previously: Run it! ch 8, Circle of Life
The memorial was to be held the next day. My maternal grandma had flown in with my late father’s will. I imagine she had made sure he wrote up an official document stating his wishes. She was always the fearless leader of our family.
Upon his death, my father’s body had been cremated. I always thought cremations took a few hours or even half a day but I was mistaken. Somehow, my grandma’s money and connections had gotten the process has been streamlined in time for the afternoon ceremony.
My father’s ashes were to be divided among Principal Sam, Uncle Akira, and myself to spread around the school. That made sense; the school was a beacon of hope, a place where my father grew into an artist. I was okay with this, I had to be. It was my job to step in for the role of the grieving widow. (Not that my mother was banned, but she was not told of the date and time of the ceremony.)
A public memorial was to be held at the outdoor stage, the same stage every class stood in front of for year one orientation. A crowd had already gathered to listen to speeches and pay their respects. Many students knew of my legendary rockstar chef of a father even if they’d never met him in person. I didn’t know how to feel about that.
I could see them all from the front step of the Nakiri estate, an on-campus location that housed the history of my mother’s side of the family. We were like royalty of the school, but my father never felt like he was on the same level as Uncle Akira, Aunt Erica, or even my mother. This was a funeral for a man who lived and died as a glorified servant. And that made me sick to my stomach.
Uncle Akira and Auntie Erica were already at the memorial, speaking to the press and accepting condolences. They were the calm, professional face of the school and the Nakiri family. I knew I eventually had to find the strength to go; put one foot in front of the other but I was too upset, my heart was breaking. I knew my grandmother would be there, and that brought me comfort but seeing all of the people there to pay tribute to my father was overwhelming. Is this what he would have wanted? Was he in heaven or hell?
“Hey, Ellie,” Prayikina said as she took a seat by my side.
“Ellie?” I knew she had called me that to get a reaction.
“Kiki and Ellie,” she said posing with a peace sign, like a certain anime character. “Just like when we were little.”
“Aren’t you worried about your dress?” All of the students were in their school uniforms but since my cousin and I would be among the speakers we were dressed up in our formal best.
Prayikina wore a white sari, to honor her Hindu heritage, while I wore a simple black spaghetti strap dress. “My dress is fine, saris are meant to be sat in.”
“I’ll take your word for it.” I could remember the last time I tried to wear a sari. At around age ten, I had been playing dress-up at Kiki’s house. After struggling with the long ribbon-like dress, I’d given up and allowed Auntie Erica to help me. But Kiki stepped up, fixing the gown for me all on her own. She always had an amazing sense of style.
“Can I braid your hair, El?”
“Sure, that would be nice.”
Prayikina started braiding my hair, pulling pins and rubber bands from her own hair to use. “My dad told me stories about Hinduism and reincarnation. If your dad comes back as an animal what do you think it would be?”
I rolled my eyes and laughed. “I know what my mom would say.”
“A puppy!” we both said together. Now we were both laughing.
“Jix, you have to buy me a coke,” Prayikina said with a smile.
“My mom always called Dad her puppy,” I replied, smiling through my tears.
“But he was more like her loyal dog.” Prayikina’s grace and confidence resonated, she always spoke with a wisdom and maturity beyond her years.
“What do you think my dad would come back as?”
“Well since dragons don’t exist I would say a tiger.”
“A tiger?” I thought about it, as I removed my most valuable possession from my purse. “Sounds about right.” I wrapped my father’s bandana around my wrist. “I would like to think he’s a bird, maybe a seagull, so he could make it back to the port town where he was born. And he would always watch over me.”
Prayikina finished her braid and switched her focus to my running eyeliner. “Have you looked at your dad’s notebook?”
“No, not yet.” I reached into my jacket pocket, where I had the book. I’d been holding on to it like a comfort animal. “I just feel like, that would be like a final goodbye.”
“Can I see it?” Prayikina asked as she fixed my makeup using her own brush and sponge collection.
“Sure, I guess.” I was about to take the notebook out when suddenly Prayikina sprang up.
She was squealing for joy like a toddler at Christmas. “Nana! Oh my God, you’re really here!”
I looked up to see Prayikina’s grandmother June Hayama. I always thought the woman looked like a little doll. Even in her youth she never reached five feet in height. With her large eyes, made even more pronounced by her glasses and her high ponytail that was now mixed with hints of white. Jun was as sweet and childlike as ever.
Prayikina hugged her Nana, lifting her up. “I missed you so much!”
“You certainly have your father’s strength,” June laughed.
“I’m just so excited!” My cousin said gleefully, her voice going up several octaves. “Dad said you were stranded in Mexico because of the hurricane.”
“I was, I should never have taken that trip so close to the Autumn finals. I wanted so badly to see you compete in the preliminaries. I have been on flight after flight for the past three days to get here.”
