The new year slowly rolled around.
I stayed in Japan until the New Year. Dad’s helpers took three days of vacation for the holiday.
My husband returned to California. I flew back to Kumamoto with my youngest daughter, Aiko. Tons of things popped up to occupy me at the end of the year, but I rang in the New Year with Dad, Aiko, and Mom in the hospital. After his caretakers returned to work, I went back to California on the fifth.
How long would my life shuttling back and forth across the Pacific, taking care of two families on either side of the water, go on? The time between my transpacific flights back and forth was gradually growing shorter.
Time is a problem. Time is a huge problem. The time between my flights back and forth was growing shorter and shorter.
In the hospital, it didn’t look like anything was changing for Mom, but in reality, she was quickly coming undone, and there was nothing we could do.
The doctor said her kidneys were shutting down. He told us that after ringing out the old year. There’s not a lot we can do to treat her, other than giving her an IV, and she doesn’t want that at all.
I told the doctor I’d try to persuade her, but when I did, the first thing Mom said was she was afraid of needles pricking her, a few moments later she admitted it didn’t matter anymore, if things were hopeless, so be it.
I wanted to say, Mom, you might not care, but you’ll be leaving Dad behind, and what will that mean for me? But I stopped myself. I thought, it is what it is, and I can’t do anything about it. We need to let the dying die—if death was coming for her, then she should just go. I had to be okay with that.
I’ve put up with so much for so long. I don’t need to go on anymore.
When Mom said that to me, what could I say?
Meanwhile, Dad was growing older and older too. No way to stop that either.
Dad had given up smoking sometime around autumn. I’d kept my mouth shut about his smoking, but I knew it was hard. He’d been smoking for seventy years. When I asked him why he quit, he said, I did it as a sacrifice so my prayers would come true. When I asked what he’d prayed for, I immediately realized how stupid and insensitive my question was.
The time you spend in planes grows more and more unbearable the longer the flight is. You feel miserable, half-asleep, forced into unnatural positions; you want to move around, but there’s never any room. It’s hell, and the worst part is you can’t do a damn thing about it. All that time in a zombie-like state makes it harder to recover from the jetlag. Days just go by, and still it’s impossible to fall asleep and get a good rest.
The bone-dry, overly blue skies over my dazed head only made me feel smothered. I felt like every bit of moisture was being sucked right out of my body. I began to feel incredibly hostile toward the air, sky, and sun—I’d only ever felt that sort of enmity toward another human being, and that only on rare occasions. And to make matters worse, I underwent surgery.
Yes, occasionally I have surgery too. Usually I was the one taking care of my husband, since he is twenty-eight years older than me, but he didn’t have a monopoly on surgeries. Maybe I should say I had a “procedure” instead of “surgery.” It wasn’t anything big. An unusual growth in my uterus. A precancerous growth caught at the very earliest stages. The doctor went in to remove it.
Two years before, my doctor had detected an abnormality while doing a routine exam for uterine cancer. Back when I was young, when I menstruated, I didn’t just produce the normal amount of blood—it came gushing out with so much force that you’d think I was trying to drown someone. I sometimes joked that when I die, it’d be my uterus that killed me, so when an abnormality was discovered before my fiftieth birthday, I wasn’t all that surprised. Here we go, I thought, it’s coming.
The problem was that I was in California. The doctor gave me the diagnosis in English. On the phone. Using medical terms. When I asked him to say it again, he spoke in English. On the phone. Using medical terms. We weren’t getting anywhere. The only words I understood were abnormal, HPV, and wart.
It was déjà vu.
A few years before that, I had a urinary tract infection.
The doctor had used super-stiff medical terminology to give me the diagnosis that time too. The whole time he was talking, he was sitting across from me speaking English, but it didn’t feel like I was interacting with a real live human being. His word choice left me completely in the dark. “After intercourse, after cleansing the region or urinating, or after defecating, one must cleanse from the anterior to the posterior.” I told him to hold on, then tried saying what I thought he meant, substituting the vocabulary I was used to hearing. You’re saying that after fucking, after washing or peeing, or after pooping, I should wipe from front to back?
