Prologue: Unable to sleep, I wrote this out with pen and paper the evening after the accident. Typing it now two days later I’ve made some small edits.
What is it that is so remarkable about the kindness of strangers? We are owed nothing, and expect nothing, yet undeserving, we receive.
Much has been said about the courtesy and refined manners that typify Japanese culture, and indeed, during the many years I have called Japan my home, I have my own stories to tell of exceptional acts of kindness. But today’s experience far surpasses anything I have ever experienced.
On a spur-of-the moment, I decided to escape the city for the weekend with my 9-year-old daughter, and join my good friend and her daughter on a trip to Nikko, Tochigi prefecture. World Heritage Site of Toshogu shrine, the area is surrounded by stunning old-growth trees, moss-covered ancient stones, breathtaking mountains and rivers.
We took the first train from Tokyo and arrived while the birds were still singing their morning greetings, and I imagined the rest of my family was just getting up and having breakfast. Greeted by the sakura in full bloom, and Nikko air so pure that it shocks the system of someone who has lived too long in the city, I was full of joy and anticipation despite the torrential rains that were forecast to continue through the weekend. Through some amazing turns of fate my friend had been offered one of the old temple buildings for use as a yoga studio in exchange for upkeep, and had been coming here for years.
When we arrived a small group of people were already assembled in the garden, ready to help clean up the studio that had been closed through the winter months.We spent an hour sweeping, dusting the studio and cleaning the garden, then began our yoga practice.
One of my favorite hobbies, I like the description of yoga as a “date with your body”- a treasured moment for self-care in my often exhausting life as mom and wearer of so many hats. The joyous voices of the girls running through the woods punctuated our practice, and I was grateful for my daughter, born and raised in the city, to have this chance to run free. As we wrapped up class I noticed that things were quiet- they must have decided to explore the woods and temple grounds that adjoin the garden. Half an hour later my friend and I were finishing up our bentos and still no sign. I felt a twinge of concern but have always given my three children what would seem in my country of birth (United States) like extreme freedom of movement. As a woman and as a mother, the overall safety of Japan is one of the things I can hardly imagine giving up if I ever leave this country.
Suddenly my friend’s 10-year-old daughter burst into the studio. All I could make out from the hysterical cries was my daughter’s name. My heart fled my body, my feet jumped into my shoes, and ran, laces flying, down the slick wet stones after my young friend. My breath came in panicked painful gasps, and I struggled to steel myself for whatever lay ahead. As I followed her across the busy intersection of the narrow winding road in front of the shrine, towards the rushing river my heart refused to witness the dreadful images that fired through my brain.
But then I saw her small body, lying on the sidewalk, a silent crowd gathered around. Quick check- head, arms, legs- no visible injuries but she seemed unable or unwilling to move- and was too much in shock to talk. I looked up at the faces around us, hoping someone could offer me an explanation- a young policeman was present, but had no information to offer. A woman’s kindly face appeared offering me words of compassion and concern, and surprisingly, an apology. And In English. An apology. I felt that I should be the one apologizing- for the fact that my daughter had apparently dangerously tried to cross not at a crosswalk- mistakes happen, children sometimes make the wrong decisions. Clearly, it was my own daughter who must be at fault. Her expression, so brimming with loving concern, burned deeply into my frazzled consciousness as I escaped into the quiet of the ambulance. The 20-minute ride to the hospital passed in a daze as a deluge of thoughts, memories and emotions washed through me. Later there will be time for scolding, for hard lessons, for a mother’s righteous anger; now there is only gratitude. What could have been so easily taken from me was with me, holding my hand.
Arrival at the emergency room of the quiet rural hospital- the staff are low-key and helpful. X-rays and other examinations follow; relief continues to swell in waves. In between calls and furious texting to both my husband in Tokyo and my friend who is still at the scene with the police, silent gratitude fills the moments of waiting.
So now this brings me to the heart of my story. As we were wrapping up at the hospital my friend and her daughter arrived at the hospital, accompanied by the lady who had been driving- I’ll call her “M”. M had insisted on coming to the hospital, and after a round of hugs and reassurances that my daughter was apparently fine, proceeded to take care of us in every way imaginable. It would be difficult to describe the many little actions, gestures and comments that characterized the hours we spent together today. And it extends not only to her but to her lovely 12-year-old daughter, who with patience and grace looked after the girls, offering them snacks and drinks as we plodded through the police reports and long calls with the insurance company. Her soft-spoken boyfriend insisted on driving us from the hospital to our hotel that evening.
Without a trace of fear, resentment, impatience, blame or any other negative emotion, these exceptional souls extended us concern and compassion in a way that was immediate and authentic. When most would be expected to shirk away from any liability, to show at least a trace of anger at the carelessness of the children’s actions, these individuals chose instead to offer us love. It seemed strange but I was filled with joy, in fact my heart was soaring as we drove back through the rainy spring countryside. For the past few weeks and months my life has seemed clouded with stress. The exhaustion of the daily routine at home with my children, the oppressive weight of the city, the barrage of doubts and confusion as I continue to feel my way through the constant choices and challenges my life. But in this moment as the sun silently retired behind the mountain mists, everything seemed gloriously clear. This is it! For an instant I felt I had grasped the secret of the universe, the golden rule, the magic tool of transformation!
At that moment when only pain and suffering seemed to be where the spinning wheel of fortune had chosen to stop, somehow we were served a giant dose of the genuine selfless kindness of strangers. My wounds of doubt were in an instant salved, and the many on-again, off-again moments of love and hate I have felt living in my adopted country over the past 15 years have all been eclipsed. For myself, and for my daughter as well, today’s emotions will remain deeply forged into our psyches. All I can offer in return is to take the lessons of today and treasure them, to keep them close until hopefully someday I will rise to the challenge of bringing my heart so fully to my interactions with others, and hence be the cause of soothing the suffering of anothers’ heart.
Dear Nikko, dear Japan, these lessons will not be wasted on me, I offer this promise to the universe tonight, and the silent rain is my witness.
Epilogue: The next day we met M one more time as she picked us up and brought us to the train station, giving us cheesecake and chocolates to bring home, and offering that nxt time we visit Nikko, we stay with her. Today a visit to a local clinic confirmed that my daughter was suffering from no more than bruises on her knee. By next week I expect her to be running around again at full speed! My deep gratitude extends as well to my dear friend and her daughter who accompanied us with wisdom and made us feel so strong when we were not. For those curious, I should mention as well that in Japan an ambulance ride is free, and the hospital bill (which was less than 500 dollars) and today’s clinic visit, although not covered by our national insurance, were settled smoothly by M’s insurance company.