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“I’m going to buy a bento.”
My Father’s words hovered in the ICU clean room where I had been isolated.
I was nine, diagnosed with leukemia, and was always feeling sorry for my Father. My therapy was a cycle of recurrent pain. The worst was the bone marrow tests. They’d jam a fat needle into my back like it was busting through a wall. And each time I would howl, that’s when my Father would head out to pick up another box lunch. Left alone in my room, I would cry over the pain, all my fears, and my loneliness.
When I got out of the hospital I finally learned the truth. There was no place anywhere near the hospital to buy a bento. I can remember the time when he came back empty-handed, his eyes were so red they looked like they were bleeding. The truth was he had been outside of the hospital crying.
When my Mother was there, he would cry, “I wish it were me,” when it was just the two of us, he fought to hold back his tears. My father was always trying to be brave and never show me any weakness, but there was one time I caught him crying. He was coming back from one of his fruitless box lunch errands and covered up by saying that crows had eaten the lunch, then suddenly whined “Rather than letting the crows have it, I wanted to bring it back for you.”
There in the clean room, I was actually into my seventh day without any food by mouth. I guess many people would call my Father a heartless fellow. Other’s might just exclaim, “Such a bad Father!” But I think differently. I could always feel my Father’s love so strongly. Now, I believe that people who plead with their doctors saying things like, “Please give me the same shot. I want to share my daughter’s pain,” are making a mistake.
It may be my fate to have leukemia, but if I can still be glad to have been born, it is thanks to my Father. No matter how much I can ever thank him, it will never be equal to all he has given in sweat and tears.
I always wish there were stronger words than “Thank you.”
Still, whenever I see my Father, those are the words that just naturally come to heart.
These words: “Thank you.”
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There’s a phrase in the journal from my first year in elementary school: “Never stop laughing,” something I added with my Mother when we fell into hysterics on the way home from school one day.
That day, I was carrying home some school circulars when my I lost my sandal in the river. We even ran home to get something long to trap it, but it wasn’t long enough. We were in stitches. And then when we did finally get my sandal ashore, we actually managed to lose it again in our scramble to secure it. And that seemed even funnier.
Truth be told, even today, my Mother and I have a tendency to laugh about things. When I was little, my Father would squeal, “Here we go again,” whenever my Mother and I would go into hysterics, and my brother would scramble out of the room with a fat grin on his face. Almost thirty years have passed since then, but my Mother and I still seem joined at the laugh. Now I’m married and don’t get to see her as much, but when we’re together it doesn’t take much to get us going. After that it’s infectious and impossible to stop. Then as now, this special relation I have with my Mother feeds my feelings of security and well-being.
Still, some things have changed. What’s different is that now it’s my children and husband watching my Mother and I break up—because it’s not like everyone is laughing together. No, they’re sitting there saying, “What happened? What’s wrong?” But when were cutting up, neither my Mother nor I have the wherewithal to answer. We’re too busy laughing and holding our sides to get a single word out.
My Mother and I laugh about the same things and when we do it brings us even closer. These days we spend much less time together, but all we have to do is meet to laugh again, and this, more than anything, makes me happy.
About 5 years into my first job, I took a trip to Hokkaido with my Mother. It was the first time just the two of us had ever traveled together. I didn’t make any vacation plans with my friends. I reserved that summer for my Mother. We would start with a long walk through the Kushiro Marsh, then head to Shiretoko Peninsula by car for a tour of Eastern Hokkaido. I actually rented a car at Kushiro, settled my Mother in the passenger seat and hit the accelerator. Hokkaido’s dry air put us in a good mood. Up till then, family vacation drives had been engineered by my Mother and driven by my Father with me, their only daughter, in the back seat. This was going to be different.
At first my Mother was nervous about my driving, but once she got used to it she was in high spirits. We were headed north on our way to Shiretoko, just about halfway, when we made a rest stop. While we were there, they asked us if we’d been to see Lake Mashū. Lake Mashū wasn’t on our itinerary, but their question peaked our interest, and we decided to go out of our way to see it.