I fumed. That totally goes without saying—even a kindergartener knows that!
So two years ago, after hearing the alarming news from my gynecologist, I started looking around on the net, starting with the English words HPV and wart. In the process, I learned all sorts of things I didn’t know.
Cancer of the cervix is a sexually transmitted disease. People who are sexually active are more likely to contract it. HPV is the same virus that causes genital warts too.
This shook me up. I was as shaken up as if I’d had an unwanted pregnancy.
If I was going to have uterine cancer, then it would be at the earliest stages. I’d heal. But genital warts? I didn’t care if it was just a sexually transmitted disease or whatever. Yuck! No way I wanted that. I’m speaking as a woman here.
When women approach fifty, we slowly distance ourselves from dubious things like the pleasures of the floating world and the other passions that trouble the human heart. We still have those things, of course, but we stay quiet. We all have one or two secrets we can’t share with our husbands.
I don’t want to tell him mine. Nope, not come hell or high water.
But what about warts? The genital kind? They say it takes years for the virus to turn into a wart and grow cancerous. I considered all sorts of possibilities, but I couldn’t come up with a way to talk to my husband about warts without hurting his feelings.
One of my female friends in Japan suggested I see a doctor next time I was in the country. Someone else suggested that a Japanese doctor might give me a different opinion. A third friend pointed out that if I got treated there, my husband wouldn’t ever find out. These friends were warriors who had fought their way through life, knocking down every rogue problem that sprang up to block their path.
So when I was in Kumamoto, I tried going to the small obstetric clinic where my second daughter was born, but I found it’d gone out of business. Everything’s impermanent. When I went to a different clinic in my neighborhood and got checked out, the doctor said something even more terrifying: since a doctor told you something seems abnormal in there, we probably should do a complete hysterectomy. As he probed me, I spoke to him from the opposite side of the curtain. Doctor, look, what I’m worried about right now is warts, do you see any? I felt around and pointed to the place where I thought something might be. We went back and forth like this for a while before he told me he couldn’t find anything. I felt proud of myself for being so assertive. You can’t speak openly to your gynecologist unless you’ve experienced dozens of internal examinations.
If there weren’t any warts, then I wasn’t all that worried. After all, HPV is a virus, and you can’t tell who gave it to you, where you got it, or when. My husband and I were both on our third marriage, so we were well aware that we each had plenty of experience before getting together. I decided that if he ever doubted me and we got into an argument about sexually transmitted diseases, I’d just yell at him and call him a tight-assed, narrow-minded prude. And once I decided that, it’s funny how my worries disappeared completely.
There weren’t any warts, but the cancer-causing virus was there, so I kept getting checked out over the next couple of years. Sometimes the doctor thought he sensed a bump, sometimes it seemed to have retreated. My primary caregiver in California was a patient man, but after a while, my requests for repeated examinations wore his patience thin. This could go on forever, he said, then he suggested I have the problem spot removed. I made an appointment for the start of the new year. When the day came, I was so jetlagged I hardly knew if I was alive or dead. Just a few days earlier, my middle daughter, Yokiko, had postponed her return to college in the Bay Area and come back home to Southern California to be with us. I didn’t have the time to fuss over my uterus, so I rushed off, had them scrape away at me, then immediately came back home.
Actually, the procedure was a lot like getting an abortion. You know, the old-fashioned way with curettage.
When I was young, getting my uterine walls scraped was no big deal. Once when I woke up from the anesthesia, I went into town, did a poetry reading, and even managed to grab a drink before heading home. But it’s not that easy when you get to be my age. Just getting a tiny little spot on my uterine wall scraped off left me dead tired. No, there wasn’t any pain. No blood either, but I walk a ton, and getting up and down after that wasn’t any fun.
I was lamenting how decrepit I was becoming when, wouldn’t you know it, my period appeared out of nowhere.
I can talk on and on about menstruation, but it seems like I’ve always got more to say.
