Kyomi O’Connor is a retired Pediatric Dentist, a Buddhist leader, and the Author of a wonderful debut memoir titled A Sky of Infinite Blue: A Japanese Immigrant’s Search for Home and Self. In it, she shares her very authentic and touching personal story about the intense emotional difficulties she experienced within her family of origin, her uplifting, healing marriage to Patrick, the love of her life that culminated in a fierce 3-year battle after he was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic melanoma in the brain, how Kyomi’s dedication to a Buddhism practice fostered her spiritual growth and the ways writing brought light to the dark places inside of Kyomi, helping her to break through her emotional armor to reach a blessed place of peace, healing, and rebirth.
IN THIS EPISODE, YOU’LL HEAR ABOUT THINGS LIKE:
- Kyomi’s heart wrenching childhood, during which she developed what she calls her “armor.”
- The way Kyomi and Patrick, a charismatic British cancer researcher, fell in love.
- The ways Buddhism fostered Kyomi and Patrick’s spiritual growth.
- The spiritual vision Kyomi received that caused her to no longer fear the unknown.
SOME QUESTIONS IRENE ASKS KYOMI:
- What were the very meaningful words Patrick said to you just before he died?
- How did you eventually find healing and closure with members of your family?
- How have what Buddhism calls “the four sufferings” applied to and transformed your life?
Listen to the podcast here
Kyomi O’Connor: Though We May Feel Otherwise At The Time, Our Life And Death Are Beyond Our Limited Notions. We Are Timeless Existence.
I’m delighted to be welcoming Kyomi O’Connor, who is a retired pediatric dentist, a Buddhist leader and an author. Kyomi’s wonderful debut memoir is titled,A Sky of Infinite Blue: A Japanese Immigrant’s Search for Home and Self. She shares her very authentic and touching story about her lifelong search to live in peace and truth.
I’m looking forward to talking with Kyomi about the intense emotional difficulty she experienced within her family of origin, her uplifting healing marriage to Patrick, the love of her life, that culminated in a fierce three-year battle after he was diagnosed with stage four metastatic melanoma in the brain, the interesting ways her career path transitioned, how her dedication to a Buddhism practice fostered her spiritual growth and the ways writing brought light to the dark places inside of her, helping her to break through her emotional armor to reach a blessed place of peace, healing and rebirth. Within her extraordinary story are references to spirituality, mindfulness, humanity, healing and rebirth. Therefore, this is sure to be a fascinating and illuminating interview for all of us. Kyomi, a warm, heartfelt welcome to the show.
Thank you very much, Irene. I’m so happy and honored to be here. I’m very good. I’m a big fan of you.
We have a mutual admiration. Let’s have everyone get to know you the way I do. Her book is wonderful. I highly recommend it. Let’s get everyone to know who you are from the beginning. I know that from a very early age, your life was filled with emotional difficulties. Would you please describe your heart-wrenching childhood with us during which you developed what you call your armor? I’ll bet a lot of people reading have some armor to them and identify with us.
I was in Japan when I was a child. About preschool age, three and a half years old, I was put into an awkward cultural, familial dynamics. I was born to be second daughter and my older sister was two years older than me. She was the eldest in the family and always treated as a very special papa’s child. She’s the only favorite. She was always treated like a princess and I was always there being a servant.
My mother was emotionally abused by her in-laws while they were living together after marriage for a few years. I was born after they moved to a different residence. I realized I was in a very awkward familial, culturally abusive environment. My mother kept me very close to her but also she had an overly dependent personality. She kept me almost like an ally and a best friend. She didn’t let me go to explore my independence either. I was trapped in an awkward situation. Every time my sister and I were together and the in-laws came, we were treated so differently.
That bothered me when I was reading the book. I got so mad at them when I was reading about the way they treated you. It is so unfair.
