Thursday, March 18, 2010

"T" is for Toothfairy

On the top shelf of the dish cupboard in my kitchen is where I keep the crystal champagne flutes that my parents gave us for our wedding toast. There is also a crystal replica of the university that my husband used to work at in Osaka. Next to it there's a beautiful Japanese tea set given to my husband by his best friend from his home town. Another beautiful tea set (this one painted pottery) given to me by my mother. The rest of the top shelf is crowded with wine glasses, beer mugs, anything breakable and valuable--and a lot of stray baby teeth. There are a lot of tiny, pearl white teeth--front teeth, bottom teeth, molars--all of them are baby teeth. My children's teeth specifically.

They are on the top shelf of the dish cupboard because neither one of my children has ever shown any interest in finding out what I keep up there. When I get up there to dust, I always experience a little recoil of shock. It's like an episode of Fox's T.V. show, "Bones." The white glint of the teeth always catches my eye first. Then I remember, our family believes in the Tooth fairy, and I go about my dusting or wine goblet fetching or whatever my reason for getting up there was.

The teeth are not supposed to technically be in our house anymore. They are supposed to be at the Tooth fairy's place. They were wriggled, pulled and coaxed from my children's mouths (by my children themselves) to be carefully positioned under their pillows for collection. These baby teeth are offered hopefully at dusk in trade for a shinning 100 yen coin in the morning. Each of my daughters has a special "Tooth Fairy Pillow", with a little pocket sewn on it to hold the lost tooth and the shinny 100 yen coin the good fairy will leave when she flutters in and discovers the tooth--her treasure.

I grew up in America where children believe in Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. When my family moved from Illinois to California when I was in the second grade the most traumatic part of the move for me was that I lost a baby tooth just after we arrived at our new home in California. Only one thought dominated my mind, "WHAT IF THE TOOTH FAIRY DIDN'T REALIZE I HAD MOVED? WHAT IF SHE HAD NO IDEA WHERE ME AND MY LOST, READY TO BE CONVERTED TO COIN, BABY TOOTH WAS?"

I drew huge maps and signs and forced my father to climb up a ladder and tape them to our roof.

I have no idea when my belief in the tooth fairy ended. Did I loose all my baby teeth and get too busy perfecting teenage angst to even ponder the true fate of all those baby whites? Did someone pull me aside and tell me, "hey, it's your folks that are slipping you the quarters at night. There ain't no little winged tooth fairy." If it was the later, even though I have no memory of it, I am sure it was my older brother. I do remember him destroying the myth of the Easter Bunny for me and even more traumatic--his slaying of Santa.

I have to confess though, that not remembering when my faith was broken I also don't recall how it was instilled in me in the first place. And really, what a story to swallow: a little magical winged creature flying into my bedroom, after I was asleep, and taking my baby teeth from under my pillow. Granted, I was only five or so when they started talking about the Tooth fairy. At five-years-of age I also believed my brother when he told me that keeping a suitcase full of rotting food under my bed would keep the Bogey man away. I also recall believing that if I just got up enough speed running, I would be able to fly. I was positive that I could do it. Which is why I believed my brother when he told me that jumping off the jungle gym would also get me airborne. The blue paint from the bottom bar of the jungle gym was still on my front tooth when the Tooth fairy came to take it. I remember because I was worried that it would lessen the value of the tooth and she might "mark it down."

Because the Tooth Fairy can do that you know. Mark 'em down. Especially if they have cavities. Those baby teeth fetch only half of what cavity free baby teeth go for.

Which is probably why I decided to tell my kids about the Tooth Fairy. Even though here in Japan she is not a custom. I've been told that the Japanese throw their children's baby teeth away. Lower baby teeth get thrown up on the roof of the house (or up high) and upper baby teeth get thrown down under the house (or off a balcony or from an upper story window). Yet the Japanese keep their baby's umbilical stumps in a special ceremonial little box for life--something that Americans throw out. What the heck. My kids are doubles after all--both American and Japanese. They get the Japanese Kappa and the American Bogey Man. The Oga Peninsula's Namahage with the American Headless Horseman. And of course the Tooth Fairy.

