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‘Obasute’

A Japanese term meaning “abandoning an old woman,” obasute refers to the custom allegedly practiced in Japan in very ancient times, whereby an old or sick parent or relative was carried up a mountain and left there to die, either by exposure to the elements, dehydration, or hunger. This practice of discarding old people in the mountain was said to have been mandated by some feudal lords of Japan in the distant past.

Obasute has become the subject of many Japanese stories, legends, poems, and even films. One Buddhist allegory tells the story of a son who carried his aged mother on his back and ascended a certain mountain with the intention of leaving her there to die. On their way there, they had to traverse dense underbrush and thick woods. All throughout their journey, the mother was stretching out her arms, grappling with and snapping the twigs over her head and scattering the leaves in their wake. She did this so her son would be able to find his way back down the mountain.

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In my case, having not long ago brought my own mother to a hospital, not knowing that she’d be breathing her last and expiring there, gives me this nagging feeling that I, as it were, carried her on my back and abandoned her on the mountain to die. It was cardiac arrest, but the notion wouldn’t leave me, like the scent of an unknown hidden flower adrift in the air, that comes and goes with the breeze, yet whose whereabouts you cannot find.

But here’s the thing that breaks my heart. Though no longer there, this mother of mine remains present in the vacuum, in the emptiness, that her absence has created. Her rocking chair that only the wind now rides and rocks, the bed that still bears the imprint of her weightless, broken body, even the sweater that she knitted for me when her hands and mind were still working, that I never wore because I did not like the color—all these are the twigs and leaves she left, for me to find. She bequeathed all of these mementos and memories so that I’d be able to find my way back home. Back to being the good boy I was. Back to being the bad man I had become. Back to the imponderable, unfathomable coves and caves of myself.

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I have returned, after leaving my mother to perish on the mountain, to this vale of tears where we are, to confront the unendurable pain of losing her. Where her presence used to define the cadence of my days, now it is her absence that marks the hours for me. Her shadow remains clearly etched on the pavement where she used to walk, in a kind of death march, in a simulacrum of the danse macabre, back and forth, back and forth, so as to soak up the last of the sunlight, to breathe in the last sweet draft of life. I see the shadow of her absence, black as spilled ink, redolent as the odor of a secret flower, not seen yet able to assault one’s senses powerfully, passionately, just the same. Yesterday, the ripe mango I was eating turned salty of a sudden; the pakbet we both loved now tastes bitter, like parya, bitter all over.

On our way to the hospital, on what would turn out to be her last day on earth, I held her hands tightly in mine, while this thought crossed my mind: Here are the same set of hands; only this time, I’m the one in control and leading, worried sick she’d vanish and go. On the beach in Bangui one stormy day when I was a boy, my mother’s hands, then firm and strong and brave, held mine and kept the angry sea at bay, forbade it from snatching me away. Now her hands were bony, frail and light, like some dead fallen leaves, quiet on the ground. Even so, she did go, leaving me.

It was the first Christmas I spent without my mother, the first cleaving of the years we will not witness together. My entire being shivered from the yearning to speak to her, to tell her how sorry I am that I might not have been the son she wanted me to be, that I had not loved her well enough.

As I myself mark time, dark thoughts visit me like black bats in the night. When it is my time to go, who will take me up to the mountain and abandon me there to die? What will I leave in place of twigs and leaves? Perhaps, the slightest suggestion of color on the pavement, a wash of shadow colored blue, blue like the morning glory, like the something blue I feel. Maybe, the merest whiff of the fragrance of a flower, unnamed and unseen, not touched and not loved. Nothing more.

This old boy misses his mother, his only one. And she is gone, gone, gone! Though my tears plow furrows and gouge gullies across my face, though the tears fall to the floor and form a river and feed a sea, there isn’t a force in all the world that can bring her back to me.

The mountain where my mother is retains still the last feeble light of day, but here where I am, this vale of tears is already sunk in the gloaming. Memories of my mother, like birds, come home to roost. The crown of my tree is consequently thick and heavy and dark with them, and my head is filled with their soft chattering. Soon the birds will settle down to sleep. I hope I, too, will find peace. So help me, God.

What makes the grief bearable at all is the thought that you, Nanay, are safe and warm in the loving hands of God, that you are where there are no mountains to climb, no tears to shed, where December is like May, where Christmases are really and truly merry and happy.

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Antonio Calipjo Go is the academic supervisor of Marian School of Quezon City ([email protected]).

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TAGS: Buddhist allegory, Death in the Family, Japanese term, Obasute, parents
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