An Empty Room, So Full

At first glance, this photograph of an empty bedroom might not look like much. To me, however, this image is probably the most meaningful one I have ever made, and I have made hundreds of thousands of them.

Two years ago, on a Friday in early March, my mother got up from an afternoon nap in this room, the master bedroom in our family home, to join my brother and sister downstairs for a visit.

She would never return to it.

During dinner, her head became heavy, so she rested it on the kitchen table, where she was having dinner with my brother. My brother knew something was wrong, called 911, and an ambulance came to take my mother to the hospital.

I got the news several hours later, Friday night New York time but Saturday morning here in Kyoto. My sister told me my mother was in the hospital, the doctors thought that she had had another a stroke but weren’t certain, and that I didn’t need to worry too much. My mother seemed to be doing relatively well.

“Is this it?” I immediately thought, although it didn’t seem to be. My mother had already survived two close brushes with death, the first in 2004 after heart valve replacement surgery and the second two years before when she had had her first stroke, again in the kitchen of our home. She fell so hard that her head split the door of a cabinet in two.

Despite her fall, she was still able to get up and call her doctor’s office. The receptionist couldn’t understand my mother because her speech was slurred from the stroke, but she kept my mother on the line and called 911. She asked my mother if she could open the front door, and my mother did. She then sat on the sofa in our living room and waited for the ambulance to arrive.

If she could survive that, she could survive this, right?

I tortured myself with worry, doubt, and questions for the next two days. Part of the problem was that the week before I got the news about my mother was the best week I had had in years. I had sent out the proposal for my book Now a Geisha to publishers, and I had meetings with 3 publishers in the coming weeks and strong interest from a fourth. I was going to photograph the geiko Momifuku the following Tuesday to finish the photography for the book and then spend all of March writing.

I was rested and relaxed. Everything was going according to plan!

And then it wasn’t.

Over the next two days, both my brother and sister said they didn’t think I needed to make plans to come home yet. I spoke to my mother on the phone my Sunday night and told her I was thinking of coming. “I don’t think that’s necessary,” she told me.

But then I remembered the way my aunt’s voice sounded when she was in the hospital after she had had a stroke almost twenty years earlier. She died shortly after my visit. And now my mother’s voice sounded the same.

I’d better go. But I couldn’t! I had commitments! (Yes, I realize now how foolish and selfish this sounds). It was now Monday morning Japan time. I was supposed to photograph Momifuku the next day!

But I had to go. I knew it. Even if my mother was going to be fine, and at this point all the information I was getting was that she would be, I knew I would regret it forever if I didn’t go see her. And the sound of her voice had told me what was coming.

I called my friend at the tea house where I was supposed to photograph Momifuku to ask/tell him what I was going to do. During our call, I started crying uncontrollably. My friend gave me the final push I needed. “I’ll take care of Momifuku,” he said. “You go see your mother.”

I left Japan the next morning, a Tuesday, and arrived in New York at around 6:30 p.m. the same day. My sister picked my up at the airport and we drove straight to the hospital.

While I was in the middle of my 20-hour or so journey to New York, my mother had taken a turn for the worse. She had undergone surgery that could have killed her, but it was her only chance. She had survived, but that was all my sister knew.

I tried to brace myself for what was coming, no matter what it was. My brother was waiting for us in the hospital lobby, and I could tell just by looking at him that the news was not good.

We went up to her room. My mother was awake, and I could tell she recognized me, but that was all I could tell. She could not speak, and she could no longer move the right side of her body.

My mother’s left arm would flutter upward, like a shaman’s, invoking unseen spirits and forces, a mystical gesture I could not understand.

Some time after 10:00 p.m. we left the hospital for the night. For the first time ever when I opened the door to my family home, my mother was not there to greet me, smiling, beaming, hugging. So glad to see me.

I went to bed, and as usual the jet lag would not let me sleep too long. I can’t remember now, but it was probably 3:30 or 4:30 a.m. when I woke up. My childhood bedroom is in the rear of the house, and the bathroom is in the front, and my mother’s bedroom is next to the bathroom.

Most of the time when I came home and I woke up in the middle of the night from jet lag, my mother’s bedroom door would be open a crack, and I could hear her rhythmic breathing as she slept. I would always stop and listen for a moment, knowing I was safe, comfortable, and at home.

This time my mother’s bedroom door was wide open, and there was no one in it. Because my mother was not there, the blinds had not been drawn, so light from the streetlamp in front of our house was flooding in even though it was still dark outside.

I looked in and saw my mother’s pillows there, looking oh-so lonely. I can’t be sure, but I believe the room was exactly as she had left it when she awoke from her nap only 5 days ago, with the top pillow slightly askew.

And it was then I realized that my mother would most likely never be coming home again, and I had indeed made the right decision to come when I did.

It was still too dark to make a photo, so I decided to wait until the sun came up. And that’s when I made the photo you see here.

My mother died four days later.

I looked at this photo and all the others I made on that trip when I returned to Japan, but very briefly. All the photos were a reminder of emptiness, loss, and grief, but particularly this one, the first I made when I knew my mother was really dying.

It was almost two years before I looked at this photograph again. It was still there, waiting patiently for me to face it.

And a miraculous thing happened. When I looked again, the empty room had become full, so full!

Of memories. They are everywhere I look. Of my mother, of my father, and my aunt, who died in this room back in 1981. I was actually there with her when she left us.

I was not in the room when my mother left us. My mother waited until a few minutes after my brother left her side in the intensive care unit to take her leave.

I was at home when my mother died, asleep in my bedroom as the jet lag dragged me under in it’s unstoppable tide.

I woke with a start and went downstairs to the kitchen to get something to eat. I had only been there a few minutes when the phone rang. It was the hospital, calling to tell me that my mother had died. It was just after 11:30 p.m.

It didn’t occur to me until much later that I had probably woken up at about the same time my mother died. I like to think she passed over her home — our home — the house that had been in our family for 100 years — and I was shaken from my slumber by her spirit saying goodbye.

For anyone who is in the midst of losing a loved one, or who has recently lost one (and who among us hasn’t?), I hope it brings some comfort to you to know that the events in our lives won’t change, but our perspectives on those events — no matter how sad or tragic — can and do.

May all your empty rooms become as full as mine!