When I was a young woman, my periods were just a pain in the ass to me. When I became anorexic, they stopped altogether. Somewhere deep down, I felt like they were intimately connected with me becoming a woman. That’s precisely why I hated them so much, but later, when I had my first daughter, I realized menstruation is linked to childbirth. I lost my annoyance and began to be grateful for my monthly visitor. Like I said before, my period came out in a big gush—a ferocious ball of energy taking the form of blood. I had a feeling deep inside that our uteruses aren’t just for giving birth, they also consume things, and one day, mine might just gobble me right up.
When you reach this age, however, all of the wise old ladies you rely upon for advice are at different stages: some still have periods, some don’t, and some are way beyond the whole thing altogether. Everyone told me, you had a child at a late age, so your uterus must be functioning just fine; it’s still fresh with blood.
But my periods slowed down and started to lose their old ferocity. Everything was different from when they had been at their most extreme—the flow, the space between cycles, the scent, and even the way they came on. In the old days, when I let myself go and had a bunch of sex between cycles, I was overcome with anxiety. I waited on pins and needles until I saw with my own eyes that my time of the month had returned. But there hadn’t been anything for a while. So when my period returned after nothing for so long, I stood in front of the toilet and began to cackle out loud. Whoo, ha, ha, ha, ha! You can’t even get past the need to worry about getting pregnant!? I laughed as if I was expelling a thousand years of pent-up resentment. Now, when did that happen again?
Let me see. Yes, when did that happen?
My period came. It oozed out slowly in a tired-out fashion, just like it had for the last few years. That was in the morning, five days after the scraping.
My husband was up and getting dressed sluggishly. I was still groggy in bed. Right then, the period suddenly came on with a vengeance, much like it had in the past. Feeling the liquid well up near my vaginal opening, I sprang out of bed, ran to the sink, and straddled the toilet. Fresh blood spilled out, followed by some bloody lumps, which slid from between my vaginal lips.
I thought of a haiku by Natsume Sōseki.
Like a sea cucumber,
You give birth
What had I given birth to? What on earth was going on?
I plunged my hand into the toilet to pull the lumps out. Shapeless chicken liver. That’s what they were like, but there weren’t any chicken livers there—nor any human livers for that matter, other than the one inside me. The formless, reddish-black clumps trembled on my palm.
Two lumps had come out with the blood. When I stood up, I could feel more inside sliding down toward my vaginal opening, and as I squatted again, they spilled out. This continued from nine am until past noon. The blood came in fits and starts, and with it, lumps that were big enough to hold in my hand.
By the time the fourth or fifth one came out, I’d already realized something was seriously wrong. We got in touch with my clinic, but the receptionist just said she’d pass along the information to the doctor, and we didn’t hear a thing. I’d often heard my husband grumble that the medical system in this country was rotten—rotten to the core, he said—and he was right. Before long, I was dizzy, nauseous, and covered in cold sweat, while the lower part of my body was drenched in so much blood you’d have thought I’d given birth. I called the hospital again, this time with a more urgent tone, and they told me to come in immediately. Goddamn it, they could have said that the first time, I thought, but by then, I didn’t have any energy to complain. I collapsed right there on the floor.
My husband had been watching anxiously. I knew he needed to pick me up and take me to the hospital, but he didn’t have enough muscle. He’s twice as tall as I am and three times as heavy. Twenty years ago, he could have picked up a bear, but now he was an old man. We didn’t say it out loud, but we both knew that if he tried to support me, there was no way he could’ve even gotten me up.
Incessant waves of nausea and dizziness washed over me. I tried to stand but couldn’t, I tried to walk but couldn’t, I threw myself toward the wall in front of me, and when I crashed into it, I stopped. I leaned on the wall with all my weight, then threw myself forward again toward the table a few more steps away, and when I crashed into that, I stopped again. Using this method, I inched closer, step by step, toward the car outside.
My husband was super upset of course, and when he’s upset, he’s a positive terror behind the wheel. He once told me he used to drive racecars—Jaguars and Mercedes (used ones, of course)—but I’d never seen him act like a racecar driver until that day. He might have driven Jaguars and Mercedes (used ones, of course) back in the old days, but during the time I knew him, all he ever had was a steady stream of practical household cars, all made in Japan. Now that his wife was having a crisis, however, he hopped into his Nissan Pathfinder and put the pedal to the metal. Just like the old days. Pathfinder—what a perfect name. Within moments, it found us a path to the emergency room.
