I look up at the sound of a discreet knock on my office door, and there she is, just the way I remembered her. Her light green pantsuit sets off her dusky complexion, immaculate as always with an understated ruby pin on her lapel. Her blonde hair has finally acquired a few streaks of grey, and there are some crinkles around her eyes. Still, she looks enviably youthful, and although it has been years since we last saw each other, it really doesn’t seem that long. She is one of the few people from Japan that I still keep in touch with regularly after moving to the United States.
“Kaolla-san! Why it’s good to see you. How have you been?”
She pauses for a breath, and that’s when I know something is wrong. “I thought I should be here to tell you this in person.”
I sit down in my chair. It seems like the thing I should do. Part of me already knows what she is going to say. “Why? What’s this about?”
“It’s about your father.”
It’s my turn to take a breath. It’s time. Finally. And the strange thing is I don’t really feel anything. It’s been so long. After all this time, I’ve used up all the anxiety and bitterness I had in me. I can’t be shocked or saddened any more. Not after all these years of knowing what’s been coming. In a way, I’m relieved to bring things to a close. “What happened?” I ask.
She looks at me directly then. “I think you should go see him,” is all she says.
The Japanese worship at the altar of the camera, but my mother and father took it further than most. My mother at least took normal pictures. She would whip out her Nikon 5500XL at the merest hint of a scenic background (which really meant anything with pretty flowers in it) and begin snapping. She never looked at those pictures again more than once or twice, but all the same she would force me to stand before her and plaster a false happy expression on my face. My father, on the other hand, hardly ever used a camera. His obsession was photo booths. He never saw one anywhere that he didn’t immediately want to use, and he usually found some excuse to do it, too. He even had favorite ones around Tokyo that he would visit on “special occasions,” usually dragging me along with him. I never knew why he liked a particular booth more than others, and the one time he tried to explain it to me, I gave up.
It was around my sixth birthday that I realized that I didn’t really enjoy looking at pictures of myself. Even at that age, I could see how forced my smile was in every picture. Nobody else ever commented on it which made me think they must have been blind or so wrapped up in the ecstasy of their precious photos that they didn’t care.
“Naru!” My father called, pointing frantically. “Miite miite! There’s a photo booth over there!”
We were in France, and I had just eaten a cheese danish with a helping of rich, fresh milk. Therefore, I wasn’t as bothered as I usually was when this happened. My mother laughed tolerantly. “We’re within sight of the Eiffel Tower and all you can think about is a photo booth.”
“The Eiffel Tower will still be there when we’re finished. Come on, quickly!”
Mother sighed. I didn’t understand it then, but thinking back on it, I realize that she often hid her affection behind a mask of exasperation. There were many things I never understood about their relationship.
“All right.” She took my hand. “Come now. Let’s make your father happy.”
The picture taking itself went painlessly enough. Father was beside himself with ecstasy waiting for the prints to come out. “Isn’t it amazing?” he was telling us. “We’re on the other side of the world, but this country also has photo booths. I didn’t see these in China.”
“We didn’t see very much of China,” Mother said. “Do you have them yet?”
“Here they come.” I heard a slight clunk, and father lunged. At that moment, I was busily looking around at everything I could in the new city. But Father’s gasp and sudden silence caught my attention. Mother also noticed.
“Nani desu ka?” she asked and walked over to look at the photos. Father seemed to realize that she was approaching and tried to throw the photos away, but she quickly snatched them up. Then she gasped and threw them to the ground. “Lecher!” she screamed, and her fist swung up to connect solidly with father’s jaw. He flew straight up into the air for what seemed an eternity before falling back to the ground in a heap. He leapt to his feet and began to bow before her.
“Gomen! Gomen nasai!” he cried.
“Just what were you doing with those pictures?”
I caught a glimpse of them lying on the ground. I saw enough to see some women wearing very little to cover themselves. I think now that father must have accidentally set some background with showgirls. In any case, mother caught me looking and snatched the pictures up.
“What are you exposing your son to? Just look at this!”
“But…but you put them there for him to look at…”
“Don’t blame this on me!”
“Okaa-san,” I said, tugging on her skirt. She looked at me and suddenly realized that there were about a dozen people staring at us now. I burst out laughing at her expression.
“It…it’s not what you think,” she stammered. But of course, she was speaking Japanese and nobody understood her. So she grabbed Father’s hand and dragged him bodily toward the Eiffel Tower. I ran along behind them.
“We’ll talk later,” she promised.
Father sighed. “Yes.”
Then she looked back at him. And she slowly smiled. “Oh never mind. It was just a misunderstanding, neh? We’ll come back to try again after the tower.”
