South Florida was a nature preserve Shizuka Matsuki never wanted to leave.
When iguanas fell frozen out of trees during cold snaps, Shizuka would scoop them up and keep them under heat lamps until morning.
She went to turtle rescues. She bird-watched. She loved to fish, ever since she caught crayfish as a child in a river near her hometown in western Japan.
And she loved her three rescue dogs, Junior, Paco and Momo, mutts who she walked every morning in Davie’s Wolf Lake Park.
But on June 8, that park was closed, so she took them to Silver Lakes Rotary Park.
It was there Shizuka, 47, would die in an apparent alligator attack, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Since 2008, there have been only two fatalities from alligators reported in the state.
Shizuka’s body was found in the park’s lake after apparently being bitten by a 12-foot-6-inch alligator, FWC said. She was last seen walking her dogs. One of them, Momo, was bitten but survived. An investigation into her death remains open, FWC said.
“I’m not ready to say bye to my wife,” her husband, Yukio Matsuki, 47, told The Palm Beach Post recently, his first interview since the incident. “We built everything together for 30 years. We eat the same things. We listen to the same music. Then, just one day, gone.”
So he and their son, Katana Sato, are working to keep her memory alive. Three years ago, when he asked Shizuka what she’d do if they won the lottery, she said she’d open an animal shelter. She treated her dogs like her children, Katana said. She adopted Momo after finding her abandoned in the Everglades.
“Everything we’re doing from now on is for her,” said Katana, 21.
All races, religions, classes gathered for her funeral
When police first called Yukio to say his wife was missing, he thought it must have been a kidnapping. He said he didn’t like her visiting Silver Lakes, off Florida’s Turnpike and Stirling Road, because he didn’t like the area. The area was sketchy, he said.
A few months back, an older woman yelled at Shizuka to go back to her country and tried to run over one dog with her BMW, Katana said.
The park’s lake had been previously reported for alligator activity, with eight permits issued for alligator removal since 2005 but none completed, according to FWC.
And a few days before Shizuka died, an alligator had wandered around their neighborhood in Plantation.
Yukio said it felt like an omen.
“What do you do when you lose the most important thing in your life?” Katana said. “How do you continue?”
Hundreds of others shared in his grief. At Shizuka’s funeral, no two faces were the same.
All races, religions, classes and genders filled the room in Plantation as about 300 mourners said goodbye, Yukio said.
And in the family’s home, there was a “wall of flowers” from people wishing them well, Katana said.
Katana read a letter to his mom at the service, wishing for little things he could no longer have. The chance to hear her laugh, see her smile, eat her food. To let her see him get married one day.
“You were a small woman but had the biggest heart of anyone I’ve known,” he read in the service.
As pictures of Shizuka changed on a screen, Yukio’s hand-selected mixtape of songs the couple had grown up listening to played in the room.
Songs about love and loss were crooned over warm reggae beats, a tribute to the woman who deeply loved the world around her. The final song capped off with a message to “enjoy yourself — it’s later than you think.”
Yukio, who was a disc jockey in Japan, said he preferred the music to be his message.
The couple, who had been together for 30 years, were both fans of reggae and rocksteady music, even planning to move to Jamaica before settling on the United States. Yukio said they didn’t fit in in Japan, but in South Florida, found a diverse community they became close with.
They came to Florida from Tokyo in 1996, when Shizuka was about six months pregnant with Katana, hoping to give their only child more opportunity. Though they had only one kid, she opened her doors and acted like a mother to all children, Katana said.
“If you were a good person she would accept you with open arms,” he said.
Son’s love of his mother: ‘No malice. She cared’
Shizuka means “quiet” or “serenity” in Japanese, Katana said. Shizuka lived a humble lifestyle that matched the word but brought a richness to the lives of others, her family said.
She loved to bake and cook all kinds of food, setting up spreads as large as Thanksgiving meals for guests — though she didn’t care much to eat it herself. One of Katana’s friend’s younger siblings joked that at Shizuka’s house they were always “very, very well fed.”
One of her favorites was banana bread, which she’d make from the fruit in her backyard and bring to friends.
When she traveled — as the family did often — she never insisted on fancy hotels. Shizuka always wanted to live like a local, see their sights and smell their foods, her husband said.
On trips, her and her husband would stop by as many civil rights museums as they could. Their favorite was in Memphis, though they also enjoyed Cincinnati.
Yukio said his wife believed all people were equal. It made him happy to see how all the different kinds of people came to her funeral and who loved her. People who hadn’t spoken to them in nearly two decades reached out after they heard about her death, he said.
It’s part of the reason Yukio said he could now never leave South Florida. The community’s response and care has been almost familial, he said.
Shizuka also loved South Florida too much for him to leave, he said. They went all over in Broward and Palm Beach County and considered buying a home in Lake Worth.
The day Shizuka died, both Yukio and Katana were out of town — Yukio on business and Katana in New York, where he lived and worked in the fashion industry. He is now moving back to South Florida to be with his dad.
When he lived in New York, he would still talk to his mom every week. She’d send photos of the dogs or tell him to take care of himself in Japanese.
When Katana thinks of his mom now, he still sees her big smile and crow’s feet. And on her funeral placard, along with the Japanese words for “unconditional love,” Katana put a quote from “The Little Prince,” a book by Antoine de Saint-Exupery his mom had recommended to him.
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly,” the quote said, tucked into the corner of a card with Shizuka’s smiling face.
“She just loved life,” he said. “All this love and tenderness and kindness. No malice. She cared.”
Paying tribute to Shizuka
Ultimately, Shizuka’s life is a lesson for all who knew her and a dictum I imagine she’d encourage us to live by is this: make the best of the life, cherish family and friends always and live a life of love.
-- Tomoyuki and Naaborle Yabe
Shizuka will always be remembered by the many lives she touched. Though she only had one biological child, she was a mother, friend, and mentor to many. To experience her kind soul here on Earth was a privilege. I know wherever she is she shining bright and watching over her beloved son and husband who meant the world to her.
-- Jahra Lubin
When I think of Shizuka, I am left with a happy feeling. I remember her for the kindness and love she radiated to those surrounding her. And the motherly affection she blessed on a so many kids.
Shizuka will always be a mom in my memory. Not just to Katana, though out of all her “children”, she loved him the most. She brought so many girls and boys into her home and her heart. She professed her love, not through her limited English, but through her food.
-- Annabella Lyn
She was a quiet, kind, gentle, caring, good‐hearted woman; always willing to jump in and lend a helping hand when things needed to be done. I can’t remember any day that she came to our house with her arms swinging empty. She even spoiled our dogs like they were children. Shizuka, you will always be in our hearts and minds. The world is a little grayer without you.
Jim and Natalie
More tributes can be found on the Instagram feed for Shizuka's Plan.