I think it was when I was having trouble getting my eldest to brush her teeth that I remembered the Tooth Fairy. You have to brush regularly to keep the teeth sparkling white for the Tooth Fairy!

However, believing in the Tooth Fairy and being the Tooth fairy are two completely different things. Believing in the Tooth fairy lessens the pain and fear of losing something that you've grown quite used to--your teeth. Being the tooth fairy means having to stay awake until your child is deep, deep asleep so you can wrest the little Tooth fairy pillow from underneath their slumbering little head and fish out the lost baby tooth and replace it with a shiny 100 yen coin.

I have been known to blame the Tooth fairy's failure to retrieve a baby tooth on the forever-coming-home-late Daddy.

Should one of my daughters wail, bright and early in the morning, "MOMMY! My tooth is still under my pillow!" I reply sleepily, "Oh honey. I'm sorry. Daddy came home so late last night that I believe he scared the Tooth Fairy away. She doesn't like anyone to see her you know."

The tooth fairy is also sensitive to weather conditions, undue noise from the T.V. (should Daddy stay up too late watching it) and she loathes being exposed to germs so stays away if anyone is contagious. Especially Mommy.

For the most part though, I keep some shiny coins on hand whenever I see a tooth starting to go wiggly and I get the job done. Part way. I take the baby teeth from under their pillows. I leave the shiny 100 yen under their pillows. Then I go downstairs, climb up on a chair and stow the baby teeth up on the top shelf of the cupboard.

I don't know what my own mother did with my baby teeth. Did she keep them? Has she got them stored somewhere? I doubt it. She did everything but gut my childhood bedroom when I left for college. My Mom isn't big on keepsakes. Which may explain why I am. Why I hoard Reno and Saki's baby teeth up on the top shelf of my dish cupboard.

I have no idea what I am going to do with two full sets of baby teeth someday. No one wants jewelry made from teeth--aside from serial killers. No one really wants a small bottle filled with their baby teeth. But throw them away? Toss them out? I can't bring myself to throw them up or down, much less out.

It wasn't hard to throw out Reno's tonsils, which she had removed when she was seven years old. The hospital gave those to us. They were floating around inside a clear glass jar. We kept them for about a week and then Reno and I agreed together to throw them out. I think I put them out with the regular burnable garbage. The baby teeth are different somehow though. I remember their little pink toothless gums as babies and how they cried and fussed when their first teeth came in. I remember the joy and relief of seeing a white tooth finally push through the gums. I remember watching them learn how to bite and chew with these amazing new things called "teeth".

How can I simply throw them out? They are what their childhood smiles were made of.

I suspect that it will be one of many weird and bizarre discoveries my children will make about me in the future after I have passed away. They'll be sorting through my belongings, deciding what to keep and what to throw. They will get up on a chair, and reaching up onto that top shelf in the cupboard they'll find them--their baby teeth. They are all mixed up, so they won't really know which are Saki's and which are Reno's, but they'll find them all up there.

"She kept our baby teeth."

I wonder, will they?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Learning to Say Goodbye

I feel like that kid in class at college. The one who never spoke up. The one who never ventured an opinion or offered a plausible answer. The one, who sat quietly for week after week after week, until when, in the last week of the semester they raised their hand and attempted to speak it seemed like not only time within the classroom froze--time throughout the world did too. Everyone was waiting, with baited breath, what would The-Silent-One say?

So here I sit trying to think of something profound to share while my house echos with drum beats like the movie Jumanji. My kids got the Wii Taiko Drum game from Santa this year. (Yes, Reno, now nearing the age of 12 STILL believes.) But, now that I've got your attention, I've got to plow on ahead and say something.

I washed the cat yesterday.

There, I've put something out there; admittedly it is on a par with The-Silent-One's typical end of semester question, "Will the final be blue book exam or multiple choice?", but we've got one fluffy Russian Blue in house. Who smells rather floral. And is still glaring at me every time she enters a room in which I am.