If they have a gift, they give a fantastic, beautiful doll with a fluffy dress to my sister but mine was very simple and unattractive. I’m second best or the last. In the beginning, I felt like, “What’s wrong with me?” It was like an accident. I thought, “They didn’t have a doll to give the same equivalent value to me.” I was a little wondered first and then became independent. The incidents were repeated many times. I thought, “Is something wrong with me? Why are they doing this?” I never cried. I was not necessarily strong but I was very brilliant, smiling and a good girl, like a bright girl.
“How come they are treating me like this?” I started to doubt and then that doubt about them became my doubt, shame and guilt. It’s the sense that something must be wrong with me. Why don’t they like me? It accumulated and then I hoped they don’t even come to my house and don’t give me any gifts. That’s how it started. To hide my emotion, I have no way. I have to pretend that I am still a good girl. I never cried. I put some pretension on me.
You put a shield around yourself so that they couldn’t come in.
I was a very impasse, sensitive child. I didn’t want to wound myself. To protect my feelings and the sense of shame and guilt, it confused me so much. I couldn’t bear it. That’s why I started to wear the pretension armor.
To escape this darkness of your existence all through your childhood, you eventually moved to the United States in February of 1990 to start a new life as a researcher for the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Could you share the beautiful way you and Patrick, your warm, charismatic British cancer researcher, met and fell in love? We always love a good love story.
Before that beautiful love story, I have to mention that since my childhood, I have remained in that armor for a very long time. I have accomplishments, achievements or my school or education. I became a dentist in Japan. I graduated from dental school and then went to graduate school. That graduate study is the one that brought me to the State to be a researcher at NIH. The first month, I was staying in a furnished apartment because I didn’t know that environment. In Japan, I asked my future boss to organize a furnished apartment for me and then the lease was ending in two months. I started to look around for homes, apartments or any house to share with real American people.
I was looking around mainly after work and yoga class. That was the twenty-third house I was visiting to check out. My yoga friend drove me to the house and then we went there. Outside of the house, I could feel something already, a vibration or spiritual energy is coming to me. After the gymnasium, he was wearing a white running shirt and red pants. He was tidying up the house. I thought that person knew me somehow even before we went to the door.
Somehow my yoga friend took the initiative to knock on the door and she’s the one who started the conversation with that guy. Eventually, that became my future husband, Patrick. He was very clean, neat and then well-organized. He has a style. He is very professional and kind but underneath, I felt he has a vulnerable heart. That’s the one that intrigued my heart to connect with him. He was extremely kind with deep sympathy and empathy, which started to heal my heart from the past wound.
His empathy and love for you started to help you to heal. He saw you.
Eventually, he told me later, he even dreamed an Asian woman would come to the house to look for the house even before we arranged that appointment, then he knew I am the one fated to him.
You were meant to be together. That’s wonderful how much his love helped you heal the traumas that you had. I have a similar story because I had a tough childhood and my husband also helped me heal a lot. I identify with your story. Could you share how you and Patrick changed your career paths and moved to San Diego, California? Talk to us about your career as a pediatric dentist because I was fascinated that you helped indigenous Native American children.
When I was in Japan, every year as a dental student, I visited a very rural community with no dentist around within a 100-kilometer diameter. I wanted to help people to be educated and then take good dental hygiene. I was originally interested in that. Patrick and I started as a researcher but in the States, I didn’t have a dental license. My last wish is to help other people, particularly those in a difficult situation. After four years I was at NIH as a researcher, I couldn’t bear my desire to help other people through my clinical setting. I decided to go back to dental school and then become a pediatric dentist.
While I was doing a residency program in Baltimore, Maryland, I saw lots of inner city setting with socioeconomically impacted people. Mainly in Baltimore, Black people are the ones. I found my destiny there. We decided to move to San Diego because Patrick was changing career to a pharmaceutical company, other than basic science in cancer research. In San Diego, I was looking for an indigenous community I could be part of. I decided to take a job within one month after we moved to San Diego and then I continued until Patrick became ill.
