“Grandmas hold our tiny hands for just a little while, but our hearts forever.” ~Author Unknown
A few days ago, I watched the film “From the Shadows” about the human rights tragedy of International Parental Child Abduction to Japan. The scene that struck me hardest was watching Kaya Wong’s paternal grandmother attempt to visit Kaya on her way home from school and bring her some presents including a stuffed Panda bear. Kaya’s mother Akemi died from cancer in 2005 and soon after she was abducted by her maternal grandparents, Satoru and Sumiki Yokoyama. Kaya’s father, Paul Wong, has had no access to Kaya since the abduction. Likewise, Kaya’s paternal grandparents have also had no access to her.
I, too, have encountered this same dilemma. Like Paul Wong, my wife Etsuko died in 2007, leaving me as the only living parent to my daughter Erika. Erika is held in Japan by her maternal grandmother, who feels a similar sense of entitlement to my daughter. The story of my ongoing legal struggles with Erika’s grandmother, Akiko Futagi, are well documented, however, I have never told the story of a loving grandmother who longs for the day she can meet Erika, my mother Eileen Toland.
Eileen Toland was born and raised in Ireland, and immigrated to the United States as a young woman. She married my father, Peter, also an Irish immigrant, 56 years ago, and together they lived the American dream and raised a family of four children in America. Eileen has nine grandchildren, and Erika, the grandchild she has never met, is the youngest. Approximately 8 years ago, mom was diagnosed with dementia. Since that time her memory and ability to perform even the simplest tasks has faded. However, the one thing that never faded was her longing to meet her granddaughter Erika. After Etsuko’s death in 2007, I obtained a recent photo of Erika and gave it to my mom. She placed the photo on the mirror, and whenever I visited her, she would point the picture and tell me in broken sentences how much she wished she could finally meet her granddaughter. I told her “soon mom, soon you will get to see her, I promise.”
Then came the accident of 2009. My mother fell and broke her femur, placing her in intensive care in the hospital. The accident sent her dementia to new depths. She did not know or recognize me or any family members. She lay in the hospital bed sewing with an imaginary needle and thread, oblivious to her surroundings. I brought pictures into her hospital room, including photos of her nine grandchildren. I showed her the photos and said the name of each grandchild and mom would repeat the names after me. As I showed her these photos, I thought to myself, is she simply mimicking what I am saying, or does she comprehend that these are photos of her grandchildren? The ninth and final photograph was the photo of Erika I had given to mom two years earlier. When she saw the photo, her face lit up and she said “Erika” before I had a chance to say anything at all. Finally, a breakthrough! Mom was coming back to us and beginning to remember her loved ones, and it was Erika’s picture that was helping to bring her back.
The incident was both happy and sad. Happy to see that mom could actually recognize somebody and was not completely gone. Sad because it dawned on me how much it meant for mom to see Erika, the only grandchild she had never met, and how deeply Erika’s abduction had really affected her. Today, my mother is still alive. She now sleeps most of the time and her dementia is worse than ever, yet she still finds a way to tell me how much she loves me and how much she wants to see her granddaughter Erika.
Watching “From the Shadows” and seeing the incident involving Kaya Wong’s two grandmothers brought a wave of emotion over me and got me thinking, “Where does Akiko Futagi’s sense of entitlement and selfishness come from? What makes her think she has the right to torture the very soul of my mother Eileen by not allowing a relationship between Eileen and her granddaughter.” The absolute and complete cruelty is beyond mere words.
Noted Anthropologist Margaret Mead said “Everyone needs to have access both to grandparents and grandchildren in order to be a full human being.” I hold out hope that Erika may someday meet her grandmother Eileen, but that hope continues to fade with each passing day. Even if that meeting never takes place, I know that one day I will be able to meet Erika, and tell her about her wonderful and loving Irish-American grandmother Eileen, whose love for Erika is deeper than anything I can ever imagine.
On February 12, 2013 Eileen Toland passed away. She died without ever having met her granddaughter.