“You’re here now, that’s all that matters, Dad is going to be so thrilled!”
“First, I have a gift,” June said, motioning for Prayikina to put her down. “I brought you chilies, fresh- or freshly dried- from Chihuahua.” June produced a giant bag filled with chilies of all shapes and sizes. “Nothing but the best for my Kiki.”
“Oh cool!” Prayikina took out a dried Serrano and held it to her nose the way her father held his cinnamon sticks. She then put the whole thing in her mouth chewing it like bubble gum. “So good!”
My cousin was always weird like that. It was a unique combination of her mother’s remarkable sense of taste and her father’s sense of smell. She could appreciate food on a level that most people could only dream of.
There were tears in June’s eyes, as she was always an abnormally emotional person. “My little Kiki, you’re all grown up. I remember the day your father first placed you in my arms. Since Akira was already six or seven or maybe even eight…”
“When you adopted him,” Prayikina added, to keep her grandmother’s train of thought. It was something she had to do often.
“He didn’t call me Mom, sometimes he did, but he mostly called me June. Once I even yelled at him for not calling me Professor. Thinking back, I’m so ashamed. Akira is my little boy, my son. You made me realize that.”
I knew the story she was about to tell; the tale of my cousin’s birth and why Prayikina was considered a miracle child. It was also the legendary story of how one little girl and one epic moment, managed to give Uncle Akira the courage and humility to become the person he is.
I have to admit I zoned out. I had heard the story so many times I could practically see it in my head.
June had rushed to the hospital when Aunt Erica’s water had broke. But for whatever reason, the contractions were not coming. Then came the bleeding. Her uterus had ruptured and Erica was at risk for losing the baby. But through it all, Akira had gone missing.
June looked all over for him. First, she tried calling his apartment, then his office, failing that she started to walk “Akira? Where are you?”
The way June tells the story, it was at that moment she could hear him crying from the unisex restroom. “Akira? Please open the door.”
“The door’s not locked.”
“Oh.” June opened the door to find Akira sitting on the floor. His hands were covering his face. “My poor wife. She’s in so much pain. But yet I feel like the one who’s going to die. I-I love her.”
“I know you do. What you said to Erica at the wedding. How you would always love and cherish her for her beauty and her mind, her soul.” June knew she was rambling, but she was never good at remaining calm in stressful situations.
“They’re cutting out her uterus, the baby is suffocating. My little girl is dead and my wife will never be able to carry another child.”
“You can always adopt,” June regretted her choice of words as soon as they left her mouth. Yes, she adopted Akira, but her son deserved so much better.
“I know, but I-I wanted this baby. Ever since I first saw her on the ultrasound. I wanted so badly to meet my daughter.”
“Where is the baby right now?” June asked. With how defeated Akira was acting June assumed the baby was long gone. She figured, at the very least she could make arrangements for a funeral.
“They’re taking Erina to surgery.”
“Wait- what!” she nearly smacked her adult son across the head. “Are you saying they haven’t done the surgery yet! There’s a chance the baby is still alive! You need to be in the operating room! You need to be at your wife’s side!”
“You know what? You’re right.” Akira stood up and splashed water on his face. “I need to be there for my wife, for my family.”
June hugged Akira. “Akira, you have been through so much in your life. I have never seen you give up. I believe in you. If something goes wrong, just know I’ll be right in the waiting room. No judgment, only faith, and support.” Just the way it was all his life. She was his teacher, his guide.
“Thanks, June,” he said as he patted her shoulder.
Hours later Akira emerged to the waiting room wearing green hospital scrubs. His hands were covered in blood. “There’s someone I’d like you to meet.” Despite how Akira looked, his face seemed happy, hopeful.
June followed him to the room where Aunt Erica was in bed holding her blonde-haired bi-racial little daughter. “Oh, she’s beautiful,” Juen said out of politness. All babies were pretty gross looking. But the moment the baby opened her bright green eyes, June’s heart melted.
“Would you like to hold her?” Erica asked, already handing the baby to Akira.
June was nervous but she knew it would mean a lot to Erica since My future auntie had little to no close family.
Akira placed the newborn in June’s arms. The woman was trembling nervously. “I’m not sure about this I’ve never held a baby before. Maybe you should take her back.”
Akira looked to Jun. “Mom, you’re the reason why she’s here. You gave me the courage to be there for my family. So please I want you to hold your granddaughter.”
“You called me mom. And this,” June was so emotional she could barely breathe. “She’s my granddaughter. What is her name?”
Erica blinked away tears as she answered, “Prayikina June Nakiri-Hayama or Kiki. Our little Kiki.”
My mind came back to reality at the sound of Prayikina’s child-like laughter. I stroked my fingers along my braided hair, part of me was jealous of not having my own grandmother to talk to but another part was happy. June Hayama always was a becon of light.