Looking down from the observation platform at Lake Mashū, we saw a slight mist over its surface. Through breaks in the mist, we caught glimpses of a strange color between green and blue, the deep color of the lake’s water. It made the Lake seem mystical.
Looking back, I discovered my Mother with a dazzling grin that I’d never seen before. “Lake Mushū is certainly mystical, but for me you are much, much more mysterious. You were so small when you were born, and now look how you’ve grown up.”
All at once, I realized that if I were careless with my life, just how sad I was going to make my Mother. For my Mother, her very existence as a Mother began the moment she held soft, little me to her breast. From that moment on through the years, she surrounded me with her affection and sought to make me safe. And I did feel safe.
This little detour taken on a whim left me with an unforgettable memory, and not just for Hokkaido’s famous scenery.
My Mother will be 91 this year. Her knees and ears are weak, but otherwise she’s extremely sound in mind and body. I have only praise for my Mother, except maybe one little thing that I really wish she would drop. I wish she would stop calling out my name when we’re in public places like department stores or super markets. I remember once when I was still a bachelor and took her to a department store. I dropped my Mother off in front of the store and went to the parking lot to park the car, then went in through the first floor entrance into the store. Once in the store, I quickly became aware of a far-off cry. “Takashi-chan !! Her I am. Over here!!” it seemed to be saying. I’d know that shrill voice anywhere. I kept thinking, “This is embarrassing. How I hate this…” while pretending not to know the woman. “Here, over here!!” she yelled while waving her arms at me. Of course, both the sales personnel and the shoppers were turning around to look at me. Soon enough, they would see I was not some young child but an adult, and I could almost hear them start chuckling. I casually sidled up to my Mother and told her, “Stop yelling after me! I’m no child anymore !” To which my Mother replies, “Why should I? You are my child!”
“That’s not what this is about. Aren’t you the least bit embarrassed to be carrying on this way. No matter how many times I tell you, you just go on doing it.”
Later, after I married, the three of us, my wife and my Mother and I, went to a large supermarket together. In the midst of everything, I heard her start up, “Takashi-chan!” My wife, who knew what I thought of my Mother’s bad habit, decided to kid me saying, “Oh, listen! Mother is calling!!” All I could do was sigh. A little more than ten years after that, when six of us, including my three daughters, went out together, things got worse. All three of my daughters, giggling madly, turned on their bald-headed Father and called out, “Takashi-chan, listen ! Your Mother is calling !!” a perfect imitation of their Mother years before.
All I could do was smile bitterly. At city hall, in hospitals and in public parks, on occasions too numerous to count, all I could do was wait for that call. What else can I do?
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Two years ago, as a Mother with children, I married for a second time to a bachelor. We were all piled together and struggling with our new life when a family speaking a lively Hiroshima dialect moved into the room below us. It was a couple with a daughter called Ai-chan, who ended up attending the same kindergarten as my son. The kids became inseparable, and soon enough, the parents too.
The word artless was coined for kids like Ai-chan. When all was smiles and the conversation flowing, she’d make no bones about repeatedly interrupting, taking center stage and being a bit too bold, but at sterner moments, she’d fall silent, puff out her cheeks and pout.
“C’mon Gramps !! GET THE DOOR !!!”
Talking to her Father like that, when I thought back on it, was close to the way I’d sometimes address my husband. I still remember the look my son gave me. He was always reserved and on tenterhooks with his Father. But when I spoke to my husband like that, he’d stared at me wide-eyed.
Still, the direct and audacious Ai-chan and my reserved and prudent son made a good combo. I was looking forward to watching them grow up together. Unfortunately, after a year and a half, Ai-chan’s Father was transferred to work at a faraway place. The two families spent as much of the remaining time together as they could, as if we were all trying to close the holes that had been ripped open in our hearts
Our final day together was also the day for the closing ceremony for the second semester of first grade. I arranged things so Ai-chan’s parents could stay at home and pack right up to the end, and our family took charge of getting the kids to the ceremony. On the way home, the children were so quiet. My husband tried to get a laugh out of them, saying, “Now you two, you must be really happy?”
