‘Before the Coffee Gets Cold’: The Responsibility to Make Grief Worth it

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We have all lost people in our time. Whether through death or rejection, we have all felt that chasm in our chest where someone else used to reside. Many of us have been promised a greater step in our lives only for that promise to shatter in front of us. 

Oftentimes, it is near impossible to find an appropriate place to put our grief, disappointment, or resentment towards the things that we have been denied. Luckily, there are plenty of works of literature that give us a solution to this age-old dilemma. 

Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s Before the Coffee Gets Cold is a novella in which disenchanted street-dwellers of Tokyo make their way into a seemingly inconspicuous café. However, the main talisman of the café is the ability to travel in time to meet the ghosts of your past. 

In one short-lived saga, we witness a widower who was minutes away from saving their wife from a violent end. In another, we see a heartwarming reconciliation between a biological and adoptive father on their daughter’s wedding day. Kawaguchi paints a myriad of family portraits that have been dashed by car crashes, cancer, and the struggle of the starving artist. 

Sadly, you can’t just travel back in time in this café. You can only meet people who have actually visited the café in the past; you have one opportunity in the day to travel back in time; you physically cannot do or say anything that will change the present. Just when you start to think it’s not worth the hassle, the most important rule is that you have to end your retrospective session before your cup of coffee grows cold.

It would be a mistake to assume that this book only contains a string of disconnected short stories where people kiss and make up for their past wrongdoings. Yes, there are a whole lot of ‘saying what was never said’ and tearful reunions. 

But the unifying element of the book is the staff with their own intricate backstory. The notably reserved barista, Kazu, holds every interaction with other characters at arm’s length and doesn’t display any emotion. But the plot is no match for Kazu and her hard exterior must crack. 

If You Could Go Back…

Upon reading this book, I found myself yearning for second chances, to go back to people who I have lost. Would I express the love I was too young to articulate? 

Would I unleash the anger that didn’t arise until later? What would I even say? The best thing about this book is that it questions the necessity of its own plot. By the end of the book, my mentality had shifted in tandem with Kawaguchi and stopped to ask myself: why would I do any of that? 

The most harrowing story was simultaneously the most enlightening. A woman who suffered a miscarriage confides in a colleague who turns her whole outlook upside-down: 

“… if you try to find happiness after this, then this child will have put those seventy days towards making you happy […] You are the one who is able to create meaning for why that child was granted life. Therefore you absolutely must try to be happy. The one person who would want that for you the most is that child.”

This is not the only time this sentiment comes up. A man grieving his wife speaks to a woman who lost her sister where grief imposes the responsibility to live well: 

“If I had led a sad life as a result of my sister’s death, then it would have been as if her death had caused it. […] My joy would be the legacy of my sister’s life.”

Kawaguchi does not insist on a Victorian stiff-upper-lip approach to our grief. Cloistering ourselves in black and wandering morosely through the rest of our lives in the name of those we have lost does nothing for anyone. By the same token, neither does pushing down our grief as if it isn’t there. 

The best thing we can do, according to Kawaguchi, is to take the grief and make sure that it amounts to something positive. We’ve all heard that ‘the best revenge is living well’, but Before the Coffee Gets Cold encourages us to think of grief in this way too. 

What I respect the most is that it isn’t a dismissive way to cope with loss. We must strive to live the happiest life we can, not in spite of our grief but because of it. The futility of life and death is too much to carry on one pair of shoulders and most of us have found that out the hard way. 

To think about the frivolity of your loss just leads to resentment and indignance. In its place, Kawaguchi allows us to take our grief into our own hands and give it our own meaning. 

Before the Coffee Gets Cold is a wonderfully written book in and of itself. It’s written in a charmingly simple way, which is why I would recommend it to anyone in a reading slump. But personally, Kawaguchi has shared with me a valuable lesson that I will carry with me through the darkest parts of life. 

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