My strength vanished as I tried to get out. I couldn’t even take a step. I ordered my panicked husband to go inside and bring back a wheelchair. I stretched out my arms and legs and lay down in the parking lot.
A hot wind blew in from the desert just then, drying and heating up the whole world.
The sky was pure blue. The parking lot asphalt was on fire.
No doubt, a wildfire was burning somewhere.
The sunlight mercilessly pierced my flesh. I could even hear its rays spearing me like skewers.
With much more of this, I’ll end up dried-up like beef jerky, I thought. The dizziness and nausea weren’t letting up. One, two, three, four Americans walked by. They pretended they weren’t looking, but I cursed them as they walked by. Shit. Damn. Take a good look. Where’d you ever find a homeless woman wearing pajamas and woolly socks, clutching a Coach bag? You shitheads, you ought to be helping. I heaped scorn on them, but I got the picture. I must’ve looked like some old, alcoholic Asian to them. They saw me and just walked on.
Eventually, some hospital employees ran over. They lifted me into a wheelchair and rushed me into the ER. As three of them were working to get me situated, I began to shake so hard my bones rattled. Calm down, calm down, the doctor told me. I told him, I’m trying, what should I do? Take a deep breath, he said. But that didn’t stop the shaking or the blood oozing from my vagina. I was losing feeling in my fingers, my toes were getting cold, and my whole body was shaking uncontrollably, even though it wasn’t cold at all.
I thought about all the things I needed to do.
Make Yokiko happy.
Make Aiko happy.
Watch over Mom and Dad to the end, then stay with my husband to help him.
Yes, but what did I need to do right then?
Take Aiko to piano lessons at 3:00.
Finish what I was writing and send it off by the deadline tomorrow.
That’s all? Just piano lessons and deadline?
Piano lessons and a deadline. Not a big deal. I’m lucky, I thought. I was glad I didn’t need to get on a transpacific flight anytime soon. Really lucky. If I could just get through this, it didn’t matter what came next. But I had to deal with the bleeding first. I had to do that on my own. I had to. I was the only one who could save myself. Me alone. Just me.
There is a Japanese expression, “a demon succumbing to sunstroke,” which we use to describe a person with an iron constitution who falls prey to some small illness. The expression fit perfectly. I was a sunbaked demon all right, but of course, no one around me would have understood me if I said that. I lay unconscious in bed for days. Afterward, I slept a lot, only crawling out of bed every once in a while. In the middle of my slow recovery, two misfortunes befell us.
Our dog, which I affectionately referred to as “the sparrow-dog,” since it was so tiny and had ears as big as wings, was hit by a car, and our cockatiel drowned in a cup of water. Poor Yokiko was there to witness both things. Even under the best of circumstances, she was easily upset, but this time, she was so shaken up that she sobbed out loud until she was hoarse and raspy.
Here’s what happened to the sparrow-dog.
The front door was open. The door had never really shut properly. There were lots of times when one of us thought it was shut, but it wasn’t really closed. This was one of those times. The sparrow-dog ran outside. Unfortunately, Yokiko happened to be out there on the other side of the road. It wasn’t a place you’d ordinarily expect to find her, but that’s where she was at the moment. Above, the sky was blue. The dog saw Yokiko and bounded out into the road, and just then, a car went by. The car screeched, Yokiko screeched. By the time I rushed out, Yokiko was covered in the dog’s blood, and she was sobbing. Her voice drowned out that of the dog whimpering in her arms. We sped off to the vet. One of his legs had been smashed to smithereens, and his flesh was badly torn. Even so, the vet managed to save him.
I was presented with a bill that left me dumbfounded, but solemnly and silently, I paid. What else could I do?