“Why don’t we go now?”
“We’ve already walked all this way. Going back would take too long.”
“Going back after the tower would take even longer!”
This made sense to me, but I stayed quiet as I followed along behind them and listened. It wasn’t until much later that I found out that it wasn’t normal for married couples to punch each other. My wife and I have been very careful about that.
“How is your company doing?”
Ms. Kaolla smiles as we walk down the terminal. “It’s doing very well. Our systems have had a successful launch in Germany. So now we just need to work on streamlining the process. What about you?”
“I didn’t tell you about it yet, but a few weeks ago I learned I’ll be named in Fortune.”
“That’s wonderful! I’m sure everybody will be happy to hear that.”
She doesn’t say, “Your father would be proud.” The thought hangs in the air between us, and for the time being, that is where it’s going to stay. Not least of all because we are suddenly interrupted.
“Aaaah, there you are! I was getting bored here!”
I feel myself wince slightly before turning to look. Aunt Kitsune is slouched over in one of the chairs in the waiting area for our flight. California is a strange place, but Aunt Kitsune manages to stick out anyway. She is wearing a rumpled purple and grey kimono for some reason, and her wrinkled face is bright red. That’s probably related to the sake bottle she’s clutching in one hand. Her hair used to be silvery. It’s white now, but her eyes are the same as ever—squinting like a scheming fox.
For some reason, I’ve always thought of her as “Aunt” Kitsune. In reality, she was only a little bit older than all the rest of my mother’s friends and not related to me at all, but something about her always made it seem that she was a part of the family rather than an older lady. I suppose her drinking was part of it. She was also the only one who used to take me out on secret, and usually mischievous expeditions. At least she did until my mother put a stop to it.
“It’s been such a long time,” she gushes. “Why I hardly recognize you. What a distinguished gentleman you are now. How is your wife? She’s not coming? Well why not? I could have convinced her to come. You know me, I can convince anyone into anything.”
I’m certain she could. She had convinced some millionaire to marry her, and now she was living easy. I don’t exactly disapprove of that. In her own way, she probably even loves him.
“It’s good to see you,” says Ms. Kaolla.
“Yes, Kaolla-chan, how wonderful to see you after all this time! It will be exciting to have everyone all together again. Oh, and I’ll be sure to pay you for the ticket next week. Please remind me if I forget.”
I stare at her and then turn to Ms. Kaolla. “You paid for her plane ticket?”
“Oh, it’s not a problem,” she replies with a smile.
“But Kaolla-san, since when did Kitsune-obasan need someone to pay for her ticket?”
Aunt Kitsune gives off a slightly slurred giggle. “Oh, well, I just had a little bit of bad luck, you know.” Her Kansai accent is becoming very pronounced. “My horse was looking very good, but it couldn’t seem to keep up the pace on the home stretch.”
I can almost see steam blowing out of my mouth as I sigh.
“Well, I hear our boarding call,” Ms. Kaolla announces. “I calculated our pace perfectly. We barely had to wait at all, and we even had time to eat.”
Aunt Kitsune lurches up to her feet and begins stumbling to the gate. I look around to make sure she hasn’t forgotten anything, but apparently she didn’t bring a carry-on. We follow her past the ticket check and into the tunnel to the plane. Aunt Kitsune is bubbling over at the prospect of first class seats. I am somewhat less enthused. As I enter the cabin, I am reminded of how much I hate the smell of airplanes.
The smell in the hospital room was awful. Somebody had explained to me all the chemicals that were being used, but I didn’t understand a word of it. I was just glad to be out of there for a little while. The smell was still there when we got back, and mother had gotten up from her bed and started pacing around the room. That was something of a surprise so soon after a chemotherapy session.
“Tadaima!” father announced as he walked in with me. Then he noticed that she was standing and started with alarm. “Naru, what are you doing? You need to be resting!”
“Resting! That’s all anybody wants me to do is rest. I won’t break apart just from a little activity.”
“Oh Naru. Here, I brought you some food. I don’t think you’ll want to eat it standing up.” Father put his bag down and gently took mother by the shoulders. She tried to push back at him, but it was no use. I hadn’t realized how feeble she had become until that moment. Finally, she lay back on the bed.
“Agh, I hate this,” she sighed. “I’m tired all the time. I’m not really sure this is all worth it.”
“Of course it is, dear.” Father fussed over her, tucking the sheets around her and propping her pillows. He glanced around absently at one point and then looked down and froze. Mother’s hospital gown had slipped down over a shoulder. She was looking the other way out the window, but father blanched all the same. Gingerly, he reached down and pulled the garment back up. Then he crept away to unload food from the bag.
