From right to left - Melinda, Carol, Stephen, Anne and Cappy
Anne and the Gifts
The encounter began in a stark waiting room in a Japanese hospital in Tokyo. My sister, Anne Pillsbury Gripp, was occupying a room in intensive care there, having suffered a heart attack while attending an orchid show in Tokyo in 1994. Anne was the owner of the Santa Barbara Orchid Estate located in Goleta, California.
I had flown in to be with her and with her two mostly adult children, my niece Alice and nephew Perry. The next two weeks were surreal, punctuated by bewilderment and occasional humor.
Anne had always had problems with her heart, we knew that. She had suffered from Rheumatic Fever when she was two years old and it had left its print on her health; her cardiologist was optimistic but realistic. She and I had gone through the loss of the sister who was between us in age, Carol Sylvia, twenty years before. Carol had been 36 when she died of a heart attack. You don't like to think about what that might mean to you about your own heart.
Carol was just two years younger than Anne but no one would believe they were related. That was sort of amazing when both their last names were Pillsbury and they, unarguably, had the same parents. Anne was tall, skinny and dark haired with dark brown eyes. Carol was short, curvaceous, blond, and had huge, vivid blue eyes. Anne was a book worm who went on to major in math at UCLA. Carol went to secretarial school right out of high school and went on to dominate any job she took. Anne would become a mathematician for GE right out of college in 1958.
Anne and I had talked just before she took off for the airport to finalize plans to take all of the kids to Disneyland as soon as she was back, mine and hers. When the phone rang that day I picked it up expecting to hear her voice.
That waiting room was a long ways from Disneyland, no matter how you looked at it. There was too much time to think about how fragile life really is and about whether of not that still figure in the bed upstairs would wake up and see us. Twice a day we got to see her unmoving form for 45 minutes.
Carol had died the day before Valentine's Day, 1974. I was 9 months pregnant with my second child then. Later, my mother returned to me unopened the Valentine I had sent Carol. Inside were two embossed cards, one from me and one from the baby she had promised to Godmother. I still have those small cards in my desk. Every so often I take them out and hold them.
The nursing staff did not speak English but they were very firm about the time limit.
While in the waiting room we had little to look at except the other families. Some of these changed over that two weeks; some remained the same.
We could not comprehend when those who shared that small room with us spoke, although we knew it was about the people they hurried to see when the time came. We all of us went up together. Sad events brought all of us there, we understood each other. Waiting and not knowing is hard.
One day I bought a small box of candies and shared it with the lady and her little girl who were sitting cross from me. Her face lit up and she bowed, accepting the small confection. I smiled back, using the word for “you are welcome,” I had just then learned.
That started the Battle of the Gifts. I was about to learn about the Japanese custom of gifting. Giving gifts is a custom that is taken seriously in Japan. Gifts are a major line item for companies and for individuals. Gifts given at specific times of the year even have special names. A midsummer gift giving is traditional and called O-chugen. At the end of the year another gifting period blossoms with presents and is called O-seibo. Those are usually gifts given to those to whom you feel indebted.
The next day I was astonished to receive a beautifully wrapped gift handed to me by the lady who looked like a porcelain doll in western clothing. She smiled and bowed gracefully. I bobbed and accepted. Inside was a perfect pastry enclosed in cellophane. Delicious.
It was a much needed distraction at first. The gift-giving continued every day and the value and permanence slowly grew. Delicacies to be consumed turned into a small book, a set of cups, tea to be used in the tea cups. Alice and Perry began wondering aloud where it would end. So did I. Eventually, we found that out.
Talking to the English manger of the hotel where we were staying I learned that it might never stop. Frightening thought. But it was a distraction we all needed, I think.
Every night, on the way back to the moderately priced hotel, I looked for shops where I could get arm my self for the Battle of the Gifts. I enjoyed watching the shop girl wrap it. They were so fast and precise, making an art form of just handing it to me, small bow included.
Back at the hotel I would put it carefully on top of the tiny chest of drawers. Japanese hotel rooms are well appointed, but they are very small. Space at a premium the small bathroom had a bathtub that did not allow for stretching out anything. Breakfast in the morning was classical Japanese, grilled fish, Misho soup, tea and rice consumed rapidly at a counter in one of the small places we passed on the way back to the hospital. Occasionally I would hear from my children or from my husband back in Santa Barbara, but they sounded distant over the phone. They laughed over the continuing Battle of the Gifts.
Then that Battle drew to a close in a way that was very unexpected. I had been in Japan for two weeks.
None of the staff spoke English well enough to tell us what was happened. Straining to understand what the prognosis might be we had decided to put her on full life support a week after I arrived. I had immediately contacted the American Embassy to ask for translation services. They hung up on me after passing me around for an hour. That happened more times than I can remember now. Then I remembered a friend had mentioned the American Express would provide some services to gold card members and called them.
Within a day they had arranged for a specialist who spoke English and Japanese to talk to the physician overseeing Anne's case and communicate with Sue, my brother Cappy's wife back at Stanford Medical Center. Sue is a physician specializing in Oncology and Radiology.
Sue's tones were professional and sad at the same time. Anne had suffered a heart attack. If this had happened out on the street with friends present in the United States the emergency personnel called would have suspected a possible heart attack. In Japan heart attacks are far rarer. Anne had suffered irreparable brain damage. Her body was there, she was gone.
Alice, Perry and I needed to talk.
Sitting on the beds in their small room we cried together. We all knew what Anne would have wanted, there were no doubts.
I flew home alone. Alice and Perry stayed to arrange to have Anne medivaced back to the U. S. so she could be disconnected and die, as she always said she would want to do under these circumstances, at home in her own bed.
I still miss Anne. We took turns reading her favorite books to her and she was never alone. Dawn, my second oldest daughter, was reading her Pride and Prejudice when Alice said that Anne had stopped breathing.
When I was getting ready for the memorial service I discovered how many people remembered the pumpkin pies Anne baked for everyone every Thanksgiving I remembered the many garments and other items she had made for her family from a huge bolt of bold red and white stripped material that felt like it was made of canvas. I got a skirt and blouse; I was five then, that was scratchy where it touched the skin. I also received a jacks bag that lasted better than leather.
All the men in the family got short sleeved shirts that made us look like escapees or a singing group. It was so Anne, we used to say. Anne loved giving gifts. I thought about that during those hours in the waiting room, thought about the gifts, small and large we had exchanged over the years and what gifts mean.
In Japan gifts are very conscious parts of life. After those weeks in that stark, small, waiting room with the ugly linoleum floor and those hard chairs giving and receiving looked different to me. They mean more and now they are more than objects. Gifts are many things. Anne's death and the Battle of the Gifts taught me many things. Some of the gifts life brings, the least visible, connect us across time; the greatest gift, love, connects us us past death, and that I find as I grow older and hopefully wiser, is the most precious thing we ever receive.