We used to have two cats--Melon (the American Shorthair) and Happy (floral fluffy stray who looks exactly like a Russian Blue). But we lost Melon just before Christmas. She was only 8 years old, but died from kidney failure.

Melon is currently very much still part of our household. Physically, her bones and ashes are in an urn, in a Japanese funeral urn box, in her old pet basket on top of the cat cage. In front of the pet basket is a bowl of her dry food, a cup of water (she always preferred drinking out of cups she found on the sly left on the table, rather than drinking from out of her water bowl on the floor in the kitchen), her favorite mouse on a stick toy, and several photos of her. In the pet cage, crowding around the box holding her urn, are pictures of her that the girls have drawn and several letters to her as well as one properly bound (with yarn and tape) picture book about Melon authored by Saki.

She was cremated at a pet funeral home on the 19th of December. On February 5th or 6th we will intern her ashes at the pet funeral home. That will mark 49 days since her cremation--Buddhist tradition. I still have to check with Masa--is it 49 days counting the day of the funeral or 49 days counting from the first day after the funeral?

If anyone had ever told me that I would pay to hold a funeral for a pet, I would have laughed, anxiously. I would have had anxious thoughts flooding my mind like, "good lord. Will my life be that pathetic? Will I treat a pet like a human loved one? Will I try to make others honor my pet as a "person" too?" Flash back to my parents' home six years ago when we visited them for three months: My father accused me of causing their dog to fall into a deep depression during my visit. Because I treated Caylie (the dog) like a d-o-g. "He's not a dog. He is much more. He is as much a part of this family as either you or your brother were when you were growing up."

Disturbing statement on several levels which triggered anxious questions, the most immediate being, "We were like pets to you and Mom?"

I love my pets. I have always had pets. I loved Melon and I love Happy fiercely. But I love my pets as pets. In fact, were they people to me, I'd probably have much more complicated and difficult relationships with them. As it is, I am free to love them unconditionally as pets. They vomit up a fur ball on the kitchen floor? I love them unconditionally. They shred a favored section of the couch? I love them unconditionally. I scream, "BAD CAT!" a lot, but the love remains unconditional.

The bottom line is: I love animals, especially pets, but I love them because they are animals/pets.

Which is why this past summer when we visited my parents for two weeks, I took the opportunity on more than one occasion to fall on bended knee, look deep into their new dog's (a spirited little terrier) big black glossy eyes and say, "Tucker, you are a dog."

Saki kept asking, "Mommy, why are you doing that?" and I told her, "Because honey, he is a dog. Isn't he a cute dog?" My Dad winced in the background, but I think he got my message.

So if pets are pets, then why an elaborate funeral for Melon? An elaborate funeral which cost quite a bit of money no less.

When Melon first fell sick, it was obvious that the kids were in distress. The cat was in acute physical distress, but my girls were in acute emotional distress. It wasn't the first time that Melon had been critically ill. Five years ago, when Masa was first diagnosed with RA and sent to a hospital for three months to start treatment, Melon took the opportunity to suddenly begin vomiting non-stop. I took her to the vets where they did emergency surgery (expecting to find a blockage in the intestines, "perhaps a bit of sting, or part of a cat toy") which turned up nothing. My cat couldn't stand, eat, drink or use the litter box on her own. I expected the vet to suggest euthanizing her. He didn't. When I suggested it, he was appalled.*

So for the first month that Masa was in hospital, I was taking Melon to the vets daily for IV treatments and feeding her liquid food with an eye-dropper. She drooled non stop, couldn't stand and I had to wipe up her and her cage several times a day.

For the second month that Masa was in hospital, Melon started to stand up, although she tended to fall over on her right side a lot. But she started to eat a bit of wet food on her own and drink some water which decreased the frequency of the IV treatments.

