Thursday, February 23, 2012

A Wake

(I am indeed going to put part 2 of my father in law's interview--however, the death of a friend a couple of days ago shifted my focus a bit and I've written here about him.)
The last trip to Japan to see Hide-san

When one person dies, a whole world is lost, they say. I say whole worlds are lost—This is a wake for the universe I knew as Hidekazu Tsuchiya—whom I called Hide-san (Hee—Day). I knew only small patches on one world around one tiny star.  


We were eating dinner around the kotatsu in the living room. (Ahh, the kotatsu, those heated little tables—in winter you could stick your feet underneath until they were toasty and lounge there all night—or at least until the wine and beer ran out).  I had finished off a bowl of rice and set it on the table top with the mandatory ‘gochisoosama deshita’ to close off the meal.  I started to stand up, but Hide batted me back down with his hand flopping at me like a bird wing.

‘You see those rice grains?’ he asked. There were several little white bits of rice sticking to the side of the bowl. ‘My dad used to tell me that in each grain of rice there were seven gods and if you left even one grain uneaten, it was wasting the lives of seven gods.’ As the kids stealthily slipped away en masse, I dutifully sat down with my then meager chopstick skills and tried my best to get the lone grains into my mouth. Ahh! I was the new kid! A blank slate to teach the ancient ways!  This was the penalty of being the gaijin—you had to learn the traditions the family blew off.  Everyone laughed at me after that, ‘Dad caught you!’ But I have never forgotten those seven gods.


Summertime night—the same room. He was in his white tank top. I think Kuniko was hanging up laundry out on the balcony—the screen door was open, wet clothes hung heavy on the line. We were both sweating, drenched. He had a white towel around his neck and was explaining some horrible incident from his past. In the background was the washing machine noise and street cats yowling from outside.

‘When I was a young boy in Yamagata, things were very difficult.’ He explained,  a few beers already knocked back by then.  ‘One night, my mother took me by the hand and walked with me down to the banks of the river. I don’t remember where my father was. Sometimes he hit her when he drank.  ‘We should kill ourselves,’ she said. ‘Life can’t ever get better for us.’ She was crying and...’

He stops mid-sentence. The cat yowling has risen to a passionate crescendo. He lifts a finger like Confucius about to deliver a lecture, points out the window and says, suddenly switching to very carefully enunciated English, ‘Cat sex.’


Yamagata—in northern Honshuu one summer. The town of Shirataka (White Hawk).  It’s in a valley surrounded by mountains so that all the humidity pools like a sauna in the streets. I learn a few words in Yamagata-ben (the dialect of the area).  Atsugunee ga—for ‘It’s not hot,’ a phrase I am not in urgent need of. I learn that here you have to do the full on-the-floor-bow sometimes, with your face in the tatami mats. In the van, as Hide takes us on a tour around his prefecture, Anne, one of my fellow Floridians, puts Eiichiro’s toe in her mouth and bites down. Eiichiro is the oldest son—fourteen at the time. He’s talking about that bite for years afterward.  Why did she do that? he asks in wonder. I think it was the first time a girl put his anything into her mouth. Not that we mentioned such things to Hide—he drove us to a caldera lake, a beautiful bright turquoise disk of water in an ashy volcanic cone.

His mother did the on-the-floor bow sometimes at neighbors’ houses—she had a garden and took me , Anne, Brenda, and the kids out to clip cucumbers and peppers. She cooked for us—it was the first and only time I had bear meat. Hide and his mom were both surprised I didn’t flinch when I heard what animal I was ingesting. This was the woman Hide had stood with on a river and planned a mother-child suicide.


Yamagata—one winter. My roommate Aaron and I go up to Yamagata during Winter Break with the family. Dai (second oldest son), Aaron, and I build a giant igloo outside. Sometimes the others help, but it is to the three of us that Hide brings the little grill, and it is him that takes pictures of us as we roast mochi cakes inside our ice house. I remember we had a hamster—the girls’ pet I guess? His name was Uncle Crunchy.

Hide’s ancestors were Christian, part of the first group of Christians that went into hiding in the mountains after the Shogun made the religion illegal. He showed me a rainbow ball of colored string once, the threads falling into a pretty pattern—this was a secret symbol of Christians back in the day I am told. Despite this, there was a Buddhist/Shinto shrine to his father in the house. Sticks of incense in front of a picture. Food sometimes. Lots of snow. More and more snow. His father died just before I met them. It’s strange to think—I saw that picture everywhere, and now it will be his I see instead.


Kuniko has planned the funeral just for family but people are coming from everywhere—work friends (the whole sale vegetable market in Tsukiji), Eiichiro’s friends, Dai’s friends, the girls’ friends, neighbors, University friends, friends from Shirataka.

