I met Yuku on a one-mile boardwalk loop called Cranes Roost Park in the early 1990s when I lived in Altamonte Springs, Fla. We were both runners and it always seemed that we ran in opposite directions. We would pass each other and wave, usually six times each morning.
I didn’t know her name and I didn’t know she was nearly 30 years older than me. I just knew she was a determined little Japanese woman who could put down the mileage and never change expression.
Eventually, I bumped into her at an Orlando road race. She said, “I’m Yuku. I see you at Cranes Roost.” The next race I saw her and she asked if I would like to join her for lunch with the Japanese runners who were visiting from Urayasu – Orlando’s sister city.
I had no idea what I was getting into because those Japanese runners wanted to go to HOOTERS! So I sat there eating chicken wings and watching jetlagged Japanese male runners stare at Hooters waitresses as they pounded down beer. Yuku just giggled and told me, “Japanese people, they crazy.”
Yuku and I would go on to run a lot of road races together throughout the years. She was in her mid-60s and I was in my mid-30s. We didn’t run the same times, but she would usually win her age group, and if I was lucky, I might finish in the top-10 of mine. But she always won trophies, and when we carpooled to races, we had to hang around to the end so she could pick up her prizes. Yuku was among running royalty in Orlando.
If we weren’t running road races, we had another Saturday ritual. I would pick her up at her house and we would go to the Winter Park Farmer’s Market, then go to lunch at some new restaurant she had read about in the newspaper, stop by Track Shack, our favorite Orlando running store, and end the day with a visit to Dong A, a rambling Asian grocery store loaded with exotic foods and goods from throughout Asia.
Often, Yuku would pick up groceries at Dong A and cook for me later in the week. I fell in love with her traditional Japanese cooking with such dishes as chirashi (a tossed sushi), hijiki (a seaweed), goma-ae (spinach), spicy gobo (burdock root), miso soup, mochi (pounded rice) and yosenabe (a type of hot-pot soup).
She would tell me stories of how “the mochi men” came to her family’s home when she was a child to pound rice with wooden mallets into a sticky glutinous brick, which was an important food during the Japanese New Year’s celebration. She would also make “rice ball” for me, showing me how to hold the formed rice in her fingers just so, and how the sushi rice needed the right amount of sweet and rice vinegar. She said she made her rice like her mother and that everybody’s rice in Japan was unique to the family’s taste.
We both loved Thai food and once, we ordered a spicy whole fish at a local restaurant for lunch. The dish was so spicy I felt like my inner ear was sweating, but we picked one side of the fish clean, then flipped it over and with our chopsticks, polished off the other side. As we sat there staring at the skeleton of the fish we had just woofed down and dabbing our faces with paper napkins, Yuku laughed and said, “Looks like raccoons were here.” Yes, and they had chopsticks.
I eventually got a job with another magazine and moved to Connecticut. I kept in touch with Yuku and visited when I could get to the Orlando area several times a year. Whenever I did, Yuku loaded up my bags with homegrown pumelo from her fruit trees and homemade inari sushi – my favorite.
She was diagnosed with cancer while I was in Connecticut and had a kidney removed. She also underwent chemotherapy, so I teased her and said her hair would come back blonde or curly. She just laughed.
After her treatments were over, she telephoned one day and said she had decided to run a marathon for the first time. She was now 77. I told her if her doctor said she could do it, we could enroll her in a marathon-training program and then I would run a marathon with her. She did, and we ran the New York City Marathon together in 1998. I had already run that race two previous times, so I knew this would be her race and our celebration that cancer was gone. We would start together and finish together.
Yuku was determined and she ran well, but she got tired late in the race. I encouraged her, walking with her when she needed to slow down, and picking it up again after water stops. Nearing mile 26, Yuku said she didn’t think she could finish. “Yuku, you didn’t beat cancer to quit now, and you didn’t do all that training in the Florida heat to fly up here and not get across the finish line. So let’s go!” I said. I grabbed her little arm and off we went -- Yuku smiling at the finish line and later, staring at the finisher’s medal hanging around her neck.
She went on to run more marathons and when the Japanese runners came from Urayasu to run the Disney Marathon, Yuku and I would usually meet up with them for a meal before the race and then go with them for Chinese dim sum (dumplings) after the race. Most of the time, I had no clue what was being said, but it’s amazing how you can share a meal together and language barriers don’t matter. Good is good, no matter which language you speak.
