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Resting Places / Chapter Nine: Weaving her religion

Mary Kociela of Montague, left, Patricia Morton of Chicopee and Yoko Kato of South Hadley bow their heads as the Rev. Peter Ives, right, says a blessing over the grave of Sherry Morton and her son Cedric at  Spring Grove Cemetery in Florence on Jan. 11, the  20th anniversary of their murders.

SARAH CROSBY

Mary Kociela of Montague, left, Patricia Morton of Chicopee and Yoko Kato of South Hadley bow their heads as the Rev. Peter Ives, right, says a blessing over the grave of Sherry Morton and her son Cedric at Spring Grove Cemetery in Florence on Jan. 11, the 20th anniversary of their murders. SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

NORTHAMPTON - A few weeks after the killings, Yoko Kato took up a ritual her family practiced in Japan. She created a shrine to her daughter and grandson in the breakfast room of her home and began to speak to them every morning. She shared the day’s first foods with them in the Shinto Buddhist manner, coffee for Sherry and juice in a small cup for Cedric. She placed photos and toys in the shrine, including Cedric’s favorite Sesame Street characters.

As a child in Yokohama, Yoko had been taught that the first thing sets the tone. The first day of the year shapes that year. The first deed of a day shapes that day.

Yoko began to make a trip to the cemetery the first stop of each day. Visiting the cemetery, she realized, helped convince her Sherry and Cedric were dead. Standing by the temporary grave marker in the first months, she told Sherry and Cedric everything she was doing, and everything she was feeling. She told them she missed them.

She began to explore what religions say about death and loss, and her therapist, Cat Chapin, helped her widen her search. Yoko felt surprise that at the age of 47, religion was beginning to call to her. She had taken the girls to church when they were little, then stopped. Now she pieced together a religion of her own, reading everything she could find.

First, she looked for beliefs that spared the departed physical pain. The afterlife she wanted to imagine offered peace and safety.

Then she wanted more. She moved on to wondering about the world of spirits. When Jehovah’s Witnesses came to call, she listened, ready to skim cream off this faith until she learned its members didn’t believe in heaven. She studied a book called “Zen Seeds” by a female Buddhist monk. She felt no guilt adopting ideas on the grounds that they made her feel better — and tossing ideas that didn’t.

She came across a book written in Japanese by a Buddhist teacher. Appreciate what you have left and what’s around you, he had written. Let that appreciation bring you happiness. “He said don’t keep dwelling on what you don’t have,” Yoko said later. “It just makes you sadder.”

Some memories came from family members. She recalled her mother’s account of a near-death experience. She’d told Yoko about a vision in which she’d met ancestors in kimonos occupying a place beyond life. They told her she was not ready to join them; it was not yet her time. Yoko’s mother believed human spirits leave Earth like fireballs, with long glimmering tails.

One of Yoko’s aunts told her matter-of-factly that her late husband’s spirit had dwelled with her in Japan for 49 days before moving on to another place. Yoko bought dozens of books with religious themes and started giving them to friends and strangers — to anyone she believed shared a need to know what happened after life. She mailed them to people she read of in obituaries, especially to people who had lost children.

•••

PROGRESS NOTE

CLIENT NAME: Yoko Kato

DATE: 3-16-93

CLIENT PROGRESS & ISSUES: Y. continues to be very protective of her daughter’s grave — actually shoveling it clear of snow even after nearly a foot fell recently. She is, however, gradually coming to feel less compulsion in her grief rituals & more comfort. Has begun to explore the traditional Japanese mourning customs of her family.

•••

At one session with Cat, Yoko mentioned a book about Buddhism that she was reading. It’s hard not to believe in all religions, Cat told her, when you are looking for answers. “Why” questions are religious questions, she said. “We want so much to have somebody to have the answer. To just tell us, and then know that we’re not alone in our thinking.”

Religion, she continued, “means to be connected to things. That’s where the word comes from. Binding together. Tying together.” That can involve fusing observances and practices from disparate faiths and cultures, she said.

In her reading, Yoko came to believe that in heaven, things are prettier than on Earth, the colors more vivid. The red of roses is brighter; the water is cleaner. The air is soft and fragrant. She pictured Victorian buildings made of bricks and marble, and imagined herself being whisked there through space. “If you wish it, you get there,” she said.