One winter, Hide and Kuniko’s old college friends came to visit, bringing their young son Yuki. I saw a different Hide than I had ever seen before—laughing constantly, from the gut, shouting off color jokes, teasing, confident, full of bravado. He was like a young college boy. I stayed up with them just to marvel at this transformation. Who knew he could open this kind of face to the world? He could be so sad and morose and self flagellating most of the time. This was someone else. I felt privileged to meet him, to meet his friends. And I never forgot from that day on that somewhere under all that ‘but what about tradition’ grumbling, there was this other man. I remember we went with them to a hula course somewhere in downtown Tokyo, and he danced.

I saw this Hide another time—my calligraphy teacher’s son was an actor, and she got us tickets to the opening night of her his play, Furusato (Hometown). Hide and Kuniko decided to take me along. I learned that they had once been in theater club together. For the first time since I had known them, they acted like a couple. Years seemed to fall of them as we entered the theater. We were all the same age when we sat down. At the end of the play, all these sad middle aged people climb off a train and go skipping through a meadow of rabbits and squirrels toward their long lost furusato. When we left, Hide said he had been really moved. Kuniko found the play a sappy, maudlin—all that whining about the old hometown of yore.  ‘Look forward!’ she said. ‘Look to the future!’ And Hide seemed lost in thought. What was there he missed in his furusato? All those sorrow thoughts...


Two years ago, in the summer, the doctor said that the cancer would be quick. He expected no more than six months. Kuniko was in Istanbul when the call came—visiting me. We were on a rooftop in Kadıköy sipping drinks with the Bosphorous blue in front of us. The ships, the vista of the mosques on the other side.  We both cried suddenly, and suddenly stopped.

 I flew to Tokyo to see him that November. The cancer was in remission—he was a bit sickly—bald and thin from the chemo--but in fairly high spirits. We took a bike ride together through Urayasu on a hunt for him another pet—his beloved dog Gabi had just died. The pretty trees in the fall—those golden leafed gingko raining yellow everywhere.

We never did locate a new house hound, but we did a bit of touring. He was never one for spontaneous trips—he got left out so much on this sort of thing, but that day, because he missed me maybe, because I had come so far, when I said ‘Let’s do something we’ve never done before!’ he agreed (though I could see him hanging back a bit inside). We visited the Urayasu Historical Museum and did a tour. We learned how they farmed seaweed in the old days. It was just the two of us there that day in the whole museum—they were closing—and the man talked us through the process.  I remember screens floating in the water covered in deep green sprouts, the old wooden house, the sky outside burning with autum lava colors.


The day I went back to Istanbul, he had a doctor’s appointment. Me to the airport, him to the cancer center. The cancer had been in remission for a while, and now there was a possibility it might be coming back. Test results were coming in today, those ghastly mestasizing cells.

When we said goodbye, I felt as clueless as I do now. What to say—they didn’t make set little phrases for this. You’re dying, but not as soon as I thought,  I’m going thousands of miles away, and may not be able to come back in time, and it’s always been a little awkward between us despite all the affection.’

Mata ne,’ I said as I left the house. ‘Not goodbye, but see you later.’

‘Thanks for coming,’ he told me. ‘I wanted to drop you off but I have to go to the hospital again.’

‘I’ll be fine.’

‘You know, I’ve always considered you one of my sons.’

Eiichiro told me the same thing, ‘My dad thinks of you as one of us.’

I remember his garden that day. He always had a garden—plants grew like mad things in his hands. Pink azaleas, bright purple four-o’clocks, marigolds, daisies, a burst of blue morning glories, an arch way of vines at the gate.


His sons. Eiichiro and Dai. My brothers.

It was some years ago during the Urayasu Festival and his sons were running a bit wild.  Eiichiro had just started working at a bar with Yakuza connections, I was hearing stories of his few weeks as a small-fry paint thinner addict. Tattoos, a drunken motorcycle accident. Dai, at 17, had just accidentally gotten a girl pregnant. The boys were a bit dodgy that summer—at least to someone as longing for the old order as Hide was, whenever parental fealty and soldierly respect were in fashion among Japanese kids.  We were walking home from a festival, aching from carrying around the mikoshi festival shrines all day and he said, ‘You know, Jeff, everything that my sons have become is thanks to you.’
A mikoshi festival picture borrowed from Eiichiro...

 I choked, then laughed.  ‘I hope you mean that in a good way, right now...’

‘No, no,’ he said. ‘They are wonderful boys. I mean in the long view of things, they are good boys, and I wanted to thank you.’

 I thought he could also thank himself and his wife and the boys themselves, but it made me supremely happy.

