Photo/IllutrationKeiko Suzuki, a mother, lost her son in 1999 and donated his clothes to unknown victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, in Natori, Miyagi Prefecture, on Jan. 20. (Emi Hirata)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

NATORI, Miyagi Prefecture--Parting with the possessions of a lost loved one can be very distressing.

But after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster, Keiko Suzuki found meaning in donating her son's clothing to children in need.

Suzuki's son Yusuke died at age 2 due to encephalopathy with a high fever caused by a bad cold in 1999.

Just two weeks after giving birth to him in 1996, the mother of three received a shocking prognosis from a doctor: "He's suffering from myelocytic leukemia.”

Although the baby was not in any immediate danger, Suzuki was overwhelmed by the news.

She tried to stay positive, thinking, "I'm all that Yusuke has." Fortunately, he developed in good health, without showing symptoms of the disease. Surrounded by an older brother and sister, the toddler was always seeking cuddles from his mother, now 55.

While his brother was in school, Yusuke got a hold of his stickers, featuring "Pocket Monsters," and stuck them all over the house. He was also just starting to say words like "Mom" or "Ultraman," a popular TV series.

Then tragedy stuck. Yusuke suddenly died after two years and three months of life.

Suzuki was devastated by the loss and kept Yusuke's clothing stored in a box at home since.

The boy died of a high fever, not leukemia, his chronic disease. Suzuki almost blamed herself, thinking, "I could have done something."

Looking at the box containing his clothes, she would think: "These are proof of Yusuke having lived. I mustn't let them go."

However, things changed shortly after the March 11, 2011, disaster.

While listening to a radio in the dark during a power outage, she heard a report on how the quake-triggered tsunami had devastated coastal cities and towns in the Tohoku region. She also learned that part of her city of Natori had been hit by tsunami and that the remains of numerous victims had been moved to gymnasiums.

She was struck by the severity of the situation and felt some guilt for being able to ward off the cold at her undamaged house on a hill, with all her family members safe.

A week later, she heard an announcement on a broadcast system calling for donations of aid supplies for affected people. They were in need of food, daily goods and clothes, especially children's clothing.

Hearing the announcement, Yusuke's packed-away clothes came to mind.

"I must be the only person with clothes that are not being worn by anybody," she thought.

Suzuki opened the box containing Yusuke's clothes for the first time in 12 years, picked them up along with children's clothing that had been little worn and put them in a bag.

She recalled that she had a similar feeling when hearing of Yusuke's diagnosis while carrying him in swaddling clothes: "I'll do everything I can. I'm the only one (who can do this)."

Now, Suzuki has no idea where the clothes went, and does not feel depressed thinking about Yusuke's clothing anymore although it was previously difficult for her to see them.

Instead, she thinks, "What kind of children have worn the clothes and have now grown up?"

Suzuki still keeps Yusuke's yellow toothbrush featuring "Anpanman" characters, among the few remaining mementos of her son.