Would you go to clinics or their communities? Did you work on both adults and children or were mostly you stuck with children because you were a pediatric dentist?
I did only children. I have a California license. I could work in a private practice but I continued to work there for a very long time. I found it such a rewarding experience by sharing. It’s my gift to them and they respond.
You’ve got children learning right from the beginning about taking care of themselves through their good dental health. Without that, they wouldn’t have known. I also know your father steered you to learn about Buddhism. Buddhism also aided you in your spiritual growth and fostered even more of a desire to help you and Patrick joined you in this. Would you like to tell us about that part of your story?
When I was still in Japan, before I came to the States, I had exposure to Buddhist teaching or even spirituality in general. I practice a little bit but I’ve never been involved deeply in Buddhist or spiritual practice. After we moved to the States, my father was estranged from our family for over ten years. When I took the residency program, we needed financial aid. That’s the time I approached my father if he can help us. He was willing to help me because, as a back story, when I was in dental school, my father was already out of our house and then had another family elsewhere. I know he has going through difficult financial issues too.
Even though I was a survivor of childhood emotional abuse, I wanted to help him. That’s why I told him, “I will take a student loan for my dental degree to graduate.” He was so grateful but he didn’t say so that time. When I approached my pediatric residency program if it was possible for him to support me, he was willing because he remembered what I did many years ago when I was a dental student. He helped me and Patrick for two years but when he finished two years of support and I graduated and I got licensed in Maryland, he became terminally ill. He had terminal cancer and then he was proposed to live a few months.
That’s the time I wanted to help him, whatever he wanted. I went back and forth between Japan and the States. The last thing he left me was Buddhist teaching. He wanted me to pursue it. Probably he knows my personality and my strong desire to pursue something sacred. The family dynamics were still shaky but through this teaching, he wanted us to be together as one. I took it. That was a very wonderful teaching. Patrick saw me practicing sincerely and was moved by my practice. We got together and developed a wonderful spiritual life.
It enriched your marriage and helped you reach other people. Was your father a practicing Buddhist, you think?
While my father was estranged from our family, he was constantly praying for his parents and ancestors. He had a heart to be part of a Buddhist practice. I don’t think he belonged to specific teaching at that time. Once he became ill, my cousin introduced the teaching to him and then that was the teaching he passed. There’s some connection.
He passed that along. Early in your spiritual training, you received a very specific spiritual vision that caused you to no longer fear the unknown. This is something we all have to know about. Would you describe this vision to us and explain the truth of the universe that it revealed to you?
I was very lucky to have this vision in a still early pursuit of my Buddhist practice. What I saw was while I was taking a shower, the universe in front of me, the darkest, cleanest and a little British tinted that universe. Many zillions of scars, milky ways, the planet and everything are shady. All of a sudden, I’m crying like a waterfall. When I got very close to the stop, I saw a capsule of membranes. The inside was humans, Buddhas or all the different beings.
Would you call them being of light?
Yes. If I look at that capsule from a distance afar, it is a star but it gets closer. It is us living. I could even hear the breathing in one of the capsules. I saw myself as a baby. I am still a baby but it’s a part of this universe. This capsule and the starter are interconnected. It’s like unconsciously, we are conscious and awakened. We are known to be part of this universe. We’re breathing and then living in a way. We are not separated. We are together. When I saw this, I was cringed and felt like I was uplifted.
It was a spiritual awakening.
I am not afraid, no matter what universe or darkness. Every one of us has a light and it’s connected. That was heartwarming. I was settled down, grounded and centered. After I came out of the shower, I felt like a different person.
It was like you were reborn in a way and it prepared you for what was to come because it sounds like it carried you through in a lot of ways. Maybe that was one of the reasons you got the vision to carry you through what was about to come your way. You had a heartbreaking three-year battle against Patrick’s stage four metastatic melanoma in the brain. Here he’s a cancer researcher and he gets metastatic melanoma in the brain. You also had to become his caregiver, which is so difficult. What would you like to tell us about that time in your life?