“What’s to be happy about, stupid !”
Ai-chan was trying to kick my husband who’d playfully swept her up into a hug. And my son broke in shouting, “Hey, that’s not nice!”
Looking at them play, I felt that my son and his Father had grown closer over the last year and a half, and it was heart-warming to see that being close to the brazen and ingenuous Ai-chan had freed my son to discover his own childishness.
Six months after that, people who met us saw a real family. I am so thankful for this year and a half that so deepened our family ties that I think of it as a miracle.
This all happened forty years ago when I failed my first college entrance exams. My first choice, my second & third: all failed. Both my parents tried to comfort me, but their words didn’t reach me. Under the shock, I shut myself up in my room, wrapped the bedspread over my head and closed my mind to the world.
My Father came in and tried to take me out of my room by force. He wrenched the bedspread off my head and dragged me into the living room. It was a depressing scene. I just wanted him to leave me alone. I got out of my Father’s grip and went running out of the house. I didn’t think that my Father was going to be able to catch up with me since I’d been running 30 minutes every morning to stay fit while studying for exams. He never exercised and had a well-developed beer belly. He could never keep up. …but he was keeping up! I cranked up my speed. The next time I tried to look back, my feet got tangled and I fell. My Father wasn’t going to let me go. He came at me with a desperate look, waving his arms wildly.
“What do you want. Can’t you stop following me?”
I got back on my feet and tried to get away from my Father. I was beginning to think what I was doing was stupid, so I ran into a park and sat on one of the benches. Soon enough, my Father joined me. He was huffing and puffing.
“You’re too fast. I thought I was going to croak!”
“Who even thought you could chase after me!?”
“I know: it’s a miracle!” he said laughing.
“Listen, these entrance exams, they’re just one little moment in your life. If this year doesn’t work out, you try again next year. And if that doesn’t do it, again the year after. And even again a year later if you still haven’t got a school you want.”
“Hey c’mon, it’s difficult to believe I could fail that much.”
“There you go then!” my Father exclaimed. And he laughed, and so did I.
That day, thanks to my Father, I was back on my feet and right back on track for the following year’s exams. I never cease to be thankful for what he did for me that day.
His calendar brimmed with work dates.
My Father didn’t show up at athletic meets, Parent’s Day or graduation ceremonies. No birthdays, no Christmas. Neither of us ever sang Happy Birthday together, and I can’t recall eating any Turkey with him. All I remember is that he was never there, that and how lonely it was to miss him. Because I really did, from the bottom of my heart. That’s why when choosing a husband, I looked for someone who was the opposite of my own Father. “Let his salary be low, as long as we dine together.” That was my deepest wish.
My Father’s calendar was swept along with the world’s increasing technical advances and moved to the scheduler in his mobile phone. Nonetheless, as always, he never had any free time for me, and when you hit B on the keyboard, the first word to come out was business. The more his overtime increased, the more his life was shortened. But that’s how he handled his work.
A year after taking retirement, he collapsed with a cerebral infarction and never returned home. This was just when he thought he might start a new life. My Father’s regrets must have been immeasurable. After the ceremony for our 49th day of mourning, I was straightening up my Father’s room when his mobile phone, that should have already been shut down, began to ring.
“Huh? …sounds like a phone call!”
“That’s too creepy !”
Neither my Mother nor brother wanted to pick up the cell phone. Taking it gingerly, I peeked at the screen. It wasn’t a phone call, it was a scheduling alarm. When I saw what was written on the screen I was speechless: “Yumi’s Birthday.”
My Father had set up my birthday in his scheduler. I was shocked and bewildered, but I was also filled with an indescribable flush of gratitude. No matter how old he was, my Father never forgot my birthday. Though he was not at my side, his heart had never really strayed from me. I sincerely regretted ever hating him.
The truth was that he had always wanted to be with me.
He wanted to spend much more time with his family.
That was him.
A mixture of sorrow and affection.
Dad, thank you for loving me so much.
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When was it that the two of us always walked hand in hand?