Afterward, the dog was forced to wear a collar that made him look like some Elizabethan gentleman. His shattered leg was wrapped around and around with bandages, leaving him with only three paws to hop around on. Our other dog, the German shepherd, seemed to feel some responsibility for the disaster that had transpired under her watch, and she skulked in the corner. Yokiko got so caught up in nursing the sparrow-dog back to health that she began to forget the anxiety and depression that had led her to develop anorexia not so long before. Meanwhile, I was suffering from a guilty conscience.
On my most recent pilgrimage to visit the temple dedicated to Jizō near the place where I grew up, I had prayed to the smoke. (The smoke was what carried our wishes, after all.) I prayed for Yokiko, I prayed for Aiko, I prayed for my oldest daughter, who was off god-knows-where, I prayed for my father, I prayed for my mother, and, yes, I even prayed for my husband. However, it hadn’t even occurred to me that Jizō might help my dogs too. Maybe that was the reason the disaster had occurred. I swore to myself that the next time I went, I’d be sure to buy two more bundles of incense, throw them into the rising smoke, and pray for the health and well-being of my dogs too. But to tell the truth, there was a part of me that felt the sparrow-dog had acted as a substitute for Yokiko. Perhaps it was Lord Jizō, perhaps it was the smoke—in any case, whatever it was had remembered the sparrow-dog, even though I hadn’t included him. It had decided it would be fine for the poor dog to get hurt—that way Yokiko might forget her own troubles for a moment and Jizō would help her by pulling out the thorns of her suffering.
On that trip, I bought a so-called “substitute charm” at the temple. Carry it around, and Jizō will serve as your substitute and take on all of your woes and suffering. Yokiko had been carrying it ever since. I imagine that if I unfolded it and looked at the little image of Jizō inside, I would find him completely transformed: covered in blood, leg smashed to smithereens, and flesh badly torn. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to double check.
The sight of the sparrow-dog limping around the house was a constant accusation. I served as a scapegoat—I was the substitute that took away your daughter’s suffering. I wanted to put my hands together in supplication and pray to him, but I couldn’t predict what my husband might say if he saw me do that. So I held back.
The sparrow-dog narrowly escaped death, but the cockatiel wasn’t so lucky.
Cup, water, cockatiel. They were always together, but who knows why that day, that day alone, an accident took the bird’s life? All I can say is that fate must have been working against it.
Yokiko discovered the dead bird and began sobbing again. Well, it would be more accurate to say that she was whimpering at first, but in any case, by the time she ran into the living room to find us, the bird was already upside down in the cup, dead as a doornail. Its long tail feathers were sticking out. My husband pulled it out and put its limp body on a spread-out towel.
Yokiko sobbed so hard that her whole body shook. As I held her in my arms, I couldn’t help feeling how ridiculous this situation was—it had happened so suddenly that I got angry at the dumb bird. And then I realized, damn it, I hadn’t thought to pray for it to Lord Jizō.
We’d lived together for years. When I came back into the house from outside, the bird would greet with me a long, drawn-out whistle, and when we were eating, it would hop onto the table as if it wanted to eat with us. When it perched on our shoulders, it lowered its head, inviting us to stroke it, but when we stuck out our fingers, it opened its eyes in anger, squawked with mouth open wide, and pecked us. No, the dumb bird never accepted us as part of its family. However, I now found myself thinking about the good memories—about how we took care of it and how cute it was—even though those memories were probably outnumbered by the times it pecked us.
Later, Aiko quietly told me that when we buried it, its body was stiff, inflexible, and sort of cold.
When we showed Aiko the bundle and told her it had died, she didn’t cry at first. She only started to cry the moment she took its dead body in her hands. As I was digging the hole to bury it, Yokiko and Aiko were in a constant state of tears. Where was all of this sadness coming from? Meanwhile, their fifty-year-old mother didn’t shed a tear.
I’ll tell you an embarrassing secret. I can’t stand touching dead things.
I may be a whiz at catching live animals, and I can touch any living creature without getting creeped out, but strangely, when a body dies and stops moving, I get spooked and can’t bring myself to touch it.
Corpses frighten me. They’re scary. Just getting near them wigs me out.
