The story behind A Tree in Okagawa: A 6-hour decline, and the universal fear of wilting away

Hiya! It’s been a while, hasn’t it?

Whether it’s in your hobbies, your studies, your professions, your families, I hope you’re all doing well right now, and I hope we can all still look forward to what we each love the most (((o(*゚▽゚*)o)))

I’m still reorganising my schedule, so I can’t promise anything concrete for my blog in the near future, although I won’t be going back to daily writing—it was fun while it lasted, but I was gonna get burned out eventually (>_<)

You’ll still get my usual content, just a bit more spaced out—I think it’s a good way of ensuring I can prioritise quality anyways!

Before we start though, I just want to reiterate the warnings I put up for my story:

I will be talking about topics such as suicide and terminal illness, so please, if these are subjects you’re uncomfortable with, then this is my warning! It’s nothing too heavy, but I can’t promise that I handle these in the most sensitive way (¬_¬)

If that’s still fine by you, then here’s a link to my latest short story, A Tree in Okagawa, and if you’re still interested, then I hope you’ll stick around for the history behind it!

At the end of time…

I think like most of us, I spent the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic treating the internet like my new home—and while I still kinda do, back then, it was my only retreat from what was happening around us.

I thought I would be safe here if I stuck to the corners I’ve always loved… but reality had its ways of coming back for me.

At some point around April, I came across a certain music album, one which I still regard as the most harrowing, emotional, and impactful thing I have ever listened to:

It’s this.

You’ve probably heard of it too, but if you haven’t…

I honestly don’t know whether I should recommend this (;ω;)

Everywhere at the End of Time is an album by the Caretaker, which in summary, depicts the life of an Alzheimer’s patient as they lose themselves, shown through the ballroom music becoming more and more and more unrecognisable…

With a few friends, I hopped onto a call, and we listened to this entire thing for a night.

It’s an experience that I don’t think I’ll forget anytime soon.

This is a perfect example of capturing though sound what words cannot; Even from the very beginning, there’s this ominous, foreboding vibe that doesn’t just make things feel temporary, but also fatal.

We all know this album can only end in a confused, prolonged death.

The last hour or so of silent droning was jarring in a way that made me miss the noise of the previous hours.

I got so used to the distorted, confounding noise that when it went away, I felt so empty that I wanted it back.

But as soon as this new sense of nothingness settled in, this beautiful choir begins… and then ends.

By that very end, I feel like I’ve found peace… probably the same way the patient in this album did.

Yet it’s not just about them, is it?

That ending brought me back into reality, and it made me remember that this is a reality millions of us are experiencing, either directly, or indirectly, through someone close to us who’s been afflicted.

I spent the next hour or so scrolling through the comments and just crying at everyone’s stories: watching once-stalwart family fade away and wilt, becoming a stranger in the eyes of someone who once could never forget you, losing all sense of self or control or stability…

It’s real. I had to keep reminding myself that it was all real because it sounded too awful to be.

I’ve yet to experience anything surrounding Alzheimer’s, but years ago, I did have to watch my grandmother in her final months as cancer slowly overcame her.

The last time I saw her was around 3 days to a week before she passed—I don’t quite remember the exact time—but by then, all I saw was somebody half-asleep, silent, not the person I remembered spending so many years with.

She could only acknowledge my presence with a nod, but I was too young back then for the gravity of it to just… set in.

Most of the commenters on EATEOT came back to one idea: they didn’t feel as if they were mourning the loss of a loved one, simply because that person had mentally-gone long before.

I don’t know if I can say my experience is comparable, but emotionally, that’s how it feels—I feel like the person I saw in the hospital that day was just not who I grew up with.

But it’s hard to know when exactly you’ve “lost” someone until you look back at it, yeah?

“Would it not have hurt you less to have lived eternally in darkness, never knowing there was a way to be rid of it?”

(Quick forewarning: I love letting people come up with their own interpretations of what’s happening in my short stories! If you don’t want to hear the true plot behind it, or any of my opinions with it, then feel free to skip this section and read what I actually wrote instead—it might take away from the magic of it all ( i _ i ))

Going into A Tree in Okagawa, I wanted to capture this specific kind of loss for a few reasons, main one being… well, how relevant I felt it was for so many of us.

I like to describe my style with short stories as “depicting realistic struggles through surrealist tales”, and you can summarise this story with that quite well!

Our protagonist in this story is Mitsuko (光子), a young, college student who, at first, seems to have much of her life together!

She was someone lively but still brainy, often ending up at the top of her classes and at the lead of her clubs, which is remarkable given her country’s academic standards.

In her last year of high school though, everything would change.

I don’t specify in the story what exactly her illness was, but I wrote it with Huntington’s Disease in mind.

Among the many comments I read under EATEOT, I saw a handful who described this dementia as a mix of Alzheimer’s and ALS… and that only made me more terrified of it.

The only catch I can see is that it’s genetic—which does apply to our story as well, as Mitsuko is someone who unknowingly inherited the disease from her mother, but there is a difference.

