Published on February 15th, 2024 | by Susan Kiyo Ito


Like a Heartbeat: An Excerpt from I WOULD MEET YOU ANYWHERE

Susan Kiyo Ito is the author of the memoir I Would Meet You Anywhere (Ohio State University Press), about her search for her birth mother, their reunion, and their disunion. To read a Q&A with Ito, go here.

For years after my fragile sixteen-year relationship with my birth mother dissolved, I carried my despair inside. I managed to get through the chores of life—child raising, teaching, errands—but I was broken inside. Then one day, I saw a notice for Japanese taiko drumming. A spark fluttered between my ribs. I was interested. Interested in something for the first time in a long time.

I drove out to an enormous barn, a hulking structure in the tawny hills. It was framed by dusky pink light and meadows thick with the dark shapes of cattle. People hauled giant drums and wooden stands from vehicles. In the barn, others fastened rubber tires onto folding chairs. I shyly made my way inside.

The sensei, a small, auburn-haired woman, entered and bowed. “Ohayo gozaimasu!” she called out. Everyone bowed and repeated in unison.

My eyes stung. “Ohayo gozaimasu” was how my grandmother and parents had greeted me each morning of my childhood. I didn’t understand why the taiko teacher was saying “good morning” when the moon was already over the barn, but it gave me chills to hear it.

We stood over the tires and struck them with bachi, thick wooden dowels that filled my fists. Ichi! Ni! San! Shi! Counting the beats brought me back to the kitchen table of my childhood, reciting ichi, ni, san for my parents. Their glowing approval. I remembered Japanese vocabulary drills, how they’d point at things, and I’d name them in Japanese. It had been years since I’d used the language, especially since my grandmother had died. My arm vibrated, my bones feeling the impact of wood against the hard rubber tire. Its slight bounce.

Image by protowink from Pixabay

We hit a basic beat. Right, left, right, left, right. Sensei struck an iron chime, and the metallic sound went through my teeth. Ichi, ni, san . . . hai! The drummers swirled and thundered between the drums. I kept my hands moving, faster and faster, rightleftrightleftrightleftright until my palms blistered, their bodies blurred and charged in front of my eyes, and the sound echoed huge under the rafters. The sensei kept hitting the chimes as if whipping a galloping horse, and everyone shouted the drummers on. Hahhhhh!

Soon I was dizzy, my hair and face streaming with sweat, my skin steaming.

I felt more in my body than I had in years. More than ever, maybe. It reminded me of when I gave birth to my daughters, immersing myself in waves of energy larger than myself. Suddenly unafraid to do things that girls aren’t supposed to do. Hitting and yelling. Feeling exhilarated.

I returned the next week, and the next. I loved it, but I was not good at taiko. I was terribly inept. But the others applauded my attempts respectfully. They clapped their sticks together. The wood-against-wood sound made me happy.

I wondered if my poor coordination, my lack of kinesthesia, had anything to do with my premature birth, the lack of nutrition I had received in utero.

Sensei opened up a notebook and read to us. “Great taiko is said to resemble a mother’s heartbeat as felt in the womb . . . babies are often lulled asleep by its thunderous vibrations.” My eyes filled with sudden tears.

Photo by Viviana Rishe on Unsplash

Here I had found a place for my rage and grief over my birth mother turning away. Here was a place I could be Japanese. I could hear the familiar language of my childhood. I planted my feet, straightened my spine. I felt the wooden sticks heavy and smooth in my fists. Donsu, donsu, donsu, doko don. Don means “hard,” su means “soft.” One on the back of the other, the blow followed by the caress.

One night, I arrived at the barn to see a husband-and-wife film crew. They unloaded video cameras, sound equipment, and enormous boxy lights. I noticed one of the taiko students holding an infant wrapped in flannel. I thought, She has a baby? Why bring such a tiny baby to class? Then I realized that the baby belonged to the woman working the video camera. The infant began crying, a distraught, thin sound. Its tiny fingers clawed the air.