I’m not sure what I’m even frightened of. I got away with never touching the dead cockatiel at all. I watched my two daughters take it in their hands and stroke it as they cried. I watched them bury it in the ground, weeping. I wondered, when Mom or Dad finally dies, will I be able to touch them? If I couldn’t bring myself to do it, I’d be in real trouble.
We planted a clump of euryops on top of the bird’s body. Euryops adapt and spread like weeds where we live. It grew more like a little bush than flowers and produced a continual string of blossoms the same color as the cockatiel beneath it. I thought, the shit’s going to hit the fan. My husband was watching the behavior of our little group as if he was completely fed up. Death, according to him, is nothingness. It’s not possible for a dead bird to come back as a flower, but for Yokiko, Aiko, and me, birds could transform into blossoms. We had no trouble whatsoever accepting that idea.
I had seen plants slowly die more times than I could count, but the bird died suddenly. What about people then? There is a poem by Nakahara Chūya that starts, “The child who in the cold wind of midday took the sparrow in its hand to love, come nighttime, suddenly passed away.” In the poem, it’s not the bird that suddenly dies but a child. These days, however, people all die slowly like plants.
After the bird’s funeral, when I was left alone, I washed the cockatiel’s cage. As penance for not being able to touch the dead bird, I gave the cage a good, thorough scrubbing, washing away all of the shit and downy feathers stuck to it. I spread the remaining bird food in the garden as an offering, but before the wild birds that are always flying around our garden arrived to eat it, our big shepherd bounded outside and gobbled it all down.
Mom’s suffering, Dad’s suffering, my husband’s suffering.
Yokiko’s suffering, my suffering.
Unable to withstand the continuous suffering of our family,
Both the sparrow-dog and the cockatiel
Had offered themselves up as substitutes.
When I said this, Yokiko nodded vigorously.
Yokiko, me, the dog, and the bird—
Four of us fell on hard times, but only one of us died
Leaving the other three of us still alive.
When I said this, Yokiko nodded vigorously again.
Finally, one day a call came from Dad.
I was overdue for a trip to Japan. I was thinking that I ought to go back again soon, but I couldn’t motivate myself after everything that had happened with Yokiko and me. But I had been worried about Dad. I had noticed that the tone of his voice had been sinking. His voice had sunk so far that it seemed like it was thick and stagnating at the bottom of the telephone receiver. I summoned up as much enthusiasm as I could muster and spoke in a bright voice to show him he could count on me for support.
What are you up to?
I know this is another way of asking how he was doing, but it was what I’d settled on when starting a conversation with him. I thought this was better than “What’s happened?” which didn’t quite capture the right nuance for a telephone call that didn’t have any real objective other than to check in. So I started all three of my calls to him each day this way, even though I knew Dad wasn’t up to anything at all.
Dad’s voice was slow. Your mo-ther . . .
She says she wants to come home, I spoke to the doctor today, I said that her legs aren’t going to get any better, so he should just let her come home, I was thinking we could have one of the caretakers help out, she’s got insurance, they have her down as bedridden so insurance ought to help, but if she doesn’t come home, she’ll be there for the rest of her life. Dad spoke slowly in a long, deliberate run-on sentence like an old-time storyteller, but his voice sounded deflated.
But Dad, it’s a huge burden to care for someone you live with—that’ll be incredibly hard on you.
I gave a detailed description of all the tribulations I predicted he might face.
If that’s all there is to it, I’ll be fine, I’ve just got to do it, right? Dad spoke as if he was fantasizing about some city in the future.
But Dad, I’ve heard all these stories about a husband or wife who gets exhausted caring for their aging spouse—sometimes they even end up killing their partner and themselves.
I gave a detailed description of a couple of different recent cases where that very thing had happened. A lot of people had been talking about them.
If that’s all there is to it, I’ll be fine, I’ve just got to do it, right? Dad spoke as if he were a robot living in some city of the future he’d dreamed up.
