Our first summer spent on Iki in 2020 was a bit hectic. We had just arrived in May: new community, new house, new school, new life. We didn’t know the roads, weather, where the good beaches were, the best times to swim — we didn’t know anything about island life. So we were very much looking forward to spending summer 2021, after a year of settling in, revelling in the summer riches the island of Ikijima has to offer.
Then came that dreaded phrase: “It’s cancer.”
My dad, a relatively healthy man who would walk early morning laps around the track every day all of a sudden started slowing down. Six brisk laps became four, then two, and then just going to the end of the block left him breathless. Once the CT scan came back we made the decision: we must leave our island home as soon as possible.
A whirlwind of activity and decision-making arose as we went into crisis mode. We had to buy emergency plane tickets, investigate travel restrictions into Canada, organize covid tests, give away all of our belongings, and leave the island and the country.
The news of our departure spread quickly through our small island community, and we had many kind offers of help and meals delivered. Everyone asked us which ship we were leaving on, and we told them we were taking an early morning Sunday flight. “Please don’t bother yourself with seeing us off! It is your day off, please relax!” we told them. A friend said it was the Iki way to have a big send-off for people leaving the island, like high school grads going to the mainland for college. Everyone seemed a bit disappointed that we weren’t going by ship. Apparently the normal practice is to attach large paper streamers to the upper deck of the jetfoil or ferry. All the family and friends on the dock will each grasp a strand. As the ship separates from the dock the crepe paper stretches and then tears — a final symbolic act of letting go.
Yet the airport send-off was still pretty spectacular. Dozens of neighbours, schoolmates, and friends showed up before 8am at the small Iki airport. We were shocked so many came! They congregated on the roof of the building with massive banners thanking our kids.1 Lead by a teacher, the students lined up to give a cheer, and my kids stumbled through on-the-spot thank you speeches. My wife gave a heartfelt and tearful speech of her own, and I just sounded like a verklempt idiot.
We stretched our final moments as long as possible but there was a small plane waiting to take us away from this jewel in the middle of the sea. We rushed downstairs and checked in our nineteen pieces of luggage2 before squeezing through security between final handshakes and hugs.
Out on the tarmac we turned back to wave goodbye. 😭
I have made the short flight from Iki to Nagasaki a number of times to do research for my book. This time I noticed the pilot was not taking the standard runway approach. He drove the plane past the airport building for a final wave, then to the far end of the runway and turned giving us one last look at Tsutsukihama, Iki’s iconic white sand beach. The flight attendant presented us with some small mementos of Iki and confirmed that the scenic detour was for our benefit. I thanked her for her hospitality and 20 minutes later, on the ground at Nagasaki international airport, we waved (and bowed) thankfully to the pilots after deplaning.
Leaving Iki was hard, but the decision was easy.
Another time I will write about the trials and tribulations of entering Canada during a pandemic, of quarantining in luxury-priced Government Approved Accommodation, dealing with a sluggish federal quarantine bureaucracy, and having our covid test samples — required to leave quarantine — lost by the lab. Right now I want to focus on the most difficult thing I have ever had to do in my life. At least, that is how it feels right now.
There are too many data points, details, logistics, relationship dynamics, phone calls, conflicting information, and emotions to delve deeply into here. Suffice it to say, my father was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive metastatic lung cancer that had spread all throughout his body. This was a complete shock to him and us. By the time we got to Kelowna he was already on home oxygen, and within a couple of days he was hospitalized and put on a much stronger OptiFlow machine. No one was allowed to see him due to covid restrictions. A few days later a subsequent CT scan mapped how fast the cancer was progressing throughout his body. The doctor loosened the hospital covid restrictions so we could see him in his private room.
I will never forget that room. I slept in there, at the foot of my father’s bed, listening to the OptiFlow machine keeping him alive while staring out the window at the clear north Okanagan sky. I had no idea that the sky went through so many subtle colour changes in the middle of the night. The North Star hung in that dark blue gradient, twinkling so brightly, the eternal guide. We had our first meeting with the oncologist in that room. The only respite he could offer my father was a rather formal, but compassionate handshake. That was on the 19th.
Three days later, on the 21st, my dad woke suddenly at 4am, sat himself up, and turned to look out the window at the pre-dawn sky. I stood there with him, ready to attend to his needs saying “Isn’t it beautiful Dad?” He was very calm. Thankfully the hallucination had left him alone, however there was also no clear sign of lucidity. I snapped a photo of the sky and of him looking upon its heavenly glory. I have no idea what he was thinking. A few moments later he laid down and went back to sleep. It was a moment of innocence and wonder that I will forever treasure. I knew I had shared something nice with him. Fifteen hours later I would be sitting on his bedside, stroking his arm with one hand and fanning his face with the other as he breathed his last breaths. After they disconnected the OptiFlow I didn’t know what else I could do. For the next forty minutes, his last, I alternated between repeating the nembutsu and quotations from the mettā sutta, all the while feeling his pulse slowly get fainter and fainter. He passed at 7:27PM on June 21st, 2021 at the age of 68.
What comes after
Fifteen months ago, when we moved to Japan, my mother-in-law was hospitalized for cancer. We went to visit but the hospital was nervous about a new “coronavirus” so my wife went up to visit while I stayed outside with the girls. The next day the hospital locked itself down, and my mother-in-law never got to see her granddaughters before she passed. It happened just nine days after we arrived in Japan.
Not wanting to experience such a situation again drove us to rush back to Canada this time. I am glad I was able to give my father the opportunity to see his granddaughters one last time. As hard as it was, I am glad I was able to be there for his last moments. He passed just eleven days after our arrival in Canada.
I don’t know what it means, if anything. I am still processing things. It has only been a few days, and this whole emergency move still isn’t quite over. There are both physical and emotional logistics that require my attention.
That said, even though we have left Japan, I am not done with it. I never will be. I still have so much content to publish about Iki and Kyushu, and I will keep working on the book from here, so expect more content on those topics for a good long while to come. The blog posts and newsletter will resume. Also, I hope to visit Japan more frequently once covid travel restrictions end, and continue my research.
But that is all I got now. It will take some time to settle down and for us to figure out our day-to-day. New community, new house, new school, new life — all over again.
- Recall that there are only 48 students in the entire elementary school my kids attended. The district superintendent was very excited for the local kids to have the opportunity to interact with some international students for a whole year. ↩
- Another challenge to this emergency move under pandemic conditions, was that all shipping between Canada and Japan had been put on hold, so we could not send anything back on the ship. ↩