Mother sensed something because she turned to look at him in puzzlement. “Nani?”
Father jumped and waved his hands. “Ah! Nan demo nai!”
She regarded him in puzzlement. Her brown eyes looked even bigger than usual on her worn face. Then she sighed again. “You don’t have to scoot over to the other side of the room. Do you think I’ll hit you? The way I am now?”
Father blinked. Once. Twice. Then he took off his glasses, pulled out a handkerchief and cleaned them. I saw him quickly dab the corner of an eye as he put them back on. “It…it may sound strange…but I wish you would.”
Mother smiled a slow smile then, looking much more like her old self. She lay back on her pillows, watching father the entire time. “Baka,” she whispered.
And then one day, she didn’t get up from her bed.
“Ah, it’s so nice to be back,” Aunt Kitsune sighs. “It’s been over two years now since I set foot in Japan.” She is eagerly looking around at the stores as we passed by.
“Not so long for me,” Ms. Kaolla says. She is intently writing something down on her electronic notepad. “I come in every once in a while for business, but I usually don’t stay long enough to really appreciate the sights.”
“And how about you?” Aunt Kitsune turns to me. “How long has it been for you?”
It takes me a moment to realize that she’s asking me a question. “It’s been five years,” I say.
Ms. Kaolla looks up from her computer, and Aunt Kitsune actually widens her eyes momentarily. Then they both look straight ahead. “Jaa…there’s our ship,” Aunt Kitsune says.
“Oh good,” Ms. Kaolla says. “I’ve been looking forward to this. I’ll get a chance to try out my weather machine.”
“You made a weather machine?”
“Only a small one so far. It uses power from water swells to redirect the winds, but it hasn’t been field tested yet.”
“Ah, sugoi! I can already see all the fun we’ll have with that at the beach!”
But I had just noticed a figure on the top deck of the ship. I quickly bow to the other two ladies. “Sumimasen. Could you please wait just a little bit before trying your machine? There is something I would like to attend to.” And then, ignoring their confused looks, I go up.
I have my bokken with me, and I pull it out from its carrying case as I hurry up the stairs. She is standing looking out over the sea as I reach the top. Nobody else is here with us.
Sensei Motoko turns as I draw near. She looks pretty much the same as when I last saw her. Which is to say she doesn’t look nearly her age. An ascetic lifestyle and constant exercise agree with her. I approach slowly.
“Konnichi-wa,” she intones. She doesn’t smile. She doesn’t have to.
“You look well, sensei,” I reply.
Her eyes flick to the bokken in my hands, held in reverse to indicate that I don’t plan to use it immediately. It’s a deliberate motion. She noticed it long before, of course, but now she is choosing to acknowledge it. “You still keep up with your practice?”
“As much as I can even though American schools lack tradition and spirit.”
“I see. Then shall we spar for a bit?”
I bowed deeply. “Onegaishimasu, sensei.”
She nods tersely, and we both withdraw a pace. I bring my bokken up into ready position. Elbows relaxed. The pommel level with the center of my belt. A long stable stance with my feet planted but not so much that I can’t move quickly and decisively. I’m running through the checklist in my mind like a first year student again. Am I balanced? Is my energy projected forward? I need to focus. No distractions! I can feel her scrutinizing everything, feeling out my weaknesses on a subconscious level.
Sensei draws a bokken out of a carrying case that I remember she always carries everywhere. She radiates power, even now. Her stance is harmony in itself, almost blurring even though she stands still. She was a prodigy in her youth, and I can only think that she had gotten even sharper since then. Her total concentration, in this moment and throughout the entirety of her life, borders on inhuman. I never saw it for myself, but there were stories that the force of her will could even manifest itself physically as an attack over long distances. I believed it.
But now is not the time to be thinking about that. It’s time to focus on the moment. On this endless instant as our energy meets in between us and blends before being released into action. This is where the real battle takes place, and although to observers it seem an eternity of nothing, to us it passes like an instant.
“Hajime!” she cries, and we began.
She is a little slower than she used to be. Just a little bit. She is still plenty fast enough to keep me on my toes, and what she has lost in agility she more than makes up with cunning. She achieves three touches in rapid succession, twice on my wrists and once on my stomach by actually dashing too far past me and then flipping her grip to reach around across her back with the bokken and tap me. I’m much more careful after that and hold out for eight or nine passes before she got me again.
We draw up again for another round and she finally cracks a smile. “You haven’t deteriorated as much as I expected,” she says.