I’d hold his left hand, my Mother his right, and my one year old nephew would toddle on, leaning slightly forward and pulling us all to the fore. Sometimes he’d look back over his shoulder, and we’d all catch a glimpse of his sparkling smile set in those soft cheeks. My Mother and Father as well, from where they watched, would grin back.
Ever since my sister’s pregnancy, I was at my parent’s side helping to take care of this child. Even with the four of us to help at bath time, someone could get peed on, and if you put the baby down it cries, so we’d take turns holding him till our shoulders ached. I’ve heard that the more time you spend with a baby, the cuter it looks, but I never would have believed just how true that statement is. In short order, my parents and I became the local “grandchild & nephew doting team.”
Though I’d sometimes felt ill at ease spending time alone with my oh so taciturn Father, he now ran a running monologue on flashes from the kiddy room: “You know he can stack three blocks now!” “Today he learned how to clap!!” When I got upset because my Mother reprimanded me for making my nephew cry when I didn’t change his diapers quickly enough, he cheered me up when he said, “Everyone needs time to learn. That’s the way we all start out.”
One Saturday afternoon, when I wouldn’t let my nephew do exactly what he wanted to do, he hit me as hard as he could. “Ouch, that hurt,” I squealed while laughing it away. But my Mother stood up for me without a moment’s hesitation: “Don’t you hit my dear daughter,” she said.
Four years ago, I fell ill with an intractable disease. My parents had sent me to college so that I could fulfill for my dreams, but I didn’t make it. I’m sure my parents must be disappointed. I’m no longer the young child showered with praise. I think their grandchild is now their number one.
“I am older now, and you are as dear to me as ever,” my Mother said on the spur of the moment. I thought I would cry. Her hand had never ever left mine. It was still there to warm and guide me.
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I’m pretty sure it was when I was in elementary school,
the one time my Father made my lunch box for me.
I don’t remember why, but I do remember, if only vaguely, that my Mother was away.
I happened to wake up in the early morning and caught sight of my Father’s back in the kitchen.
When I caught a whiff of sausage frying, I thought he must be making someone’s lunch box.
I knew right then that it must be mine.
Back then, we lived in a shabby, little apartment.
Just one little room, an even smaller kitchen, and my Father standing in it.
He was quite heavyset, but his back seemed small, maybe all that weight was rounding his shoulders.
If memory serves, the only time he ever wielded a kitchen knife was when cutting braised pork, a particular favorite of his. He left the totality of household affairs in my Mother’s hands. So now, this man, the perfect embodiment of the Showa Father, was standing in the kitchen.
And I was there, looking intently at this spectacle.
I was neither shocked nor delighted. It was all a complete abstraction for me.
He stood under the hard-white, kitchen lights, fighting drowsiness and clumsy hands, with his back wound round some awkward attempt to get my lunch out.
As much as I regret it, I can’t even remember what was in that lunch box.
It might have been pretty much the same kind of thing my mother made, but somehow I remember it as being exceptionally delicious.
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We’d sat down for dinner when my eldest daughter, now seven, said bashfully, “Mom, could you close your eyes for a second.”
“Okay…” I said and closed my eyes and counted up to ten. When I opened them again, I saw a line of pretty presents arranged on the table with flowers, cookies, a portrait, a letter…
“Oh! Thank you! I’m so happy…”
I was deeply touched and gave my eldest daughter a big hug. At that instant, my younger daughter repeated her sister’s words.
“Mama, close your eyes.”
“OKAY…” I said and began to slowly count to ten.
“Can I open them now?” I asked brightly.
“Nooo, no, not yet!”
Murmurs and rustling, little feet and little hands moving about. What were they up to… I too was so excited, it was hard to wait.
“Okay, you can open your eyes!”
At the call of such cute little voices I opened my eyes, and what did I see? I saw my younger daughter smiling widely with sheets of dried seaweed stuck to her lips. And in her hand, she was clutching a giant bag of grilled seaweed.
“Oh, so that’s what you’ve been up to. Trying to stuff down a whole bag of seaweed while I had my eyes closed, huh!?”
We drew around the table and laughed and laughed. I can’t wait to see what mischief they’ll cook up for me next year.