While her mother has yet to show symptoms, at age only 17, Mitsuko’s disease has already begun, and from what I read, early-onset Huntington’s usually progresses faster than for those who develop it later on.

The symptoms appeared innocent enough at first, but over time, they worsened, with physical ones including loss of balance, loss of movement, and general fatigue, and mental ones including severe mood swings, slurred speech, and worsening memory.

Around six years after her first diagnosis, Mitsuko suffered from a severe episode that left her hospitalised for over a month, as her illness began to complicate her breathing too.

Though she was released afterwards, she knew that she didn’t have much time left, and that stay in the hospital haunted her.

To spend days, weeks, months lying on a bed on the verge of death, with a non-functional memory and an immobile body…

She didn’t want that—No matter how much her family wished to keep her alive, she had no desire to spend her last years in as much pain as she did the last few.

Just a few days after being discharged, Mitsuko, carrying a bag, left her home to meet one of her only remaining friends, Hikari (光), at a local park.

Though many others, including her apparent love interest Katsuro (勝郎), gradually faded from her life as her illness worsened, Hikari was one of the few who remained, unwilling to leave behind someone who’d always meant so much to them.

But on this day, Mitsuko had other plans.

From her bag, she handed them several letters, before pulling out a rope and asking for their help in tying it.

There was a tall Banyan tree by a bench she’d always sat at as a child, and while she still had some control over herself, she now wished to go out on her own terms.

Though reluctant at first, Hikari knew that this was the only real way for someone like her to find peace, especially since no legal means existed within this country.

Thus, they tied the rope into a noose and hung it around the largest branch by the bench, saying their final goodbyes as they left with the letters Mitsuko wished to be delivered.

What happened next is… well, I don’t think I need to go into detail.

In our story, we follow the ghost of Mitsuko around a week after her death, joyful and determined much the same way she was before her affliction struck.

She has this tendency to wave her arms around, and I see that as her way of reminding herself that her suffering was over; that, for the first time in years, she didn’t have to worry about losing herself anymore.

Shiori, on the other hand, is a personified projection of her subconscious, and I imagine most of the story was an internal conversation between the Mitsuko that was at peace, and the Mitsuko that still clung on to guilt, regrets, and resentment over what befell her.

It’s briefly touched on too, but Mitsuko’s name is intentionally ironic—光子, whose individual characters translate to “light” and “child”, though a different reading is also used for “photon”!

I like the idea that this supposed “light child” would just be dealt one of the worst possible hands in life: an early-onset terminal dementia, a circle of disloyal friends, a society that wouldn’t allow her to go out on her own terms…

There’s no one country that I’d say this is representative of; Everything from the legality of euthanasia, to the superstitions surrounding Banyan trees, to the symbolism of chrysanthemums—it’s basically a blend of a lot of things I’ve heard growing up! Though most of it was based off Taiwanese and Japanese things (*´-`)

My other two featured characters fare a bit better: Shiori, the subconscious projection with all her cryptic, philosophical stuff, has a name which looks like 詩織, characters that about translate to “poem weaver”!

With Hikari is where it gets interesting for me—In one of my earliest posts, I touched upon the fun of how much nuance you can pack into a language like Japanese, and this character, 光, is a great example of that!

Its usual reading of “hikari” (ひかり) is basically one of the character’s native readings, known as kunyomi (訓読み), whilst “mitsu” (みつ) is a nonstandard reading known as nanori (名乗り), usually archaic or otherwise unconventional readings mostly used in names!

Both of these characters have that meaning of light… but of course, only one of them can really hold up to that when it comes to it (*’ω’*)

I did speak about not assigning names based on meaning, but for something like this… I think that extra irony and flavour’s fitting anyways!

Would’ve been a lot more so had I not spelled it all out and actually let it stay subtle, but oh well ٩( ᐛ )و

“Fate remains the same for it does not know what resilience is, only results.”

I wouldn’t really call A Tree in Okagawa a personal story, since I haven’t gone through a comparable experience to what I wrote about, but it’s a subject matter that’s been on my head for a while now…

There’s a lot of merit to providing support for people like Mitsuko who can’t find any hope left in life, but I feel that when these illnesses become too severe, these people should have that right to choose how they go out, yeah?

I fear being in that position too in the future… either in the shoes of the dying Mitsuko, or the bereaved Hikari, but that’s reality too, isn’t it?

All of us will just have to live with it, and someday… well, I’ll learn to accept it eventually (´ω`)

This hasn’t exactly been the most uplifting of returns, or the most enjoyable of anything—but I hope you’ve still found something to take away from either the story or this post!

Once again, you can have a look at the actual work here, where you can see everything without me ruining what I actually wrote!

And while I can’t promise a consistent comeback or anything, I hope you’ll still love what I put up every now and then!

Mood won’t always be so dreary of course, but I feel like it’s only fair to allot some time to these kinds of discussions, no?

Feel free to share any thoughts you have by the way! I’m no subject matter expert, I just speak from personal experiences, anecdotes, and convictions, so I can’t promise the best insight either, but it’ll hardly be the worst, right-?

All the love to ‘ya, and have a nice week ahead! *\(^o^)/*

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