“You get that from your mother, I think. She was unpolished but very good.”
“Well, she did train with Seta-san.” She tenses slightly at his name, and I go on the attack. She has always been thrown a bit off balance by Mr. Seta’s name. From what i gather, it’s because he was one of the few people who could consistently defeat her. I don’t catch her off guard this time, but I can feel that she appreciates the tactic. All the same, she achieves another touch on my wrists. That’s when the rain suddenly begins to pour down on us.
Sensei Motoko looks up in bemusement. “It was sunny just a moment ago.”
I sigh. “It’s Kaolla-san’s new invention. She must have blown some clouds in from somewhere.”
“Ah.” She contemplates the rain for a moment and then slides her bokken back into her carrying case. “That may be enough practice for now in any case. Let’s go see them.”
She actually seems a bit eager to meet them which is unusual. She has a bad history with Ms. Kaolla’s inventions.
Aunt Kitsune’s voice floats up to us when we find the others on mid-deck. “You’re amazing, Kaolla-chan! I didn’t know you could also make it rain!”
“Oh well that was simple. Although I wasn’t expecting the downpour to be quite this strong…”
There is an earsplitting crack as we approach, and the lights around us flicker. The other passengers around us glance up momentarily and then continued on with what they were doing.
“Ohhh…did you call down that lightning too?” Aunt Kitsune asks.
“Well, no,” Ms. Kaolla is looking down, scrutinizing the readings. “I wasn’t expecting that to happen. But it doesn’t seem that anybody was hurt.”
“Aiieee!” comes a scream from above us. “The radar tower! What happened to our radar tower?!”
We all look at each other.
“Jaa…” Aunt Kitsune says, smiling and scratching her head, “I think we’ve had enough fun with that. Let’s go shopping and get Motoko-chan some nice fashionable clothes.”
Sensei Motoko blinks. “Clothes?”
“Come, come!” Aunt Kitsune says, taking her hand. “There’s a boutique on this ship. So many wonderful things they put on cruise boats these days!”
“Chotto matte! What’s wrong with what I’m wearing now?”
“Oh don’t be so uptight. I’m paying.”
“Err, didn’t you use up your allowance?” I ask her.
“Oh that was yesterday. Today is the start of a new week, so I have some more money to spend.”
“Don’t you need to pay off some debts?”
“That’s what the on board casinos are for.”
Sensei Motoko gives me a helpless look and shrugs as she is dragged along. I look back to see Ms. Kaolla leaning out heedlessly over the railing, watching the sky and fiddling with the device in her hands. A sudden crack splits the air again.
“Ahhh! I think that was the radio room!” a voice above cries.
“I think we should stop while we still have a boat,” I murmur to Ms. Kaolla.
She only smiles a pleased smile as she packs the device back into a bag. Then we follow the others into the shopping arena. I see Aunt Kitsune busy waxing lyrical over a tiny gift box, exclaiming over its delicate details. Sensei Motoko is standing to the side, looking relieved that the attention is off her for now. Ms. Kaolla and I smile at each other as we walk up and hear Aunt Kitsune’s ecstatic rhapsodizing.
“Ahhhh, kirei…” Miss Shinobu didn’t seem to realize she had spoken out loud as she looked at the wedding photo. Even after all this time, it still had a place on our mantel.
She had just happened to be visiting when our heater broke and so she had immediately volunteered to look after me while father went out to buy a new one. At the age of thirteen, I normally didn’t much like having a babysitter and valued a certain amount of independence, but I never minded Miss Shinobu. I had always thought unabashedly that she was the most beautiful woman I had ever known besides mother. It wasn’t simply a matter of her natural beauty although her lithe figure and huge doe eyes certainly made her an idol among singers. But there was more than that. In her public life, she had projected an outgoing, hyperactive persona as was expected of all popular singers, but with her friends, she allowed us to see her true self. Ever shy and insecure, she insisted on acting deferential towards everyone. Except for me, that is. To me, she represented the one adult who wouldn’t lecture me or constantly try to teach me something and so she became something of an older sister. She was rich and famous and desired by men everywhere, but she never seemed to mind it when I had something I wanted to talk about. Anything at all was fair game. It must have looked a bit odd to others, but neither of us found it uncomfortable, even later.
Looking at her now, I reflected on her plain clothes and the baseball cap she was holding in one hand. She told me it was to hide from all her managers and from photographers.
“Hai?” She turned to me.
“You don’t like having your picture taken?”
She blinked. “Well, only sometimes.”
“Me too. I don’t mind as long as I’m not expected to pose and smile. It’s the same for you, isn’t it?”