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My child is born. Giving birth took such a long time. It was grueling, but it was little compared to the demands of changing diapers and giving milk to a baby who wouldn’t stop crying. I literally didn’t have time to sleep. It was all more than I had imagined. So when my parents called to say they were coming for a visit, I couldn’t help but sigh. I was always clumsy with my Father. I just never knew what to say to him when we were together.
The two of them showed up promptly at 2:00 in the afternoon, the opening of visiting hours. My Mother was overjoyed to see the newborn, swept the child into her arms and started chortling. On the other hand, my Father stood by idly, looking over at the baby without moving to hug the child. When his silence began to weigh on me, I finally blurted out, “You’ve come all this way, why don’t you give your grandchild a hug?” “No, that’s OK,” my Father begged off, but I felt he was more interested than he let on because he kept glancing over at the child. I tried again, a little harder, “Maybe this’ll be your last chance to hold a newborn child. Why don’t you try it…”
With a little help from my Mother, my Father took the child in his arms. He seemed to be nervous since he was squinching up his shoulders. He looked terribly awkward but somehow, painfully beautiful. If one of the nurses happened into the room now and saw him, wasn’t this the kind of scene that would move her to tears? My Father kept repeating, “You’re the one, the one so cute,” in a low voice. He wasn’t saying it to anyone in particular, but he wasn’t quite saying it to himself either. Nor was he addressing the baby in his arms. It seemed to come directly from his heart, words as necessary and unconscious as breathing.
After my parents left, I continued to hold my baby. Absentminded, my Father’s face filled my mind. When I was a little baby, my Father must have held me, I thought. And he must have looked on me while whispering, “You’re the one, the one so cute.” And anyone who saw us might be moved to tears looking at my baby-face. I was seeing an image from some 30 years ago, of my Father snuggling up to my Mother in a hospital room, and my heart wound round it till it hurt. Somewhere along the way, I’d forgotten that my Father loved me, allowing this attitude to become an obstinate kind of stance, and now I regretted it. I held on to my newborn child and thought of the Father who loved me through all the days of my life, and I cried like a baby.
“Go ahead and leave. But if you do, never come back again.”
That’s what my Father said, that I would be disowned. But it’s not as crazy as it sounds, because I’d abruptly left college to become an apprentice to a Master of the stage.
The morning I left, the only one there to send me off was my Mother. “If anything goes wrong, please come home,” she said, while wiping away her tears. But all around us, due to his absence, we both deeply felt the abstinence of my Father.
My life as an attendant began as soon as I got to Tokyo. Not only did I make the Master’s meals, but I served tea, cleaned house, did laundry and carried the luggage. I was scolded for whatever I did and bungled whatever I attempted. My world was both busy or merciless. After just one month, I started to go bald. Three months after that, I began to get painful rashes here and there on my body. After a half a year, I suffered from palpitations and hand tremors while sleepless nights stacked one on the other. Then, one day, I had a lesson with my Master that I will never forget. I fainted while sitting upright in front of my him.
I woke up five days later, and when I did, my parents were there. I couldn’t bring myself to say anything. I’d taken off for Tokyo without permission just as I’d allowed myself to keel over in front of my Master. I fully expected to hear my Father tell me to stop. But what my Father said was this: “Why don’t you come home for a few days.” Those words echoed in my heart rather than my ears. I wept in spite of myself. I wept and didn’t care who saw it. I wasn’t frustrated. I was grateful. Grateful that after leaving home like I had, this Father could take back his son.
I thought my Father was obstinate and inflexible, but that wasn’t the case. For all his severity, he was full of love. I thought he might be the last person in the world to say “welcome back” to anyone under such conditions.
Sometime I want to invite my Father to the theater. Not to show myself on stage, not to make him laugh, just to express my gratitude.
The first time I held you, I became a parent.
When you were born, I breastfed you every three hours and then held you till you slept.
I kept checking to be sure that you were still breathing.
Even when I went to the toilet, I would hold you close by me.
You would holler when I went to do some laundry. When you slept, if I moved away, you’d reach out to grab me.