We experienced such a beautiful spiritual life together.
For how many years?
We have been together for 26 and a half years. We felt like the very fine silky fabric, all inter arrays when we have been together. All of a sudden, it was almost like it was torn apart but I had no choice. We are from foreign countries. I am from Japan and he’s from England. We have a family in the foreign countries. We have friends in a lot of communities. However, we have been in the leadership position in the community.
Are you talking about the community in general or the Buddhist community?
Spiritual community. My husband originally wanted to keep it so secret. He didn’t want to share with the family, workplace or anything. I have to bear all of the secrecy of this illness for a very long time. That was very hard on me too. I try very hard to carry out all of the difficult situations one after another. He was so critical because it started in the brain, hydrocephalus. The next time, another hydrocephalus, in and out. We didn’t see the end.
It was like his personality was changing from brain cancer. Why do you think he needed to be so secretive? Was it his personality or was he afraid to be vulnerable? Why do you think that he became secretive about it?
Naturally, even when he was healthy, he had very special boxes inside of him.
He compartmentalizes things.
Since he was a child, he has had some of that compartment. We shared lots of stuff and then lots of sincere hearts. However, I know some distinct areas. I am not trespassing because the brain tumor gives you cognition problems. Some areas that are very difficult to open and almost pronounced are even harder. That made me feel lonely.
You lost Patrick before you lost Patrick. He was leaving because of brain cancer. You’re trying to keep this man alive who’s becoming a stranger to you.
Without knowing why I was juggling all of the hospitals, ER, ICU, all of the stuff, I have to be a warrior to him to fight against some odd. Sometimes these three years of illness give me little social problems. We see some medical systems. There were lots of not-perfect situations and then that gives us a negative impact. I have to protect him from all of the possible negativities. I became a warrior by wearing armor.
There went right back on. The armor was for Patrick instead of for you but there were some very special towards the end that meant so much to you. There were very special, meaningful words Patrick said to you shortly before he died. I want to ask you. You knew somehow that he was ready to leave for the spiritual world. How is he still spiritually with you? What did he say? How did you know he was ready to leave? How do you feel his presence?
Toward the end, Patrick knows he’s going to have a more accumulated brain problem. Before it happened, he needed to leave the world to me. That’s the content. I’m looking back at how he was amazed at a relatively poor family, as an immigrant from Ireland to England. They have a large family. They are happy. However, they remained poor for a while but he’s the one who went to university and graduate school and then brought him to State, where we met.
His focus was on us and then the wonderful life we shared. I brought something he never expected in his life before to share like flowers or something richness in his life. He was so grateful for us to walk on the path of Buddhism together and then have a wonderful spiritual life. He thanked me. I couldn’t bear it. He is ending this story.
There was such a validation that even though it was hard for you, as he was nearing his end on this planet physically, he was validating you and recognizing your great contribution to his life. That’s special. How did you know he was ready to leave for the spiritual world? He had been in such secrecy and had his armor on. How did you finally know that he finally accepted that it was his time to go?
Toward the very end, sometimes he wasn’t himself, which put me in a little fear because I didn’t want to lose us. We are so together and in tune. He’s coming apart. Somehow for some reason, we had to fight against withdrawal syndrome while he was in hospice and then they tried to switch to medication. My husband was shocked by opioids and then it changed to less potent medication. He had a withdrawal but at that time, we didn’t have a nurse.
You were alone with him during this little period. It was like transitions were going on.
He was kicking, mourning, growing and almost like a wild animal. A few seconds came across. I felt resentment toward the hospice company and the nurses who left but then another shift happened in my mind. He is here. He wants me to be together to the end. No matter what comes, we are together to finish this. That’s how I felt.
