2019 - Ongoing
In 2006, my mother Fumiko died from lung cancer at the age of 47. I was in my last year of high school when she was first diagnosed, and she battled the illness for three years. Up to only a month before her death, I couldn’t conceive of the idea that she would succumb to cancer. I convinced myself that she would eventually defeat it, and be waiting at home for me again like before.
This hope was instantly swept away when I visited her at the hospital in February of that year. As I entered the room, I saw my mother sitting on her bed behind the curtain with a hanging head and a swollen face. I felt an electric shock run through my entire body. Fortunately, she didn’t notice me, so I ran into the bathroom to catch my breath and collect myself. I knew I couldn’t show her the shocked expression on my face, because that would make her realize that there wasn’t much time left for her. Even now, I can clearly remember the extraordinary nervousness I felt.
Following her death, I was overwhelmed with guilt. I had decided not to go home for the New Year’s holiday only three months before, instead choosing to stay in Tokyo with my friends. That somehow made it easier for me to believe that my mom would be all right.
My mom was a really joyful person who would laugh out loud a lot. On my way home from school, when I turned the corner from which I could see our house, I often heard her laughing at television shows. She was also sensitive and reacted strongly to what others thought of her. After having spent most of her life in a big city, I think she continuously struggled to adjust to our rural lifestyle.
When she drove, she always played foreign artists like Chaka Khan or Whitney Houston. Even though I never told her, I was secretly proud that she was listening to Western music in a countryside area as remote as ours.
When my mom was healthy she was very self-critical and uncertain about herself, but when she was fighting her illness she was confident and determined to win. After she lost all of her hair from radiation and wore a wig for the first time, she made fun of herself and laughed very hard, even though my father, sister and I were very concerned about how it might affect her. It seemed that being sick allowed my mom to become more mentally strong. However, while she tried to be positive and tough, her physical strength deteriorated day by day. I slept with her in her hospital room for the last three weeks. As she started slipping in and out of consciousness, one day she suddenly sat up in bed and said in a clear tone: “How about Japanese pancakes for dinner tonight?” It looked like she didn’t understand that her own death was approaching.
I had my camera with me in the hospital room, as I thought I might want to capture something from my last days with her. But after seeing cancer completely change her appearance, I worried that photographing her in that state would erase my earlier, healthier memories of her. I barely managed to touch my camera in those final days.
In 2017, my childhood home in Niigata was torn down due to damage that had never been properly repaired after the 2007 Chuetsu-Oki earthquake. I felt a void inside me. My mom had been gone for a decade by that time, and now the house where I had grown up with her was gone as well. When I visited the site the following year, only an empty lot remained. With nothing but grass and weeds blowing in the wind, it looked as if there had never been a house there at all.
A couple of years ago, I found an unfamiliar old metal cookie box in my grandparents’ house. It was full of negatives and photos from my mom’s childhood and early adulthood, as well as many images from the early years of my parents’ relationship before they got married. I had never seen those pictures before. As a photographer, I always had feelings of regret because I didn’t take pictures of my mother when she was alive. After the discovery of my mom’s old photos, I decided to make a book to serve as a composite portrait of her as seen through the memories she left behind.
We all experience the loss of loved ones. Accepting death and recovering from grief requires hard work. In my case, the feeling of disbelief that followed my mom’s death made me avoid thinking about her for a long time to protect myself from the pain. Until I decided to create this book, I always had a hard time remembering my mom when she was healthy and happy. As I retraced her memories while working on this project, I realized that her final painful period was only one small part of a larger life filled with joy. Despite the void inside me formed after the loss of my mom, I am now ready to go on living because I was finally able to recover the memories of her cheerful laughter and beautiful smile.