I looked at the baby’s mother. She was crouched low, her hands framing the monitor with the image of the drummers, their bodies turning like starfish. The taiko student walked back and forth between the cars, and the baby kept crying. The noise pierced me. I made a sympathetic face. “Maybe a different set of arms would help.”

I walked the baby up and down the driveway, but she shrieked in my arms. Surely the mother would hear. Surely, she would rise from her stool and take the baby, unbutton her blouse, nurse the child to sleep. But the mother didn’t turn around. She didn’t flinch as her daughter wept, her hoarse little voice echoing against the tawny hills.

“Is she hungry?” we chorused. But the mother said no, the baby had been fed. She turned back to the camera. Her straight back, the long black braid resolutely said: I have work to do.

I jiggled the baby, a tangle of flannel and jerking limbs. It was cold; stars were brightening the sky.

The gong went off inside the barn, and the drumming started. “Listen, baby, listen,” I said and tilted her toward the open door. Her eyes unclenched into black pools, wide and absorbing.

“Donsu doko don,” I said to her and shifted my weight back and forth in time with the beat. Her lips came together. Her cheeks and nose smoothed into baby roundness, the wrinkles of rage melted away.

“Donsu doko don,” I said, and the baby’s weight settled. Suddenly she was heavy, relaxed, soft. We stood near the open doorway of the barn and a family of tiny bats, small as butterflies, swooped over our heads. The light around the hills was quickly melting away, and each time I looked up, I saw a new sprinkling of stars.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

I held the baby for hours. She brightened each time the thunder of the drums began, and it held her attention until they fell silent. If she slept, it was a delicate, lacy sleep, broken by a dog’s bark or a cold rush of wind across her face. What she liked best was darkness and drums. I stood in the shadows on the grassy slope behind the barn, away from the spotlights and bright windows. If light assaulted her face, she cried. If the drumming stopped, she cried. I tried to keep the beat up with my voice—don su don su doko doko.

Her beautiful Japanese mother, resolute in her work, did not come out of the barn. Her bearded father said wearily, “It’s like this every night. She cries for hours.”

I held her in my arms, this half-Japanese baby whose mother was deaf to her cries. She was eleven weeks old, the same age that I was when the hospital released me. I wondered if I made the same hoarse sounds as we rode together in the cab, my birth mother and I, on our way to our permanent separation.

I walked miles that night. I paced the figure-eight shape of infinity in the grass, cradling the baby until my arms and back ached. I was in a trance, the drums pounding against the night sky, the barn silhouetted in the darkness, its one amber window shining like a jar full of honey. The tiny bats swooping around the roof, sending out their silent calls. I was carrying a biracial baby, a baby girl soothed by thundering drums, a girl who found comfort in the arms of a stranger.

When the filming was finished, I took the sleeping child to her parents, and they took her back without questions or concern. My arms ached when I let her go. “Goodbye, sweet baby,” I said and reached to grab my bachi for the last song. I asked her father what her name was.

“Mika,” he said. “It’s a Japanese name.”

I cried as I drove home through the dark empty hills, for all the wrenching separations: releasing this small hanbun-hanbun girl whom I’d loved for three hours, the searing memory of loss, the beautiful unflinching Japanese mother, all of it breaking and falling around me like the bodies of burning stars.

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About the Author

Susan Ito began reading at the age of three, and writing stories at the age six. She co-edited the literary anthology A Ghost At Heart’s Edge: Stories & Poems of Adoption. Her work has appeared in The Writer, Growing Up Asian American, Choice, Hip Mama, Literary Mama, Catapult, Hyphen,The Bellevue Literary Review, and elsewhere. She is a MacDowell colony Fellow, and has also been awarded residencies at The Mesa Refuge, Hedgebrook and the Blue Mountain Center. She has performed her solo show, The Ice Cream Gene, around the US. Her theatrical adaption of Untold, stories of reproductive stigma, was produced at Brava Theater. She is a member of the Writers’ Grotto, and teaches at Mills College/Northeastern University and Bay Path University. She was one of the co-organizers of Rooted and Written, a no-fee writing workshop for writers of color. She lives in Northern California.

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