It sounds to me like you finally felt his acceptance of what was happening. You were together in that. How do you know he’s still with you? Does he give you signs? How do you know that he’s around you?
In the beginning, I felt there are so many signs. Looking at his photo, his eyes are moving almost like they should be solid. As I look at him, he’s looking at me. There are lots of stuff like subtle thing signs but I know he is with me on the shoulder and into my heart.
You can feel his presence.
His warmth radiates.
I also know that writing became a new spiritual practice for you that helped you heal even more. As you say in your book, bringing light to the dark places inside of you and helping you to reach a place of peace and healing. The product of that is your wonderful book. Would you like to say anything about that?
When he left this world, we had a moment to exchange our feeling. I know he has to leave and he left. Before then, during the illness, I had accumulated questions. I sometimes do not 100% agree with what happened. I was throwing to the total wilderness and then darkness. I mentioned the darkness I didn’t feel. I’m afraid. However, this darkness and unknownness were very new. We were no longer together. We’ve been all together.
It’s a big adjustment. Now he’s gone and you’re alone in many ways.
It’s almost like a big trauma. Part of me is grieving. It was at the beginning feeling traumatized. I am traumatized. I am a victim. I had so many things and questions that needs to be answered. What is the truth about us and me? I lost everything. I don’t have an identity.
You lost your compass.
I didn’t want to be a victim of the sudden death of my partner and best friend. I needed to grab something. I will be a survivor of this experience. It was a very difficult experience but I had to survive, not just to be the victim of tragedies. I started to write but it was so difficult to even dig, visit the places and then dig down to find the truth. Truth sometimes gives you pain to even face it but he was there. He was on my shoulder and encouraging me to go for it and get through it. I needed to use my spiritual practice as a background for my Buddhist practice. It becomes tenacious, perseveres and keeps on going. I didn’t even expect I write a memoir but it turned out to be a memoir.
It was very freeing for you and it helped you to work through a great deal. I can understand that. It helped your armor to come off. What we need to know is how you eventually found healing and closure with your father when he died, your mother because all that was still unresolved and other members of your family. There was something you saw when your father died that also brought you peace. Do you want to tell us about that?
When my father passed away, my sisters and cousins are at the bedside and I was the only one coming several hours before I arrived from the States but I was wide awake. I was watching him and then everybody else was sleeping. They are too tired to stay awake. The lightboard, like a golf board side light, came out of his body and it stayed 1 foot above his body. I know that’s my father’s spirit. He stayed there for a couple of seconds and then he vanished through the window. I knew what he wanted to say. He ended his life. He completed and he’s going to go to the next level but we are together. We share this love.
How did you resolve it with your very needy mother, your sisters and everyone?
My mother and my relationship is probably one of the most difficult ones because she was constantly dependent on me after I left Japan. It’s starting 3.5 years to the late 20s. She constantly depended on me. Every day she was repeating her complaints or cries. I was shocked by that codependent.
That’s terrible. She won’t let you go and grow up.
When I was thinking about my mother, I was drawn back to my childhood. Now I am a mature woman, not just living in a victimized me but I can lead value or reframe this past event. I can take a step and even be sympathetic to her background, how she was raised, how she becomes and how she was made of. Everyone has some resolved end-product of how it happened. That understanding made me feel that I originally loved my mother, my sisters and my father but I have to focus on the love I have, not the experience negatively impacted. It’s up to me to decide how I interpret it.
It sounds like you finally grew up. You healed so much and you were able to empathize and understand where she couldn’t come from with her attitude. She still didn’t quite understand.
She has had a time. I don’t think so. However, the love she has originally become like a pure form. I appreciate the love she gave me.
Does your sister still feel she’s the queen? Does she come in equal status there?