Dad seemed, at least on the surface, to understand everything that had been going on all along, but it wasn’t until that day that he finally really understood Mom’s legs were never going to heal. Mom’s legs had changed color and shape so much they looked like dim sum chicken feet. Like they had been boiled. It was impossible to imagine the blood flowing through them again and suddenly bringing them back to life. How could someone look at them and still not understand? I’d known for over a year that her legs wouldn’t improve. There was something else I understood too—Dad might have realized this just now, but before long, he probably would lose his grasp on the situation again. He would look at the same thing but not see it. He wouldn’t understand. He wouldn’t take things in. His ability to think had diminished with age. Dementia was setting in.
The next time you come, talk to the doctor, I’ll say that you’ll talk to him next time you’re here, you know, he keeps talking about a bed or something, all kinds of people talk about all sorts of things, but I can’t really follow. Dad was obviously irritated. Then he fell silent for a few moments, and in a hushed voice, he made a confession.
You know, I’ve been thinking of taking up smoking again.
I sighed. On my end of the phone, I readjusted my sitting position. Even though you went to all the trouble to quit?
I think I’m depressed, when people talk to me, I can’t even lend them a friendly ear, they tell me to consult with people and make a decision, then they go on and mumble about something I don’t understand, I don’t know what kind of consulting I’m supposed to be doing, plus I don’t know when you’re going to be coming home next, so there’s nothing really I can do, I’ve got tons of reasons to be depressed.
There’s not being able to smoke. There’s your mother. There’s me.
I know that smoking won’t change anything,
But if I light up a cigarette, smoke will come out,
Maybe just watching the smoke rise will improve things somehow.
In February, when the mountains were at their coldest, my family did something we’d be talking about for a long time. We went to Sequoia National Park.
We’d thought about taking a small trip in October during the autumn break, but all sorts of things had come up, and we ended up pushing the trip back. The season had changed. There wouldn’t be anyone else out there deep in the mountains, not even anyone coming out to enjoy the snow.
We crossed Los Angeles, went down a mountainside into the valley below, then cut across the valley. There were fields of grapevines that had just started coming back to life, almond orchards that would bloom profusely later in the spring, orange and lemon orchards that never seemed to change. We drove to the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and as soon as we entered the park, there was snow. We managed to get the snow chains we had brought along onto the wheels, and we began climbing up the twisting and turning hills at the sluggish pace of 10 or 20 mph. The forest was covered in snow. There were deep valleys, rocks sticking out, and distant hills covered in snow. The color of the sky was so luxuriously rich, it took my breath away, but even though we kept on driving and driving, we still didn’t reach the giant trees that had inspired us to come.
Finally, not long before the sun was getting ready to set, we found ourselves standing in front of the giant trees that were thousands of years old. My husband and I were bundled up in old ski outfits that probably hadn’t ever been used in the last forty years.
Here and there, the giant trees stood before us.
There were fences around the trees to protect their roots. The enclosures continued through the forest of massive trees. The snow that had gathered on the ground had frozen over. Here and there, we saw saplings and young trees growing. Here and there, dead trees had fallen, leaving great, gaping holes in the earth. There was even one tree that had split in two and died, but remained standing. Here and there, we found burn marks on the trunks of the giant trees. A thick coat of brightly colored yellowish-green moss covered the trunks of some of the younger trees—although I say “younger,” they were probably centuries old too.
The giant trees survived. They lived right up to the moment of their death, and only then did they finally die.
I said to my husband, at times like this, the desire that wells up inside me is to wrap the trees in straw and white paper with sacred marks (I wanted to use the word shimenawa to describe the things that Shinto priests put around sacred trees, but that wouldn’t mean anything to him, so I just gave up) and I want to put my hands together and pray (I wanted to use a word that was more solemn like worship, but I didn’t know it in English).
I see you are an animist after all, my husband sighed. He was an atheist and proud of it, so it sounded to me like he was completely looking down on me. Maybe I was predisposed to hear it that way, but even so, he made it seem like he thought atheists stood high above all other people, as if they were proudly overturning all of Judeo-Christian civilization. Hadn’t he learned his lesson about respecting people’s beliefs back at the temple in Sugamo when he got mobbed by throngs of pilgrims who didn’t share his views? I was fed up with him.