She laughed. “I suppose so. Although your pictures are only seen by a few people.”
“But magazine readers don’t keep all your pictures stored away in a box for years and years, do they?”
“Well…some of them do although I wish they wouldn’t.”
“Ahh…so that’s why you keep Motoko-sensei around with you.”
“Tadaima!” Father announced his entrance before she could answer. He was carrying a new heater as well as another massive box of some sort.
“Okaeri,” we both responded in unison. Then Miss Shinobu said, “Here, let me help you with that.”
“No it’s all right, I think I have it.”
“Sempai, you can hardly see where you’re going with those boxes…ah look out!” Father had bumped into the couch which was apparently enough to throw him off balance. I mentally shook my head in exasperation and dashed up to grab a box before he dropped it.
Miss Shinobu had the same idea, and we nearly collided in coming to father’s rescue. In swerving to avoid each other, we knocked the boxes in father’s arms, pushing him further off balance. I managed to tip the water heater box so that it landed harmlessly on the couch, and the other box had come low enough to the ground now that it wouldn’t be damaged by a fall. The humans were another matter.
After the dust had settled, I heard father say, “That hurt…ahh! Gomen!” I groaned in annoyance and wondered why he could never seem to get into ordinary accidents but always had to end up in compromising situations. By the time I had picked myself up and turned around, father was backed against the wall staring down at Miss Shinobu. She appeared unhurt but was now sitting on her knees, looking at the floor. I saw her slowly blush. Father saw it, too. For a moment, we all simply stayed where we were.
“Daijoubu?” Father asked.
She nodded. “Hai. Daijoubu.”
Father kneeled down before her. “Are you sure?”
“Hai.” Her voice had gotten very small all of sudden.
Father swallowed. And then he said, “Anno…Shinobu, would you like to have lunch with us?”
“What?” She looked up. “But sempai, you have so little money! I should be the one taking you out to eat.”
“Nonsense. I insist. I should be paying you back for all the babysitting.”
“Neh, otou–chan,” I said, “you’re not going to take her to have beef bowls, are you?”
Father blinked and looked at me. For a beat too long. Miss Shinobu suddenly covered her mouth, and I could see her suppressing a giggle as he deflated. Then she stood up. “Sa, ikuzo.” She took his hand and then pulled him out the door.
Unfortunately for them, she had forgotten to disguise herself again, and so they were ambushed by the tabloids within a few seconds of emerging into the light. I still keep some of those pictures in a scrapbook.
“Remember that time when we caught Keitaro on a date with Naru?” Aunt Kitsune is asking. “Poor Shinobu was in such a state of shock right then!”
“Not as much as when Motoko almost kissed him in front of her sister,” Ms. Kaolla remarks.
Sensei Motoko flushes slightly but otherwise doesn’t change her expression. “Do we have to talk about that?”
“Oh all right,” says Aunt Kitsune. “How about that time when we made him scrub all the floors and even clean the roof.”
“Ah yes. Didn’t he fall off the roof? It’s a good thing the hot spring was there for him to fall into.”
“I think he would have been fine anyway,” Ms. Kaolla says. “He’s very strong. He could survive anything we throw at him.”
That invulnerability came in handy for father more than once that I knew of. Even though Miss Shinobu didn’t express her feelings as violently as mother had, he still got into accidents his entire life. My thoughts are interrupted by a high-pitched peep. We all turn to see a small yellow and green turtle perched on the railing near us. It looks up at all of us and then raises a flipper in greeting, chirping happily.
“Tama-chan!” Ms. Kaolla exclaims in greeting. She holds out a hand which the turtle regards dubiously for a moment. “Oh don’t worry. I won’t try to eat you. That was only a joke anyway.”
Tama has other plans, evidently. She hops up, floating in the air for a second and then flies directly to Sensei Motoko, landing on her shoulder. I could never figure out how Tama defied gravity like that.
Sensei Motoko stiffens, and I can see in her eyes that she is fighting a powerful urge to scream. It occurs to me that her reaction is pretty subdued compared to what it would have been in the past.
“Could somebody get that…thing…off me?” she whispers through gritted teeth.
“Oh but she likes you,” Aunt Kitsune says. “But if you want to get rid of her so quickly, I see Mutsumi-san down there.” And indeed there is a familiar figure carrying a watermelon down at the dock waving up to us. “Why don’t you just follow us down to the dock and hand Tama-chan over to her there?”