The month Yoko created her shrine, a sister in Japan began adding toys for Cedric to the one in her home. Her brothers also maintained shrines for Sherry and Cedric.

One day, Yoko described to Cat how she had stood at a funeral in Spring Grove 10 feet from where Sherry and Cedric were buried. She had been attending many funerals since the murders and reading every word of the obituaries in the Gazette. The page with obituaries had never caught her attention before. She read it to learn who was on their way to see Sherry and Cedric. One funeral took her back to the Pease Funeral Home for the first time since the week of the killings.

Yoko was often upset to find that people visiting Sherry and Cedric’s gravesite had rearranged objects there. It felt like an invasion. She was unnerved, too, not to know who had been there. She would study the footprints in the snow, trying to judge the size and gender of the people who made them.

At Spring Grove, Yoko watched from a distance one day as two women walked up to Sherry and Cedric’s gravesite. Though eager to know who they were, she gave them time alone. One of the women noticed Yoko, so she went to thank them for visiting. Another time, she met a couple from Easthampton who had been following news of the tragedy. They told Yoko their son was married to a Filipino woman and their grandson looked a little like Cedric. It wasn’t the couple’s first visit to the gravesite. They liked the way Yoko decorated it.

•••

Cat warned Yoko that she might eventually find funerals difficult to attend. “Other deaths wake up your own grief. .... You have enough grief to go around,” she told her in one session. “No matter how hard you try, Yoko, you’re going to be human.”

A woman close to death at the nursing home in Rochester, N.Y., where Jeannie worked knew about what had happened to Sherry and Cedric. One day, she asked to see a photograph of them, then told Jeannie, “When I get there I’m going to find them, and tell them how much her sister cares for you. How much they miss you.”

By summer, Yoko had worked into a morning ritual. She would light a candle in her bathroom, where she and Sherry used to sit and talk while Cedric played in the bath. The candle sat beside photographs of them. She poured coffee for Sherry and juice for Cedric. Then she would blow out the candle and go to work. When July came, she observed Obon, a five-day Buddhist festival of the dead. In it, belief holds, the spirits of the dead return to earth. When Yoko called her mother, the older woman reminded her, “Obon is coming. Sherry is coming home.’’ The year before, when visiting, her mother brought a small headstone representing her late husband’s memory. She fed him every day. Before going to bed every night, Yoko told Sherry that she would be with her, and with Cedric, after her own death. She added this thought: Don’t reincarnate before I get there.

•••

PROGRESS NOTE

GROUP NAME: Survivors of Sherry

# IN GROUP: 3

SESSION #: 1

DATE: 3-8-93

DURATION: 2 hrs.

GROUP PROCESS CHARACTERISTIS & ISSUES: Focus was on responses to recent bail hearing — the intense emotional buildup of dread & pain, the agonizing revelation of further details of the murders, the anger at the murderer’s family offering him support — and the final vindication of no bail set leading up to a let -down. ... in spite of all, Sherry & Cedric remain dead.

CLIENT PROGRESS & ISSUES: Yoko’s feelings appear to be much closer to the surface; it is plain much of her numbness has passed, though she continues to reach out to other survivors through letters & media. She is very aware of her anger at murderer’s family and expresses it with little apology & great directness.

•••

Seated aboard a supersonic jet, Yoko settled a photograph onto her lap. It showed the shrine in her dining room, and in it, pictures of Cedric and Sherry.

The supersonic jet climbed up from New Jersey, through clouds and out over the Atlantic toward London. Yoko watched out her window. Soon, she was looking down on clouds and studied their shapes. She looked for clouds nestled in the forms of her daughter and grandson. She spoke quietly to them. “Where are you, Sherry? Cedric, where are you? Tell me where you are. I’m so close to you now. Show me something, Sherry, so I know you are OK.” Then the clouds fell away and Yoko searched for two together, one large and one small.

At 59,000 feet above the ocean, the sky above was black but starless. Yoko gave up searching the whiteness below and looked out into space.

Then she thought: maybe a shooting star? For an hour, she searched. She spoke to the photograph in her lap. If not a shooting star, she asked, how about some sparkles?

TOMORROW: A survivor prepares to face a trial’s facts.

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