One evening when I was preparing dinner and couldn’t free my hands to pick you up, you kept reaching out to me. Without turning to look at you, I said, “Just a second…” and went on with my preparations. When I finally had a chance to look back at you, I found you staring at me with eyes brimming with tears. “I’m sorry to’ve kept you waiting,” I said. “How about a hug?” With that, your face broke into an expression of utter joy. Your small hands reached round my neck while I held you to me and I was filled with a feeling of deep contentment.
I have a feeling that if we could live on my laughter alone, this child would be happy to be at my side forever. My daughter has always given me a love that asks for nothing more in return.
My daughter invests all her life in our moments together. She throws all her small body into communicating her feelings. And as for me, I want to respond to those feelings. If my daughter finds contentment now, in these moments between us, isn’t that everything? Our whole world is in those moments when nothing is more important than her smiling face.
My six year old son is a real clown. If I happen to laugh at something he does, he’ll do it over and over again. He’s particularly good at weird dances and odd songs. Because I’ve struggled so long with illness and am often bedridden, he understands immediately when he sees my face unconsciously stiffen. I’m sure he can read my signs and moods. When I laugh, he smiles as if I’d showered praise on him. My son’s innocence often reminds me of someone else I know. When I was a child, I was just like him.
When I was little, my parents often argued. At the time, my Father had changed jobs, and my Mother was dead set against the new situation. She’d start a quarrel every night. My brother, who was quite a few years older than I, was in the height of puberty. So when my parents clashed, he would join the fray, and the three of them would have at it. We were all strained to the edge at the house, just waiting for the next spark to ignite. Being so young myself, all I could really do was cry, but as I grew older I began to want to change the ugly atmosphere we bathed in and started to react by doing the oddest things I could. When my brother and Father would see me jerking around, if I could just squeeze a laugh out of them, I’d be happy and keep repeating it. And the entire family’s mood would soften.
My family called me “the clown,” and in my heart I hoped, “I want them all to laugh.” Little by little, with the passage of time, my hope was realized, so much so that we finally became a happy family once again.
Soon enough, I too was grown up and married with my own family, but the suffering of illness chased anything like my younger innocence far from my mind. I finally noticed that a tide of tensions had come to our house. I never imagined that things would turn out this way. When your present is fraught with illness, thinking about the future just makes you uneasy and fills you with worry. Yet, for the sake of this family that does so much to support me, I’ve decided to fill my life once again with as much laughter as I can.
Hey my son, thank you for making your Father remember something essential. Let’s laugh now, and enjoy our family life together. I’m here, and we’ll get through this together.
Listen Mom, you haven’t seen your husband for 30 years but now is your chance, or are you just going to let a little more time pass?
Though she’d been ill in bed for so long, just a week before passing away she asked that her final wishes be heard. She joined her hands and began relating her wishes bit by bit. “I want to leave this world without a cane and on my own two feet, and I want to be wearing the shirt I bought in Hawaii.” And then, with our encouragement, “I’d like to put on some makeup before crossing over the final bridge. And carry a bento of Inari-zushi…” Her voice was weak but she spoke without faltering.
Truth be told, I’d understood immediately. All these wishes were not for herself, they were for my Father’s benefit, for when they would meet again. The makeup was to look her best when she’d see him again. They had bought the Hawaiian shirts together to look more like a couple. And it was my Father who relished Inari-zushi.
Since those were her wishes, at the time of her funeral I put Inari-zushi, a makeup kit and her Hawaiian shirt in her coffin, along with a bouquet of flowers for the moment when she’d rejoin her husband. My Father had died just after turning 70. My Mother was in her mid-nineties. Looking at her, I began to wonder how my Father reacted on seeing her. As I offered incense to the deceased, I wanted to ask how things had turned out. And let’s have none of your evasive giggling, Mom, just tell me how it went. And then, there’s another thing, Mom, right up to the end, I know you worried over your vegetable garden and how much I loved the taste of your curry dishes. Well, your daughter-in-law has promised to master both. And then, for a moment, I felt you were still alive. Please, go in peace now.