She’s learning a little bit. She’s herself. My sister has lived with my mother. He had a strong objection we need to share the care but all of her daughters, including me, had a difficult period in our life. My older sister and I were in very young adult age and in between, my younger sister took care of my mother. We shared the care in a way. We have to find out how we can all be happy. I suggested two sisters back in 2017. I was still deeply grieving. I told them we have to place our mother in the facility once it becomes a difficult situation and nobody could taken care of. Before then, we all need to establish our hearts to support that event. It takes time. Everybody has a summer experience of codependence.
You became the wise one because of what you went through. You went to the head of the class. I want to bring this back to Buddhism. They have a term called the four sufferings. Could you explain to us what those four sufferings are? How have they applied to your life? How have you transformed from these four sufferings? Tell us what a Buddhist leader does. What is your role as a Buddhist leader?
The four sufferings consist of the life or bars event itself. The second suffering is illness and aging. The last one is death.
It’s what we go through when we live. We age, theoretically ill and then die. Those are the four sufferings.
It’s a life event that we can’t avoid. It’s like an inevitable event we have to face. In childhood, I had traumas or life itself. It becomes an inevitable event I can’t avoid. Illness or aging everybody experiences and then death. Patrick had an illness to death. All of this is suffering. Nobody can avoid it. We face the challenge of suffering to make it a difficult experience. However, we can interpret adversity as a part of a seed of awakening. That’s how I feel.
You can take those four sufferings but it’s your attitude, how you move through them and transform from them that makes a difference. What do you do as a Buddhist leader? What does that mean that you’re a leader? Do you conduct chanting and services? What do you do as a leader?
We have spiritual leaders in our community and then we gather at a sanctuary, like temples. At the temple, we have a meditation. Some of the leaders are qualified in a spiritual course of development and then growth and development. We are, including me, helping members with meditation itself.
You have to facilitate the teachings.
As a teacher, I can have my group of people and then share the depths of marriage. I conduct home meetings during COVID time.
It must have been a very busy time for you.
Some members are impacted very psychologically and mentally. I have to add more meetings with college people as to how they are doing.
You are a wonderful role model for them with all that you’ve been through. What is your message about the importance of healing, which you have done that you would like to share with our readers? Why should people move through their suffering to heal and transform their lives?
As I share the vision of my pursuit in Buddhism, we are all interconnected. A medium of interconnection is compassion and wisdom but love and light. Everybody shares that same medium and we are part of the customers. Sometimes we have inevitable events. We mentioned the four sufferings. Nobody, even the prince, could even avoid death. How we can live with that suffering is inevitable but how we can even encourage each other to live that love and light in the circumstances? We are dying at some point and may become ill. Instead of forever being a victim, we can find some part of a connection in the interconnectedness to start to interpret it a little differently. That makes our life even a little brighter.
You’re a role model for that. Look what you’re doing. How can our readers connect with you? Do you have a website? What would you like to tell them about? I’m sure your book is on Amazon.
I am available through the newsletters and then almost the intimate information comes through the newsletter. Visit my website, KyomiOConnor.com. I am active on social media, Facebook and @KyomiOconnor. I have an author page, Kyomi O’Connor, Author. On Instagram, I’m a little less active and on Twitter too.
What is Kyomi O’Connor’s tip for finding joy in life?
I want to stay curious, humble and grateful. Gratitude is the one that always brings me centered. Thank you.
There is much wisdom to be savored in your enlightening book, A Sky Of Infinite Blue. I especially love these two lines, “I have learned to appreciate my scars and wounds and to transform them into treasures. May we all be so lucky to find such peace and love in the wake of loss.” You are truly a role model for grief, healing and rebirth. Thank you for courageously sharing your inspiring story with all of us.
I thank you from my heart for this enlightening, illuminating interview. Here’s a loving reminder, everyone. Make sure to follow us and like us on social at @IreneSWeinberg on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and especially on YouTube. Like, subscribe and hit notify to make sure you will get inspiring new interviews like this one with Kyomi coming your way. Thank you so much.
To be continued. Many blessings.
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