Sensei Motoko doesn’t answer but instead vaults off the railing and into the air, falling for what seemed to be whole minutes down to the dock until she finally lands and then stands up again, totally unscathed. That caught the attention of some others who gasp in incredulity and then spontaneously begin clapping. Sensei Motoko hears their admiration, I’m sure, but she chooses to ignore it.
“Do you think the crew will get worried when she doesn’t check out?” Ms. Kaolla asks.
“Ah well, it doesn’t matter,” Aunt Kitsune says. “Let’s go down to meet them.”
“It’s good to see you all!” Ms. Mutsumi greets us as we descend down the ramp. Tama has settled onto her head and is waving at us. “Shinobu will be so thrilled that you’ve come to visit. Ara ara, this may be a tight squeeze, but we’ll manage anyhow.”
“It’s good to see you also,” I say to her. “How is your family?”
“Very well, thank you. You should come visit. Satsuki-san would so love to see you.”
“Yes, I will try to find time.” In reality, I’m hoping to be able to wriggle away from the commitment. The last time I ate with the family, mother and daughter experienced one of their fainting spells simultaneously and collapsed on top of me, much to the embarrassment of their husbands and my wife.
“I’ve hired a van for us,” Ms. Mutsumi tells us. “Right this way, please. I think you’ll enjoy the ride. Okinawa is very beautiful at this time of year.”
It was a perfect day on the beach. The sun was blazing, the wind was just enough of a gentle breeze to relax us and all the other clichés were in place. It was the first real vacation I had had in a few years. My wife was clearly enjoying her time off as well. Overall, we were all looking forward to a having a good time.
“Here you are,” Miss Shinobu said, offering an ice cream cone to Father.
He blinked and sat up. Then he looked at the cone she was offering. “Did I ask for this?”
We all laughed at him. “You’d better be careful,” I teased him. “Your memory isn’t what it used to be.”
“I’m taking my ginkgo biloba pills!”
“Are you sure you took it this morning?”
He blinked again. “Umm…I think I did.”
We all laughed again, and Father joins in. “Ah well, I have you to keep me on even keel,” he said to me. “I have no worries. After all, you passed your exams the first time!”
I forced a smile on my face. Lately, Father had been repeating himself a lot, and that was one phrase he never grew tired of saying as if he wanted to make sure I remembered that one fact for all eternity. And it didn’t get any better whenever he introduced me to someone. I was always, “My son who passed his exams the first time!” I never actually told him to just give it up already, but there were times when I came very close.
It was a bit later when the sun was starting to set down and we were gathering up our things to head home that it happened. Father had dozed off long ago. He had been doing that a lot. Miss Shinobu shook his shoulder gently.
“Hmm? What is it Naru?” he replied blearily. Miss Shinobu paused, taken aback. We looked at each other as father began to rouse. Then she timidly touched his shoulder again.
He opened his eyes and then stood up again to stretch. “Ah, that was a good nap,” he sighed. Then he looked around. “Ah, Shinobu. I didn’t know you were here. Have you seen Narusegawa?”
Miss Shinobu looked as if she had been struck. Her eyes wavered, and then finally she said, “Umm…sempai…Naru is…”
Father grew concerned. “What is it? Did she go somewhere?”
“Otou-san,” I finally said, “don’t you know what year it is?”
He looked at me and then suddenly shook his head. His eyes seemed to clear as he looked at us again. “What? Well, that was strange…I’m sorry. I don’t think I was quite awake yet. Are we all packed up? All right, let’s go!”
But the two of them were subdued as we drove back. Three months later, Father was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Nobody could ever tell us exactly when his memory loss ceased to be ordinary absent-mindedness and turned into the symptoms of a dying brain.
She’s singing as we approach her house. She still has a beautiful voice, and we all pause at the door long enough to hear a few verses.
I’m a dreamer
Honojiroi sono hohoemi, douka sawarasete
Koko wa hi no ataranai basho
Hitorikiri de naku toki no himitsu no basho…
She cuts off at our knock and calls out, “Hai!” There is some shuffling and then the door opens.
In many ways, she is still as beautiful as ever. Her face is a bit creased and her hair is almost fully grey, but she has gained something else. I can see how the hardship of the past five years have worn on her heart and body, but she has learned how to wear it all with a certain grace and dignity that fills me with shame to see.
“Okaeri, miina-san,” she says happily. “Come in!”
Ms. Kaolla is the first to hug her. They had always been best friends, apparently. Then the rest of us greet her in turn before coming in and taking off our shoes. The house is of very traditional construction, and Miss Shinobu leads us in to a four-tatami room with a table in the center set with tea and some morsels for those of us who declined to eat on the boat. Miss Shinobu is still the best cook I ever knew, and her oden are just as delicious as I remembered them.
