A Birthday Letter

CJ Hostetter
4 min readSep 14, 2020


Photo by Caterina Berger.

Happy birthday.

You wouldn’t believe what a year it’s been.

Tokyo shut down. For a month, you could walk the streets of Shibuya, home of the busiest crosswalk in the world and pass less than ten people. Nowadays most everyone wears masks and people who can work from home, do. That’s probably not the case for you, since you’re an English teacher.

It also brought out issues of structural inequality, poverty and institutionalized violence that already existed, but are now being exposed to the public at large in Japan. My friend described this in Japanese as 浮き彫り (ukibori), which is what happens when one carves wood and exposes the soft flesh underneath.

I too have been carving away pieces of myself.

I haven’t written since before you died. You were 29 then. I was 27. We were so young.

I work in design now. I talk to people, and then I sit at my computer drawing boxes, over and over again. You’d think I’d get bored with drawing boxes, but I don’t. It’s not the boxes I like but the people for whom I’m drawing them for.

But things were different six years ago. Then, I was a young designer who had just gotten their first big client. We’d wrapped up our first project together successfully and the client were excited to have me on for another phase of work, to start the following week.

I wasn’t ready.

I guess you weren’t, either.

I asked my client if I could miss the kickoff. Something had happened. I promised I’d be in mid-week. In the most compassionate voices, they worried over the cohesion of the project, whether they’d be able to find a replacement for me. I caved and said I’d be back by Monday. I didn’t tell them I was planning to fly out of state for your memorial. At the time, I thought doing so would be unprofessional.

I remember hoping I’d “push through it” over the weekend and then get back to work, fresh-faced and renewed. Cry my tears over the weekend, empathize with our customers on the weekday.

Unfortunately, life had other plans. The flight on Saturday was late and I missed the connecting flight. The airline offered to fly me out later the next day, but I knew I would miss your memorial. Out of a selfish fear I’d miss work on Monday, I slept in a smoky motel in South Carolina and flew back to Texas the next day. I was fine.

I came into work on Monday to concerned smiles. “Everything okay?”

“I’m fine,” I replied with a smile. I felt like someone had scooped out my insides, raw and quivering, and put them inside a locked freezer. I pushed it down, got to work, hustled. It was what I thought professionals did.

Sometimes, when I thought no one was looking, I’d take pieces of me out of the freezer and try to put them back inside. When I did, a wave of sudden, incontrollable grief would wash over me and I would slam the door shut again. I went back to my computer to draw boxes. Over and over again, until the fear subsided.

I was afraid of coming undone, of crying at work or worse, not being able to perform my job and have people look at me with pity in their eyes and say, “Being a designer is hard…some people can’t hack it, you know?”

With grief, time is cyclical. It doesn’t matter whether something is happening now or six years ago, they feel as if they are the same moment.

Back to your birthday card, sweet. That’s why I’m writing you.

There’s a worldwide pandemic going on. It has shut all of us in our houses and has slowly carved us down to soft flesh. We are raw. The freezer is in our house. At work, we can ignore it. But here, we can’t escape it.

I’m sorry I kept the door shut for so long.

I’m angry at you. You left us before saying goodbye. Instead of asking for help you tried to go it alone. When I asked you if you were okay, you said, “I’m fine.” How was I supposed to know you had your own freezer?

I’m sad. I picture a future that will never resolve where the two of us meet in a cafe and catch up. We would laugh, cry. Maybe we’d catch a Takurazuka show together in a non-existent future. You loved Takurazuka. After you died, I avoided shows because it reminded me of you.

I miss you. You introduced me to people with whom I have lifelong friendships that I treasure to this day. You were my first window into the LGBTQIA+ community. Through you, I saw a brighter, happier future that I could have if I surrounded myself with people who taught me to be fearless and compassionate.

Thank you.

I’m sorry.

I’m angry.

I’m sad.

I miss you.

I’m terrible at ending letters, especially ones to people who aren’t living. I can’t really say, “see you soon,” can I? But up until now the door had been closed and you weren’t welcome.

So now I can say, “visit anytime.” I would love that. Come by sometime. I’ll be ready for you.

Happy birthday.

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline in the U.S. is 1–800–273–8255.

TELL Japan provides a helpline support in Japan in English at 03–5774–0992.

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of depression or suicide, call. I promise, it is not stupid or weak. It is strong. Some of the people on the other end of the phone are friends of mine, and the reason they volunteer is because they care about folks like you.

Love you, and stay safe.



CJ Hostetter

Design Researcher and UX Designer at @yamaneco_agile in Tokyo, Japan. Former frog and Goodpatchie. I write about design, agile and radical inclusion. They/them.