I ran the Disney Marathon eight times, always starting with my friend Yuku. I remember seeing her in the race and yelling for her. I also remember seeing some of the Japanese runners who drank beer the night before the race struggling on the course. I yelled out to one, “Mr. Kobayashi, drink water, not beer!” He laughed and waved.
Later that day, as we entertained the Urayasu runners over dim sum at Orlando’s Ming Court, I watched a tired and still-jetlagged Mr. Kobayashi’s head sink closer and closer to his plate. He eventually went to his rental car and fell fast asleep in the parking lot. Yuku just laughed and once again uttered her favorite expression: “Japanese people, they crazy.”
Time passed and we shared many more episodes of joy and despair. She was so happy when I was finally able to travel to Japan on business. She was thrilled when I brought her fresh plum mochi from the city I had visited and she listened intently when I described how elderly women were the ones who dove into the deep, dark water for the cultured Mikimoto pearls.
But there were also dark days. Yuku’s husband died after his own battle with cancer. Then her house was severely damaged when the 2004 hurricanes ripped off her roof and she was forced to move into a hotel for nine months while her home was rebuilt. Her son also died and she went into self-imposed isolation for about a year. And then thieves stole her car from the driveway and took it for a joy ride.
Her late husband’s best friend Hank also got sick on a Thanksgiving morning when Hank and Yuku were planning to drive over to the beach where I live and join me for the holiday meal. Instead, Yuku and I spent Thanksgiving in a hospital emergency waiting room. The surgeon eventually emerged, telling us Hank had colon cancer and had just undergone major surgery.
In spite of so many bumps in the road, Yuku stayed active and determined. She walked road races into her 80s, went to the JCC in Maitland for “Silver Sneakers” senior workouts, loved to go out to lunch, read the Orlando Sentinel every morning, showed off new cookbooks every time I visited, and could tell you every point of tennis matches she had watched on the Tennis Channel.
But then the cancer returned. It was discovered a few years ago when Yuku fell and broke both wrists while running. As doctors tried to determine why she was stumbling and falling, a tumor was discovered in her brain. Again, she underwent treatment, including radiation. And again, Yuku appeared resilient, rallying as she had done so many times before.
This time, however, the tumor was growing rapidly. Yuku’s once remarkable balance and grit were now being usurped by the mass in her brain. This tumor didn’t care what she had already been through in life. It didn’t care that she had done more in 86 years than most people could even imagine.
This was the woman who once told me she had seen bombers fly into her Japanese city many years ago, and how the citizens would hide under cars or whatever they could find when they heard the roar of the incoming planes. The American bombers were “so close, you could see their eyes,” she said. She remembered the bombing of Nagasaki in 1945, and the pain of war.
But Yuku would go on to marry an American sailor and move to the United States. She would follow him around America, learning English and learning American ways. She was with her husband in 1964 when they were based in Alaska and a magnitude 9.2 earthquake shook the Alaskan coastline. With a resulting massive tsunami on its way, Yuku hurriedly took her cat and a bag of rice and headed for the top of mountain to wait out the destruction that would ultimately kill 119 people.
Even for a woman who lived through war, natural disasters, loss of loved ones and property -- and sometimes, social acceptance because of her heritage -- my friend Yuku showed me an unparalled tenacity. As the tumor pressed against her brain, she struggled to find words during my visit to her hospital room in December 2016.
She looked weak and tiny. She was confused. She was tired. She looked at me and said, “What can you do? Sometimes it just is.”
In her final days, Yuku didn’t recognize her friends anymore and her family was half a world away. Now, she spoke only Japanese. She also crawled deep into a place so distant that she was gone before any of us knew it. Her long race had finally come to the home stretch.
Years ago, Yuku asked me if I would take her ashes back to her home in Kyushu Island to the Tanaka family cemetery. That request seemed so far away at the time. I viewed her as a runner who only saw the road before her and feared nothing.
But now, it is here, and when the time is right, I will take Yuku home to Kyushu. I’ll do it both with great sadness for the loss of my friend, but also with tremendous gratitude for all she has taught me.
Arigato, Yuku-san. Domo arigato.
- Lisa D. Mickey, March 5, 2017