“How have you been?” Ms. Mutsumi asks gently when we were seated.
“I’ve been well,” Miss Shinobu says with a slight bow of her head. That’s the first sign for me. She is always deferential, but not this much. Not with her friends. She is using the formalities to prop herself up, to direct her actions as she holds the rest of herself firmly in reserve.
Ms. Kaolla apparently realizes the same thing. “And what about Keitaro?” she asks.
Miss Shinobu shakes her head and looks down for a moment. “He…he fell and broke his hip,” she begins. “And then the surgery had complications. They said he had naphthalene poisoning from termites in our house. I never knew…I…he always used to take care of cleaning and maintaining our home. I think he always loved that best at Hinatasou.”
“Naphthalene? That’s very bad but still…”
Miss Shinobu swallows. “Yes, I know. I think he has just given up.” Her eyes ace beginning to shimmer. “There’s nothing I can do. He…he barely even recognizes me now. But part of him knows what’s happening and…and I think he’s just gotten so tired of it all.” She is trembling now, and her tears were flowing. “And there’s just…nothing I can do!”
Ms. Kaolla wraps an arm around her and pulls her in, and Miss Shinobu finally gives in, crying softly on her shoulder. The others have moved in and hold her as well, murmuring condolences and shushes as she releases a grief that none of them could ever know.
“It’s just so…so hard,” she sobs. “There are days when I don’t know how long I can keep taking care of him and keep seeing his face looking back at me like a stranger. Sometimes I thought the best we could hope for is for it all to be over soon. Oh, please forgive me everyone! I have such unworthy thoughts, and Keitaro would be so ashamed of me!”
“Oh that’s not true,” Sensei Motoko says in a far gentler voice than most might have expected from her.
“Yes, she’s right,” Ms. Mutsumi. “Keitaro has a good heart. He would never think badly of anyone, least of all you.”
And through all this, I stay where I am, watching them and helplessly rooted to the spot. For these lifelong friends, their long history and all the memories they have nurtured together is like a barrier around them, leaving me on the outside looking in, uncertain about where I’m supposed to fit in.
“Go to sleep now,” I told father. I had told him that three times already tonight.
He looked up at me in the dim light. “I wanted to be sure of something.”
“I put Liddo-kun in his bed the way you like it.” I had no idea if that was what he had actually wanted to check on, but it was usually a good guess. And I had already told him that two hours ago.
“Ahh.” But he still sat on the bed. For a horrifying moment, he looked up at me blankly, smiling politely as he would to anybody else. Then suddenly his eyes cleared. “You…are my son, aren’t you? I haven’t forgotten that, have I?”
“Yes, I’m your son.”
“You went to a university, didn’t you?”
“I graduated from Toudai with a degree in chemical physics.”
“Ah yes, that’s right. It’s a good school. Do I have pictures of that?”
“Hundreds,” I sighed. He had almost forced me to miss a party with my friends, so desperate he had been to capture every instant. It had come close to ruining the day for me, being forced to submit as he experienced my success vicariously.
“Was it a bright day at the graduation?”
“No, it was a bit rainy.”
“Oh. Did you meet your wife there or later?”
“Otou-chan, it’s nearly midnight. You should get some sleep.”
“Please. I want to remember.” A sudden light had filled his eyes. “You…you’re the dearest thing in the world to me. I don’t want to forget everything.” It was pretty clear that he wouldn’t allow himself to sleep until he had learned it all.
And so I told him. I told him everything. Or at least as much of it as I could over the next hour. He hungrily drank it all up, watching me with those lucid eyes and never interrupting me. I skipped a few of the worst moments of his later life, the ones that had led to the way he was now. He didn’t need to remember that.
And finally it was over. He watched me for a few seconds in silence. “I have been a bit of a miserable failure, haven’t I?” he said.
“No. Of course not. You should never think that.”
But he shook his head. “I remember the way you shook your head at me sometimes. I knew what that meant. It disappointed you to surpass me so easily. No, don’t deny it. I have lived only an ordinary life so far, even after graduating from our country’s top university. You…I always hoped you would be better.”
“I’m not better,” I said, and to my surprise, I meant it. “You are a good man. And you’ve been happy when all is said and done. That is what counts.”
He sighed a slow, regretful, whispering sigh. Then he lay back on his futon. He looked at me then. “Did you tuck in…no, I already asked that, didn’t I? I must keep a hold of myself. For as long as I can. How long can this go…how long…” He closed his eyes, still murmuring, and soon enough he was asleep. I went outside with my bokken. It was a clear night as it always was at this season. I went through my kata, trying to center myself in the moment. But peace eluded me no matter how I tried. Memories tormented me no matter where I turned. And finally, I had to give up.
