President’s Update # 10: February 18, 2022

Life Lessons from my Mother-in-Law

By: Tom Blackburn, P.E. G.E, F. ASCE, F. ACEC

My mother-in-law (Shoko) turns 89 years old this summer. She has advanced Parkinson’s Disease and lives with my wife (Grace) and me. She has lived an extraordinary life, and I wanted to share some highlights with you, because I believe there are some valuable lessons in her story.

She grew up in a privileged home with servants. Her family was of the samurai, with her great grandfather the right-hand man of the Shogun. With the end of the samurai era, her family still had rights and owned the Hiroshima Electric Company. Her father died when she was only two, but Shoko was special as his youngest child and he made special arrangements that she does not marry until she was 21, unlike most who married when they were 15 years old.

 

In 1945, Shoko was 11-years old and living in Hiroshima Japan during wartime. On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Fortunately for Shoko and her immediate family, they were in the country that day and not at their Hiroshima home. No one knew what had happened immediately after the bomb, so many people went into the city to help friends and family. Some of Shoko’s family suffered high levels of radiation exposure, and eventually died from it. Her mother died when she was 17 from the long-lasting radiation effects. When I talk to Shoko about it now, it is painful, but she does not harbor ill feelings towards the United States. She believes that Japan was the aggressor and provoked the attack. Besides, she had to get on with life.

In 1954, Shoko was 21 years old and evaluating her future. In Japan, they had (and still often have) arranged marriages. Shoko’s family had lined up options for her. She wasn’t excited about any of them. She wanted to marry her high school boyfriend, but he wasn’t of the right lineage to suit the family. So, in order to somewhat rebel against her family, satisfy her sense of adventure, and move to a freer country, a land of opportunity, she chose to marry a Japanese man whose family had moved to Stockton, CA. His name was Masaru. Masaru and his family had been to the Japanese internment “camps” during the war and mostly lost everything. The last unknown option was her dad’s arrangements to marry a friend’s son, who came to claim her in Japan when she was 21 and already married (he missed out).

Shoko didn’t speak English when she went to the United States. She attended English classes at the local college. She was very proud to learn to speak and write English. She went on to have 4 children with Masaru – one of those children is Grace. In 1968, when Grace was 8 years old, Masaru had a heart attack and died at home. Like many adults, Masaru smoked unfiltered cigarettes and had a fatty meat heavy diet. Shoko started cleaning houses for money. The family was poor and had to go on welfare to supplement Shoko’s earnings. The relatives helped when they could. Even though things were tough, Shoko worked hard, stayed upbeat and did her best to get the kids on the right track. She was proud to live in the US and decided to earn her citizenship. The judge, who swore them in as US citizens, singled her out since she was the only one who took her test in English.

Unfortunately, things can always get worse. In 1972, the doctor diagnosed Shoko with breast cancer. The doctor told her it didn’t look good, and she might die. Shoko told the doctor that she couldn’t die, because she had 4 kids to take care of and there was no one else. She went through the surgery, chemo and radiation treatments and beat it. Over the next 10 years, she had tumors removed from her stomach, uterus, and mouth. She still worked between surgeries and treatments. She couldn’t die.

In 1986, after the kids were raised and gone, Shoko’s old boyfriend (Kihara-san) from Japan came back into her life. He started courting her (his wife had died). Shoko eventually moved back to Japan and married him. They lived together for 25 years and then they both started having health problems. Grace, our kids and I met him several times and became fast friends with him, even though we didn’t speak much of each other’s language. He became “Grandpa”, and he loved it.

Kihara-san was 16 years old when the bomb dropped and working on the docks in Hiroshima. Fortunately, he was behind a wall and sheltered from the initial blast. Unfortunately, he then walked through Hiroshima trying to find family and help people. He died last November (2021) from radiation effects. The Hiroshima Cenotaph for A-Bomb Victims Memorial contains over 300,000 names, but there remains many unknown and some still fighting the radiation effects. My dad, Don, also died from radiation leukemia in 2017 from the Nevada A-Bomb testing (after the war). These two men had much in common: same age, same residual radiation effects, love for the outdoors, and love of family and friends. Even with two different languages and countries, they respected each other when they met in 2010.

 

Shoko has lived a tough and adventurous life. Even though it would be easy, she refuses to be avictim. It wastes her time. Even today, as she struggles with Parkinson’s Disease, she tries to appreciate life and all God has given her. She often demonstrates what the Japanese call “Ganbatte” or what we might call perseverance. Shoko’s pretty tired and beaten down now, but still looks for the beauty in life and often encourages others. When things seem unfair and difficult for me, I try to remember how difficult they can get and to be thankful for all we have. I hope you can do the same.