I wanted to harass him. Why do you say that? What do you think when you see these?
His answer was humble. I just think. I think about how teeny tiny I am.
I teased him. People call that the beginning of religion. But my husband didn’t believe, couldn’t believe in anyone or anything, he only believed in himself and put his ego at the center of everything. He denied it vehemently, but I didn’t want to lose.
I said to him, I recognize that
I’m just a small bit of dust in this world,
I believe in this great, gigantic existence,
I believe in the moss and the green,
I believe in the spirits that inhabit every single grain of rice,
I believe in the goodness of people and the goodness of dogs,
I believe in smoke,
I believe in substitutes that remove the thorns of suffering,
I believe, I know that
I will be one with this great, gigantic existence,
One small particle of dust scattered in this world.
I’ll say more about Yokiko in a moment, but let me say first that Aiko didn’t seem to care about the trees at all. She walked around saying, wow, super, wow, darn it’s cold, but she didn’t seem to be seeing or thinking anything. Let’s go, over there, I saw a sign, it said something about snow sports, let’s go, over there, snow sports, you bought this for me, I want to use it, use this! She was carrying a plastic sled that we had just bought. She dropped it and put her foot on it. Not knowing what else to do, we went over to the other part of the forest, where we found frozen picnic tables with no one there other than the groups of giant trees. On the surrounding slopes, we could see marks in the snow where other people had been sledding.
She had to walk along slick, slippery paths to get to a good slope for sledding. Aiko didn’t seem the least bit frightened. She climbed up the path over and over, then quickly slid right down to the bottom. There were giant trees growing there too. They weren’t the trees that were thousands of years old, they were still young—only a few centuries old—and were covered with moss. Rivulets of water flowed through gaps in the snow. Small, crushed plants grew between the chunks of hardened snow. Here and there, we saw the stumps of cut trees.
There was a bump on the ground, piled high with snow and ice. Aiko’s sled hit it, and she flew into the air. Whoa! she screamed, and as the sled slowed down, she ran into one of the stumps. Yokiko, who had been watching over her, swooped her up in her arms as the sled finally came to a halt.
That scream. That laughter.
I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive. That was what she was saying to me. No other way to interpret it. Aiko was saying that to me.
Just hearing it, I felt as if my whole being was being shaken violently awake.
I looked up. Ouch. A few minutes ago, I’d fallen and hurt my neck. It hurt. My creaky neck was throbbing. How unfair. I’d slipped and fallen, striking my shoulder, back, forearm, neck, and wrist hard on the snowy ground. Aiko and Yokiko were running along just about as fast as they could. Even my husband, who was shaky even on the most ordinary roads, was trotting along happily like a bear, as if there was nothing there to fear at all.
I had a thought. Putting up with the pain in my throbbing neck, I looked up. I couldn’t see the treetops, but I could see the green needles and moss. I tilted my head back further, but I still couldn’t see the tops of the trees. I could see the blue sky above, however.
Yokiko called me. Aiko called me too. I answered and turned around. Ouch. My neck cried out to me in pain.
Right then, the two of them slid down the long, long slope, seated together on the sled. A high-pitched squeal. Oh boy! A shout of joy. My gosh! A groan. No way! Another shout of joy. Oh my god! I felt myself shake again. I shook until I felt myself. I exist. Here. Meanwhile, they were shouting themselves hoarse. I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive! I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive!
*From The Thorn-Puller, 2007
Author’s note: In this chapter, I’ve borrowed voices from a poem in Songs to Make the Dust Dance: “Was I born to play? Was I born to horse around? When I hear children play, my old body too begins to shake.” I’ve also borrowed voices from the novel Two People Riding by Hirata Toshiko, the book What Did You Eat? by the chef Edamoto Nahomi, Memories and Other Things by Natsume Sōseki, the story Drum of Flame by rakugo raconteur Kokontei Shinshō, the poem “Memories of a Winter Day” by poet Nakahara Chūya, and Spring and Asura by poet Miyazawa Kenji.