Cruising along on a Tokyo commuter train to my job grateful to be alive, and “then there’s that.” “That” is a text from a friend back in my home state of Minnesota, “Give me a call when you can.” A call I did not want to make. I knew from the friend what this might be about. It wasn’t “that” call yet, but it turned out she suffered a brain aneurysm and was on a respirator being kept alive so family members from outside of Minnesota could come to be with her before they unplug the life supporting system. After she told me the news, we spent the next few minutes sharing a few memories and stories of our dear friend Lisa aka Lulu.
People will remember Lisa in different ways. One of many that stands out, Lisa connected people from different walks of life. A creative soul who created by connecting people. I don’t mean a matchmaker, rather anyone who seemed to have similar views and a creative bent. Lisa would simply name drop and let the other make the connection. This was her very last act she did for me.
During our month-long vacations to escape the oppressive summer heat of Tokyo, my son Luke and I would return to my hometown of Minneapolis. We always made a point of seeing Lisa, whether for lunch, dinner or at least a cup of coffee. Luke really liked Lisa and the feeling was mutual.
On our most recent visit last summer (2019) we did something a little different. At the time, Lisa was working as the front receptionist at Dick’s Barber, a longtime establishment specializing in crew cuts. I asked Lisa to make appointments for the two of us setting us up with the best barbers they had. She did, Dick the owner’s two sons. They did a great job.
With newly cropped tops we joined Lisa after her shift for a late lunch at a funky restaurant nearby. She always had her pulse on the best places for coffee, food, music and art. Meeting outside the restaurant Lisa walked up to Luke signaling she wanted a big hug. Living in Japan all his life Luke was not accustomed to arms wide open as the cue to what Minnesotans do best, hug. I wanted him to get used to it. I nudged him saying, “She’s a really good hugger. Remember?” She bent down to his level opened her arms bigger to let him step into her space. Feeling the warmth of her invitation, without hesitation Luke hugged her right back. It was a sweet couple of moments. Of course, we hugged, we had been doing that for more than thirty years.
Thirty years I’ve known Lisa. First as my very first girlfriend and then as a dear friend. We had a long and complicated relationship. Life is messy. If you stick it out, the messiness falls away and what rises to the surface is love and adoration. I loved and adored this woman.
Lisa had been having health issues for a number of years. She was always hesitant to share them with me during texts, calls or visits. On one visit a few years back, Luke and I were both really looking forward to seeing her. As per usual, I texted her my schedule to confirm to meet at least once, preferably twice this trip. On this occasion I never heard from her before during or after our visit. I thought, “Did I do something wrong? Was our relationship still messy?” My own shortcomings and insecurities rising to the surface I let that go. It turned out that she was hospitalized for the duration of our visit and had nearly passed away. She rebounded and a few weeks after our return to Japan she called and apologized profusely for not being able to see us. I told her no need to apologize. What was important was that you were still here with us.
That day last summer at the restaurant she was in good spirits, but a little under the weather. I could tell the continuous health issues were taking its toll on her, but she did not overtly show it. That was Lisa. She didn’t want to burden to people with her stuff. Both a Minnesotan and Japanese way of being. We talked and she asked Luke questions about school, soccer and his newest sport skateboarding. She really listened to his answers. She was so lovely with Luke and I imagine other kids as well.
Conversation turned to adult topics as Luke played a game on my iPhone. We caught up with the usual stuff of family and friends. I pushed her on the topic of health to let me know how she was doing. Then something happened that sums up one aspect of Lisa. She loved to name drop. And I don’t mean name-drop as in a form bragging because I know so-and-so, rather names of people she is connected to in the food, art, music or theater world, any creative world for that matter. She knew a lot of people and they knew her.
I have been living in Japan for many years and the topic turned to restaurants. She mentioned the name of a new fusion style Japanese restaurant that was gaining popularity in Minneapolis. Then she mentioned the owner’s name. I said, “Can you say his name again?” She repeated his name, which was a typical Minnesota first name followed by an atypical Japanese last name. Then as I repeated his name out loud a memory flashed in my mind. “Why do I know that name?” I immediately asked Lisa if she was connected to him via SNS. “Of course I am,” with a confident, this is who I am reply. She pulled up Instagram and started scrolling through for a photo. Finding one she handed me the phone. In that instant, I realized I knew this guy from a few decades earlier. Long before Japan was ever on the radar I used to sell printing, and this guy was one of my customers. While it was technically a vendor/client relationship, he and I talked much more candidly about a myriad of personal topics. Fast forward, and both of us went in very different directions. Thanks to Lisa, she put me in contact with him and we exchanged a few messages and a “Let me know when you are in Japan and I will when in Minnesota.” We have yet to meet.
Just as Lisa was hospitalized a few weeks ago I happened to check my Instagram, something I rarely do. There was a message from Lisa, “Hey, it’s the Awful AMERICANS super bowl tomorrow. Per usual at least 4 out of 6 years I will be looking at the stadium from my hospital room. Been a rough month, dude! Btw, JOHN IS COMING TO TOKYO! Or did you already know that?” My initial reaction, “Hey what, you’re in the hospital! Sending love vibes from TO-KI-O.” That was Lisa, never wanting to put others out by making a big deal with her stuff if she didn’t have to, followed by making sure people are connected. I did connect with John and we will be meeting in a few weeks in Tokyo.
I am looking forward to seeing him for the first time in decades and getting caught up with our lives. Now it will not be just that, rather about how much Lisa played a part and touched lives as she did even during her last few days of consciousness, bringing us together in of all places TO-KI-O!
From now on, every time Luke and I return to Minneapolis there will be a hole in our schedule no longer be filled with Lisa’s physical presence. She will be missed.
I love and adore you Lulu.