“But little did i know, the best was yet to come,” June said in her grandmotherly tone.
I looked up to observe the old woman’s dreamy expression. “What do you mean?”
“What, dear?” June asked, taking a seat on the steps.
“Just wondering what story you consider to be the best.” I’d grown up hearing all her stories, each one more passionate than the last.
“Well, the one moment I was thinking about was when little Kiki said her first word.”
Prayikina took a seat in front, sitting cross-legged on the ground. “I love this story!”
“As you girls know, Akira and Erica both worked for the school. That, in addition to their own culinary projects, left them very little free time. They still loved their precious little daughter with every beat of their hearts, but for the next few years, I was the go-to babysitter. And as such, I was there when Kiki said her first word.”
“Which was of course: Dada,” Prayikina said proudly.
“And when my darling granddaughter took her first steps. Actually, this story is more about Kiki’s first steps.”
“Really?” I asked, in an attempt to coax out the story.
“Oh, yes. There was one night in particular that I will always remember. Akira had been on a date night with his lovely, overworked wife, leaving behind a very disappointed little daughter.”
“Kiki cried, kicking her chubby little legs. She was just screaming, ‘Dada! I want Dada!’ For hours on end,” June paused to pat her now teenage granddaughter. “I remember picking you up and just rocking you in my arms. I tried to sing, but you were so loud I could barely hear myself think. All i could say was, ‘Your daddy will be back soon.’ And i just repeated that sentence over and over.
Prayikina laughed out loud. “Are you serious? I was a really horrible baby.”
“No, of course not. I mean, not any more horrible then the average baby, I assume.” June’s cheeks turned red as she realized the insult she just handed to her only granddaughter. “You wanted to be held by your daddy. Who could blame you, your daddy is so amazing, he’s brilliant and strong.”
“I used to think of him as my student or my assistant, but ever since you came along everything changed.” June paused laughing as she blinked away tears. “Seeing how much he loves you. I realized that’s how much I love him. I’d live and die for Akira the way he would live and die for you little Kiki- probably even more so because you are so precious.” I was so lost that day, I diden’t even notice when your parents came through the door. Your mother took you from my arms, but Akira was standing in the doorway. I remeber his face, his smile, and what he said, ‘I love you too, Mom.’ That was the first time I truly felt…” June turned to me. “Oh my gosh listen to me, I’m taking up all your precious time when what we should be doing is getting to the memorial.”
“It’s alright,” I said with a shrug.
“Yeah,” Prayikina added. “They woulden’t start without us.”
“No, no it’s not alright.” June stood up, brushing herself off. “I’m so sorry about your father, Elena Rose.”
“Thank you. He always thought the world of you,” I said honestly.
June nodded. “Remy was such a kind young man. I remember the year Ali and Remy teamed up with Akira at the Moon festival.”
Prayikina laughed. “Yeah, Auntie Alicia nearly got both Dad and Uncle Remy kicked out of school.”
“Sweet little Ali was only trying to be a friend,” June said.
“Sweet little Ali?” I asked. “Not even grandma calls her that.”
“Your mother was sweet in her own way,” June explained. “Back when he was in school it was always very difficult for Akira to make friends. He was shy, cocky, and everything in between, so no one wanted to even try to approach him until Ali and Remy. Ali was the strong force of nature who challenged him, while Remy was the backup.”
“The backup?” I asked, my voice betrayed how I was slightly offended by her comment. She wasn’t wrong. My father’s personality always put him in the background, compared to people like my mother and Uncle Akira.
“The strength, the courage, the heart,” June paused looking out at the sun. “People like Remy Moceanu light the way.” She took a breath to settle her emotions before continuing. “Anyway, let’s all go to the memorial together. In this time of sadness, we need to share our strength and courage.”
I had to agree. I stood up and took Prayikina’s hand. “So, Kiki, which one of us is the backup?”
“The answer is obvious,” she replied, with a shrug, tossing her long wavy hair.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked jokingly.
Prayinkina stopped walking. “Your boyfriend, Jamie.”
“Yeah,” she paused for a moment, her eyes going wide at the implication of her words. “Not that I’m saying you and Jamie have a relationship like your parents did. Jamie is just cool, you know. He loves you and he doesn’t mind doing the heavy lifting once in a while. As my Nana said, we all need someone to light the way.”
I smiled. “I can see that.” I bit my lip, as my happiness rose. I hadn’t seen Jamie since the previous night. He arrived at the hospital but he (along with other non-family members) was kicked out, so he reluctantly went back to the dorms without me. “Do you think he’s waiting for us at the memorial?”
“Probably,” Prayikina said with a smirk. “You’re blushing.”
“I know I am.” I smiled looking up at the sun. I had friends, I had family, I had love. I could do this.
next: Run it! ch10