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The Power to Forgive and Not Forget

The Power to Forgive and Not Forget by Colleen Kanna, Photo by James Harris on Unsplash
Photo by James Harris on Unsplash
Since Mark Sakamoto’s non-fiction work, Forgiveness, won the CBC Canada Reads this year, it has piqued my interest. I checked it out online reading the front flap. It recounts the stories of Mark’s grandparents: his maternal grandfather, Ralph, who was captured by the Japanese army and imprisoned in a POW camp in Hong Kong; and his paternal grandmother, Mitsue, whose family had their livelihood, land, and belongings taken away in Canada and were banished to an internment camp in Alberta. I wanted to read it AND I didn’t want to read it.
Then my nephew’s fiancé, Sandy, brought it over one night. So, there it was staring me in the face. I had to read it. There are a few reasons why I did not want to read it. You might think it’s because my mother’s family had their land confiscated in BC and were moved to an internment camp during WWII. My mother lived and worked on a sugar beet farm just like Mark’s grandmother had. I wrote about this in my blog post, Being Japanese-Canadian. It would bring up the same feelings of despair as when I read Obasan for the first time many years ago now. I had no idea what my mom had gone through as a young girl.
But more than that, it was reading about Mark’s grandfather’s experience in the Japanese POW camps that I dreaded the most. You see, in my lifetime I have only known Japan and its people, my heritage, to be a land of gentle, soft-spoken, kind souls. To read about the atrocities of war and their crimes against humanity is almost too much for me to bear. War is inhumane, there is no other way to describe it. All countries have done unspeakable things in the name of war including our own country.
I did read the book and once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down. The parts about Mark’s grandfather were hard to read but it is part of history. And thankfully, Japan has learned from this and has become the peaceful and prosperous nation that I have come to know, that we all have come to know.
Recently, my sister brought me my father’s diary to read. It is a small blue book. It is well-worn, the spine is broken, the pages are yellowed. The cover indicates it is a five year diary. My father wrote in it for all of 1950, about half of 1951, not at all in 1952, and for about a month in 1953.
My Father's Diary
My Father's Diary
With my Dad’s diary and Mark Sakamoto’s book side by side, I can’t help but notice some similarities. In Mark’s story, his maternal grandfather, Hideo Sakamoto, throughout his married life to his Grandmother, Mitsue, would repeat her name over and over again under his breath, “Mits…Mits…Mits”. It would keep him going.
Upon reading my dad’s diary, I was reminded how he always lovingly called my mom, Bets. I had forgotten about his pet name for her until I read it in his diary. Of course, my sisters and I never thought much about it as kids. He had always called her that as far back as I can remember. Now looking back, I can see it was his endearment for her and I can imagine him saying her name…Bets…under his breath during their own struggles, the hard times. Perhaps, it kept him going too.
When Mark’s Grandfather Hideo passed away at the age of 96, his grandmother, Mits, tells Mark she is okay, that she could not have died before him.
I believe that was the same way for my mother, Bets. My father died at the young age of 61. My mother had always been a strong and determined woman. She lived on until the age of 80. I could not have imagined my father living on past my mom. He had always worked, night and day, like many Japanese men of his generation. They had to work hard to make a living, to just barely take care of their families, to put food on the table. Of course, by the time I came along, things were much different. I always felt like we were middle class. I was never wanting for anything, or at least it felt that way.
My mother took care of everything else – our home, us kids, the household bills, the laundry, the grocery shopping, the meals. My father did none of this. So, I was surprised to see in his diary that he wrote about cleaning up and doing chores at home, doing dishes, washing clothes, even bathing my eldest sister. Hmmm, I could never have imagined him doing those things.
Getting back to the notion of the wife needing to outlive the husband, my sister has said the same thing. After more than 30 years of living apart, my sister and her long-time partner (seems too silly to call him her boyfriend) decided to get married. Les had been around our family forever since I was about 13 years old. We were all surprised and delighted when they announced their upcoming nuptials in Jamaica. The whole family flew down for the celebration.
Timing is everything. Within 9 months of getting married, Les was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He was gone within a couple of months. Of course, my sister was devastated. We all were. But, I remember her saying to me, “It’s better that he went first”. He could not have survived without her. She is as strong and determined as my mother was, but in her own quiet, soft-spoken and gentle way.
Four years have passed and my sister is happy and content. It’s as though she has found her own life. Prior to Les’ passing, they had always done the things he liked to do, hung out with his friends. Not to say she wasn’t happy, it’s just the way it was. I guess in a way, they were like a traditional Japanese family, though Les was Caucasian. Now, she can do the things she loves to do. She has a circle of close friends, her friends. Not that she doesn’t miss Les terribly.
I have often thought the same thing of my husband, Adrien. And please don’t get me wrong, I want him around as long as possible, into ripe old age, when we can barely remember our own names. But, I too feel he needs to go before me. And I know that sounds terrible, even selfish. But I feel I can get through it more easily…the passing of your loved one, your spouse, your partner, not that it would be easy.
When I was going through breast cancer, one day he turned to me in the car and said, “I am terrified of being a single parent”. I get that, our daughter has always been a handful. Even as she gets older, in her teens now, and is less of a handful…most of the time…lol, I still believe he would have a much harder time.
Thank you, Sandy, for bringing Forgiveness over. I was right, it was difficult to read. There were parts that brought tears to my eyes, a sadness in my heart, and a feeling of sickness and shame in my stomach. But I am glad I read it. It made me think about my own parents’ lives.
I wish I had had the foresight to talk to them about their own lives. To listen and learn and then document it, much like Mark Sakamoto has done with his grandparents.
A Glimpse into My Father's Life
A Glimpse into My Father's Life
I do have my father’s diary though. When I read it, the words are simple, much like his life was, and I mean that in the best way possible. He always started out describing the weather, and then what he had done that day. He worked hard at home and at work to take care of his family. His entry typically ended with the words, “Very tired”. Thank you, Dad.
Colleen Kanna
Colleen Kanna is a breast cancer champion and creator of coKANna Designs, a line of stylish bamboo Canadian-made clothing for women over 40. Five percent of sales are donated to the Ottawa Integrative Cancer Centre in support of their Head Start Program for women newly diagnosed with breast cancer.


  • Colleen

    Marilyn, life is in deed precious with all its ups & downs, twists & turns, and beginnings & endings. We will all be there for you and Brian, the same as you and Brian were there for us. Sending lots of love & support.

  • Colleen

    Betty, thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings on reading Forgiveness. It truly touched my heart and brought tears to my eyes as well.

  • Marilyn Cook

    Your blog this week was very interesting to read. I learned things about our mom & dad that I didn’t know. On the other side of things as Brian’s recent diagnosis came to light, it makes you think how precious life is together knowing that one day one of us will pass before the other. He will get through this but I also know without a doubt that it will be very difficult for me to live without him.

  • betty

    I read Forgiveness and while parts of it were challenging to read, I loved the book and its message. There was a part toward the end of the book where Mark is sitting in the boardroom where McKenzie King made all those decisions, the decision to send Canadians to war and the decision to intern Japanese Canadians. It was where the book came together for me as he realized that without these terrible decisions he would not exist. This book truly touched my heart and I wept!

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