Shu Uesugi

On My Mother's Passing

Originally posted on my Facebook.


I just got back to San Francisco after spending about 1.5 months in Japan. I decided to take extended time off work because my mother was suffering from the final stage of cancer. She passed away in the morning of Jan 2nd around 4:37am, and I was by her side along with my father when she died.

(I’ll keep this short so that my JP friends wouldn’t mind reading it) My mother was 55 years old, approx. 4 weeks away from turning 56 and also from my 28th birthday - I was born 2 days before she turned 28, too.

Some of you might have known my mother personally but might not know that she was fighting her breast cancer for 15 years on and off. Her cancer was found right after our family moved from Japan to the US, and she made it through chemotherapy and became pretty healthy, even though her 5 year survival rate was very low. Then she had a recurrence (incurable) right after the March 2011 Japan earthquake. She was living in Menlo Park then, but she moved back to Japan for her treatment. I was (and still am) working in the SF bay area, but I started spending more time in Japan with my parents. At one point I left one of my dream jobs as a designer at Quora and took 6 months off to see if I can get a job in Japan. My job search failed, but I did get to spend some quality time with my mother and got to know Japanese tech community/influencers quite well. My Japanese blog got traction, and my popular posts are now read by 20k Japanese readers on average.

Fast forward a few years to November 2015. My mother’s health was deteriorating to the point that we thought she’d not make it to Spring. My employer EdSurge generously let me work remotely during the full month of December, and I flew to Japan right before thanksgiving. My brother also flew back from SF, and we took turns to visit and take care of my mother who was hospitalized/couldn’t do most things on her own. Around the same time, folks from NHK, the only national TV channel in Japan, read my blog and invited me as a guest to one of their signature TV shows which would air at the night of Jan 1st. My mother told me that she can’t die without watching this show. Her health fell into critical stage twice in late December, and we all thought she’d be gone before 2016, but she somehow survived enough to be alive, despite being unconscious, when my TV show was on. She passed away exactly 3 hours after the show ended - she was gone in her sleep without suffering. Things were pretty hectic after she died, with the funeral and me visiting my grandparents (mother’s side) who lived too far and were too sick to visit my mother/attend the funeral.

As a son, I’m proud of how my mother lived her life, not only how she raised us or fought cancer, but also how she cheered everyone around her. Growing up, my brother and I have each been involved in many different communities from sports to music to our hobbies, and my mother was also involved in pretty much all of them. And she was a supporter and a cheerleader, not just for us sons but for all of our friends. Most notably, my mother was heavily involved in American and Japanese chess communities, as my brother became a US high school/Japanese national chess champion. She attended ~200 chess events with my brother and documented every single one on her FB page: チェス大会 in アメリカ. I only went to a few chess events with them, but I saw that she was a mother figure for every attendee. When she died and my brother announced her death on FB, we received an overwhelming number of messages from my brother’s chess friends. And on my side, she did tell me that she’d always be my cheerleader, even after she’s gone, and that she’s the no.1 fan of my Japanese blog.

Random story: on my flight back to SF, I sat next to an old Tibetan woman who was visiting her kids in SF. She was neither fluent in English nor used to traveling on a plane, so I helped her w/ customs forms and answered a few questions. Then, as I started reading a Japanese book she told me, “it’s good that you are keeping your culture - my kids don’t know how to read in our language.” She then told me how she used to live in the US with her kids but then her left hand started swelling badly, so she decided to move back to Himachal Pradesh in the north end of India, where Dalai Lama lives (and she sees him pretty often). She’s happy there both physically (apparently the water is very clean) and mentally (she can speak her language and people are very religious), and her hand soon cured. The only bad thing is inflation as tourism is becoming popular, but her 3 kids all have good jobs in SF and they’d send her enough money to live. She says that SF has a Japanese buddhist temple in Japantown, and she likes to visit there over other Chinese temples, because of what happened between Tibet and China. As we chatted about buddhism, I mentioned that my mother had just passed away and we did a buddhist-style funeral (my father’s side’s family was buddhists). The woman asked me to write down my mother’s name on a napkin and said, “I’ll remember your mom’s name and when I go back to Himachal Pradesh, I promise to pray for her.” She said that I should visit Bodh Gaya (a popular place of buddhist pilgrimage in India) someday, and although I’m an atheist, I might do that one day.

Lastly, I wanted to say thanks a lot to everyone who has helped our family through this fight. I’ll need to catch up with work first, but I’d like to eventually catch up with my friends in the bay area. Sorry in advance as I’m probably not going to have time to reply to individual messages/comments. PS - the photo was taken in Summer 2015 during my mother’s last visit to the US. I wore the same jacket on the TV show.