to kick Waka out for marrying a poor man we were very happy. We had a future again.
Waka started coughing just before Christmas in 2015. After the holiday she returned to the doctor and this time the GP used the worst word I know – ‘terminal’. Waka took it calmly, I rent my hair and let out a wail that must have echoed down the corridor of the old medical centre.
Waka dug deep, God knows how, but she tapped into a massive reserve of positivity. She was going to beat the cancer by following the ideas of a Japanese doctor who had achieved remarkable results from giving his patients lots of fruit and vegetable juices.
Waka’s focus narrowed and narrowed. She shopped, juiced, looked after xxxxx and had more chemotherapy. She did exercises, went to meditation, spent hours visualising tumour reduction and hunted out organic vegetables. Nothing else really mattered other than family, and staying with the family.
I will spare you the details of Waka’s final days. Mummy has become a star in the sky looking down on xxxx and me every night making sure xxxxx is safe and happy and that daddy is cooking healthy food and cleaning xxxxx’s school shoes.
She refused to accept her prognosis. When she had a setback she re-doubled her efforts and determination to eat better and take in more nutrients. Food was the key for her. In her early life she ate too much, in her late teens and early twenties she had an eating disorder and in the end she found her strength in healthy food free of pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, preservatives, colouring, e numbers and toxins.
When I met Waka she was somewhat lost and looking for a purpose in life. By the time she left she had a very clear purpose in life, and that was to stay alive to help the people that were dear to her.
When I told Waka about the second time I called an ambulance for her all she said in response was ‘Oh dear, oh dear’ in a light-hearted way. There was never any self-pity or despair, just a bit of disappointment that she hadn’t done better. That she hadn’t been a better wife, mother and daughter.
Waka was a bright and able woman. She was adaptable – she could live in foreign cultures and could learn a foreign language. She married a foreign man and died in a foreign country. She ended up in my arms with her last gasps staring at me. It started with a touch and finished in an embrace. I will miss you so much Waka as will everyone here and so many more that you touched with your kindness, obvious goodness, loyalty and bravery. To the end you were thinking of others. So much so that you didn’t want me to tell people how sick you really were. To say you were dying would be to admit defeat, to give death dominion and to let people down.
I love you. I miss you. I feel you still.
And death shall have no dominion.
Dead man naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.
And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan’t crack;
And death shall have no dominion.
And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.