Akitsu Shima

by Brittany Casselman

A disproportionate amount of a dragonfly’s life span takes place underwater. The female dragonfly lays her eggs in the water, and in the next seven days the larvae are born. These larvae spend the next three years in the water, eating insects and fish and occasionally each other, before emerging into the air. Their time in the world is often short—it can range between a few weeks and a year.

I spent a lot of time underwater before I met Joanie.

Joanie was a blonde fireball of a teacher. She taught the service-learning class at my high school—a class I had secretly wanted to take since I was five years old. Joanie believed in every service project her students took on, but more importantly, she believed in every student. She saw the dragonfly inside each larva, and she did everything she could to help it emerge from the water, no matter how long it took. She knew that the best way to help us help the community was to help us see ourselves as powerful.

When I met Joanie, I was a scrawny sophomore who was going through some hard things. I was unbearably shy, had recently lost a lot of friends, and didn’t feel like I had much to offer those around me. I was vulnerable, and I was tired.

Joanie saw me in a way nobody else did. She saw me for my potential. She saw who I could be. Instead of just teaching me to serve others, she served me. With her help, I found solace in service. More than that, I found strength. I grew into the person I needed to be.

Like most dragonflies, Joanie was out in the sky for much too little time.

The first time I heard about Joanie’s cancer was at a holiday party she concocted for the members of the “board” (the students she had asked to carry out the various service projects that the class took on) during my junior year. She asked each of us to bring an item that used to be precious to us but that we didn’t need anymore. We wrapped them up and gave them out. As each person unwrapped their gift, the person who gave it explained its significance.

Joanie gave one of her old headscarves from chemo. She told us her whole story—how she was born with a gene that gave her an 80% chance of getting breast cancer. When her cancer finally came, she fought to make it to remission. She had been cancer-free for almost 17 years. I remember thinking back and realizing that as I was being born, she was fighting the hardest battle of her life.

When the person who got the headscarf opened the package, I looked over and saw that the scarf was covered with dragonflies.

Every August, Japan celebrates their ancestors with the Bon Festival, a weekend festival where it is said that the spirits of ancestors return and visit their families. During that weekend, thousands of dragonflies appear in the sky. This has led to a belief that the ancestors ride on the backs of the dragonflies to visit their families. Dragonflies are a sign that the ancestors are watching over you.

Joanie was the one who told me about the legend. She wasn’t Japanese, but she believed in dragonflies. This belief carried her through the lowest part of her cancer, she told us during that holiday party. To help keep her strength up during chemo, she used to go on walks up the canyon. Sometimes she would feel so weak that she could barely make it up the first hill. There were days she was so exhausted she could barely move, but she went regardless, because that was Joanie.

One day, she was sitting in her yard, trying to find the strength to continue treatment. At the very moment she was considering giving up, a dragonfly landed on her arm. It was then she knew that she was going to make it all the way to remission. In that moment, she said, she could feel her ancestors cheering her on.

Dragonflies are resilient. They were the first winged insects to appear on this planet—the first fossils we have date back 350 million years. They survive in all climes and appear on every continent except Antarctica. The only things they really need to survive are food (generally mosquitos), clean water, and stable oxygen levels. They can make it through almost anything.

The cancer came back my senior year. Joanie looked more tired than usual at first, delegating more to those of us on the board and not attending nearly as many events as she used to. I was so busy coordinating with food banks and collecting donations for our end-of-year service dinner that I barely noticed.

In class a few days later, she announced that she would be taking 2 months off. Her cancer was back, she said, this time in her brain. She kept it light and optimistic, saying that she was going to try a treatment plan less invasive than chemo, that she was going to fight it, and that she would be back. To the board, she was a little more open. She was more than our teacher, and we were more than her students. We were friends, and we were worried about her. The doctors had found five tumors in her brain. Recovery would be rough. But she told us she would fight, and that she trusted us to keep the projects going for her in the meantime. Ann, her aid, would be there to help us. Joanie said that she was excited to hear about the good we would do while she was gone.

Joanie believed in us like she believed in dragonflies. She knew that whatever happened, we would make it through.

Dragonflies are sacred in Japan. Japan actually used to be called Akitsu Shima—Dragonfly Island. They were so prevalent in the lives of the Japanese citizens that they linked dragonflies with their national identity.

The day Joanie passed away, I walked into health class to whispers. I didn’t need to know the details—I heard one student say, “Joanie” and I knew she was gone. When the guidance counselor came to my classroom a few minutes later with a note to excuse me, I took my bag with me. I knew I wouldn’t be coming back.

Sitting in a room with the other board members as the guidance counselor told us that Joanie was gone was a feeling of sadness, but also a feeling of sisterhood. We were there to remember Joanie’s memory, and she had brought people together. It almost felt like a disservice to her memory to cry.

That night, my sister walked in on my sobbing into my pillow—loud sobs, the kind that make you gasp for air because you feel like you’re shrinking into yourself. When she asked me if Joanie had died, I couldn’t even stop crying long enough to tell her yes.

Joanie’s funeral was the biggest I’d ever been to. I got there 20 minutes early, sloshing through the snow in black high-heeled shoes, but still had to sit at the very back of the church. The building was almost filled to capacity. I’d never seen people get turned away at a funeral before, but that was the impact that Joanie had.

After the funeral, the board went to Ann’s house for lunch. After soup and salads and stories about Joanie, Ann gave us all jewelry boxes. Inside was a small silver necklace—a dragonfly. “So you can always remember that your ancestors are watching over you,” Ann said, “and so you can always remember that Joanie’s watching over you too.”

I wore that necklace every day for four years. At every special occasion—birthdays, graduation, my first and last days on the mission—it was present. And so was Joanie.

Every time I reach my lowest point, I look for dragonflies. No matter what phase of life I’m in or even what continent I’m on, I always find them. They’re little reminders to me that the ancestors are watching over me. And that the woman who always believed I would become something incredible is cheering me on.

In Japan, they don’t just believe that dragonflies transport the souls of their ancestors. They also believe that, occasionally, the ancestor’s soul takes the form of a dragonfly. When a dragonfly comes into your home in Japan—on Akitsu Shima—you don’t shoo it out. You welcome it into your home, so your ancestor can be with the family one last time. 

 Works Cited

“Dragonflies.” National Geographic, National Geographic Society, 7 May 2020, www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/invertebrates/d/dragonflies-insects/.

“Japanese Art.” The Dragonfly in Japanese Culture, jamiemillerdragonfly.weebly.com/japanese-art.html.

Sedgwick, Icy. “The Dragonfly in Folklore: Good Luck Symbol & Weigher of Souls.” Icy Sedgwick, 13 Aug. 2020, www.icysedgwick.com/dragonfly-folklore/.

Williams, Ruth. “Why Are Dragonflies Important?” Sciencing, Leaf Group Media, 2 Mar. 2019, sciencing.com/dragonflies-important-10068965.html.

Zielinski, Sarah. “14 Fun Facts About Dragonflies.” Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian Institution, 5 Oct. 2011, www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/14-fun-facts-about-dragonflies-96882693/. 

Brittany Casselman is currently working on an undergraduate degree in communications with a minor in creative writing. She enjoys writing, service, and making dumb jokes, though lately her favorite hobbies include sleep and finding desserts that don’t aggravate her stomach problems.