“You don’t have to tell him all that every time,” Miss Shinobu’s voice came from behind me. “He won’t remember most of it tomorrow morning.”
“I know,” I said. “But I still want to try.”
“You never give up. In that way, you are very like him.”
I turned to her. She was gazing calmly back at me.
“You don’t have to stay here,” she said.
“I want to.”
“Do you really? Then what has been occupying your mind lately?”
Always like a big sister, even now. “I got an offer,” I admitted. “My company wants me to start up the American branch. They even gave a position to my wife there.”
“Wouldn’t you like to go?”
“And abandon father? I can’t do that now.”
She stepped closer and smiled as she laid a hand on my shoulder. “I will be with him. It’s time for you to move forward with your life.”
I stared at her for a long moment. We both knew the conclusion I was hesitantly reaching. Finally, I said, “How can you stand to stay here? With him and everything he says? Most of the time now, he calls out for mother when he wants something, even when you’re standing right there in front of him. Why do you put up with it?”
She turned away and glanced up at the moon. “My parents divorced when I was very young,” she said quietly. “I couldn’t understand it then. How two people who said they loved me and who I loved so much could do this to me. I promised myself that when I married, I would never leave my husband. No matter what. And really, your father has given too much to me to abandon him. Even now, sometimes I can see his old self. And those times make everything worthwhile.” She turned back to me. “You have been good to both of us, but we don’t want you to throw your life away. And I know you don’t want that either. Live your own life now. And enjoy every moment you have.”
I watched her turn and walk back into the house. She seemed so small, with a spare kimono hanging about her petite frame. And yet, I could almost feel myself shrinking beside her.
It took me only a week after that to pack up everything I had. I left him a few pictures of my university years, the ones where it wasn’t too obvious to me that I was forcing the smile on my face. He would probably think for the rest of his life that his son was a teenager full of life and promise. It was the least I could do for him as I left.
We’re rushing to the hospital. Father has awakened, and the doctors think this may be the last time he stays conscious for a sustained period. Ms. Kaolla has contributed a few strange (and frightening) gadgets that help us bypass traffic. Then we scramble into his room. The whole crowd of us running down the hallways can’t help bumping a few doctors, nurses and computers around, but we don’t care. Aunt Kitsune actually curses a few times when somebody doesn’t get out of our way fast enough. Running at the back of the crowd, I pass a few people left spinning in place with dazed expressions on their faces.
When I get into the room, I see that he has deteriorated more than I dreaded. His hair is completely white, and his face has gone hollow. There is a tube fitted to his nose and another one going into an arm so skinny that it seems to be little more than bone. But he opens his eyes and looks directly at Miss Shinobu as she enters. There is a long moment.
And then he speaks, his voice slow and withered but still clear. “Shinobu…”
She holds her breath in shock. “Sempai…” she replies.
He closes his eyes and shakes his head slightly. “Why do you still call me that? I haven’t been your sempai for decades. And even less now. I’m so sorry.”
“You don’t have to say that.”
“No. I do. I have been living in the past for so long that I couldn’t change. I have held onto my memories so closely that I’m left with nothing when they disappear. I’ve been so hurtful to you, never noticing all that you did for me in my weakest moments. Gomen. Gomen-nasai, Shinobu.”
Miss Shinobu’s face has melted into tears, but she is smiling shakily. She takes his hand and holds it in both of hers. “Yokatta,” she says.
He turns to look at all the rest of us.
“Mutsumi…Kaolla…Motoko…Kitsune…” he murmurs, naming us all in turn as if memorizing our faces. “All of you are here. It’s so good to see you all. Don’t be sad. To have you all here now…that is the greatest thing I could ever ask for. Thank you for coming.”
We bow our heads. There is nothing to say. Finally, Father speaks. “There was a song…we used to sing it together. Do you remember?”
“Hai,” someone says (we’re never sure afterward who it was).
“I should like to hear it again. One last time.”
We stare at him. But then Shinobu begins, softly and tremulously. I remember the song too although it has been a very long time. So I join in with her. And then Ms. Kaolla, Ms. Mutsumi, Aunt Kitsune. Even Sensei Motoko joins in with us. Father’s eyes close as we sing, and he breathes and relaxes as the words wash over him.
Yane no ue de sora o aogu, hizashi wa uraraka
Miageru sora, karadaajuu genki ga minagitteku
That’s so wonderful…ikiterunda…
Yamerarenai, akirameru da nante…