By the time Masa came home, Melon was nearly normal. The vet proffered that they thought we should take her to a big Veterinary Hospital in Osaka to have an MRI done on her to determine if perhaps the cause of all of this was a brain tumor. But as Melon continued to regain her strength and her former feline self, we never did.

Why didn't I fight harder to have her put down? The poor thing had a quality of life that was non-existent for at least two months. The vets never offered any hope of recovery. The vets couldn't even give an educated guess (except for their final, "brain tumor?" theory) as to why Melon had become so ill. It was a "mystery disease that appeared incurable."

Because with then six-year-old Reno it all sounded so similar to the diagnosis that her Daddy had just been given. For five years Daddy had had health problems that were mysterious. Doctors didn't know what was wrong. Even with the diagnosis of RA they confessed that they couldn't be absolutely sure that it was RA and not a combination of another immune system disease coupled with a spine disease and maybe a few others. The only thing that they told us with certainty was that it was "incurable". . . but "treatable".

And Reno made those connections. Having the cat put down seemed tantamount to announcing, "and perhaps we'll have Daddy put down next."

And Melon recovered. And Daddy came home. And he is home and in treatment and doing well.

But now, this past December, Melon started to vomit non-stop again. Masa was out of country on a business trip. It all felt so familiar. Back to the vets (a new vet, but like the one in Osaka, against euthanasia). This time the diagnosis was confirmed with a blood test. Her kidneys were in failure. We did IV treatments for a week. Then one day we skipped the treatment--Masa was back from his trip by now--and she spent her last day at home, in her pet basket. Saki sat next to her on her final evening and sketched her, telling her what a good cat she was, how much she was loved. That evening, Reno disobeyed my order to "go to bed!" and stayed up with Melon for about two hours, petting her and talking to her.

In the early morning, around 2:30 a.m. I heard a terrible noise and came downstairs to find Melon dying. When she was done, I picked her up, cleaned her up, and put her in her cat basket, curled up and quiet. The girls found her that way in the morning.

I cried in the kitchen in the early dawn. The girls cried when they woke up and came downstairs to find that she had passed on. But it was a school/work day and after the girls were off on their way to school, I took Melon's body and placed it in a towel, which I placed in a cardboard box, which I took out back and put in the shed in the back yard. It had been snowing steadily for over a week and so the chances of an outdoor burial were nil. The ground, besides being rented, was frozen and buried under snow and ice.

We called the vet and she referred us to the pet funeral home. So two days later, that is where we had Melon cremated. Masa and I debated the merits of paying for such a ceremony. It was Masa who really decided in the end that it was worth doing--for the girls. It would be a kind of lesson in death and learning to say goodbye.

And it has been a lesson, a progression, a process. Especially for Saki. At seven years of age, she kept asking if Melon was really dead. At the pet funeral parlor, after sending Melon off for cremation she wept and cried. As we passed Melon's bones around and put them in the urn she was silent but alert, open. On the way home, with the urn in the car with us, Saki clutched a photo of Melon to her chest and continued to weep.

We've gone from that day of the funeral and weeping, to telling each other stories about Melon. Remembering Melon together. Saki has spent a lot of time breaking down what happened to Melon. How she first got sick, how she died, how we cremated her. Reno, more familiar with the idea of death hasn't been as verbal about it all as Saki has, but yesterday as I rearranged the letters around the urn I was surprised to discover that many of them were poems about Melon and letters to Melon that Reno has written and quietly, unobserved, slipped next to her pet's memorial.

Masa looked over at me on the day of the funeral and told me, "It's important that they learn how to say goodbye so that they can go on with living." that and, "If they don't learn to live with the emptiness of loss then they are bound to choose bad men on the rebound in the future when they break up with a boyfriend."

I think he was right. On both levels.

*Most veterinarians in Japan are against euthanizing animals, believing that it is going against the natural order to do so. Unless a family can present an air tight case for not being able to afford treatment/care they are very reluctant to end an animals' life prematurely, albeit, humanely. Ironically, most Japanese also believe that neutering or spaying animals is against the natural order. Although most vets will gladly do it.