The festival—with thirty other men and a smattering of women we carried our mikoshi through the streets of Urayasu—the shrine itself balanced on two gigantic logs which we in turn balanced on our shoulders, all day long for three days.  It was as heavy as a redwood—Hide and I stayed together the whole time on our neighborhood team, but Eiichiro had his own team of rowdy boys that he was managing and was flitting about, directing this or that. We shouted sore sore sore, maida maida maida!’ and gave the shrine god the best ride of its eternal life. That night we ached so badly I couldn’t move an inch. We dragged ourselves to the public bath right next door and melted into the steam and hot mineral water. The bath was closing forever when the festival was over—the soak was free. ‘Something important will be lost,’ Hide told me and I agreed.

We sank into the huge tub with the other shrine bearers. A man with a dragon tattoo down his back was there as well—yakuza. We glanced knowing at each other and tried to look nonchalant about it. I groaned and moaned at the muscle pain. Hide laughed at me—but he was in just as sad a shape. That night he’d bought a platter of sushi and sashimi, and of course sake and beer.


When my father died, Hide sat down at the end of the kotatsu with a glass of sake and in that somewhat lecturing way of his told me about his father’s death.  I didn’t tell him all the details of mine at first—but he seemed to guess it wasn’t a clean death. He said he wanted to help. We’d both lost our dads. They had been heavy drinkers. We resented and loved them all at once. We shared something now. We understood how easy it could be to get stuck thinking about those things—getting stuck in the thorns when we tried to pull ourselves out.

One spring, during my first year in Japan, he drove me, the boys, and Matsuge (a family friend) down to Tokyo Bay for some fishing. I remember the worms that bit—they even had spikes along their body that stuck out when you touched them. They tried to clamp onto the end of your finger when you stuck them on the hook.  He chuckled softly at my squeamishness—I remember that chuckle there, a bit exasperated, a bit withdrawn. He baited his own hook and shook his head.


This is all a bit of a lie because so many of the details of these memories I don’t have anymore—I am filling in the blanks with parts that don’t matter as much. It’s been twenty years since we became part of each other’s lives and fourteen years since I left Japan and two years since I last saw him. And there were nearly 11,000 miles between us at the end, and in those two years since my last visit, I didn’t call him once, though for my wedding gift, he had the idea of having each family member write the character for ‘Love’ in their own unique style, which was perfect—his meticulously careful   AI   was first--and I would like to have introduced him to Delal. And I don’t know why I didn’t call him. Part of it was I feared what I might find out how bad things had become, part of it was it made me sad how much of my Japanese was going and how much I couldn’t say anymore. Of course, now I can’t say anything at all to him.
Ai--'Love' in Chinese/Japanese calligraphy

But this is a wake. I imagine myself there, drinking beers with the kids—all grown and married now except for Eiichiro who is most likely leading the party. And he’s being loud and we are all sharing memories and I am right in the thick of things telling stories, too. And it’s late, but there’s no sign of slowing or stopping. Eiichiro will announce he’s going out for more Kirin or Sapporo, and Dai and I will go, too.


That last visit, someone I knew desperately wanted some work pants he’d seen in a You Tube video of Japanese construction workers. I don’t remember who it was anymore—a Turkish friend, a foreign one, no one at all important. Hide drove me all around town looking for those pants—I had just mentioned it in passing, imagine someone ordering of all things, construction worker uniforms from the Far East, and Hide made it a crusade—store after store.  And when I expressed some interest in a pack of glove like socks—they had spaces for toes!—he bought me a huge pack of the things.


And I think of him like this. I think of planet sized Japanese nashi pears. I think of Fuji apples and bokchoy and mountain yams and sweet potatoes and trefoil and a hundred varieties of fruit and vegetables, some of which I had never seen anywhere else but Japan. He brought them home from the wholesale market. Watermelons and canteloupe and pumpkin and yuzu and aloe. He had this weakness for snake oil cures. One year it was eating raw aloe dipped in soy sauce (maybe it helped, who knows?) The next year it was acerola juice. The next copper bracelets which kept away all sorts of illnesses according to the marketing campaign hawking it.


I see him like this.

He had a big helmet of silver hair, streaked a bit with black. There was a small chip in his front teeth. He left before dawn for work and came back late and went to bed early (on Saturday, too) and he mourned the time he missed with everyone, but never seemed to know how to really let himself go. He was sometimes like a big log fallen across the river, the water rushed past him and he trembled where he lay but never moved.

He looked like his mother. Sometimes he dyed his hair black, or grew a moustache.

It feels funny that I am here in Istanbul where no one knows who’s been lost. You lose a friend and it gets swallowed quickly in the current of an every day life that never included him. Not just dead, washed out of existence.

I think he was outside of things a lot. I felt bad about that sometimes.  He’s in so few of the pictures I have from Japan. I have only one at the house here in Istanbul—it was taken that winter in Yamagata. We are all sitting around the kotatsu. He’s got his hair dyed black, a moustache, he’s grinning and eating a tangerine. Eiichiro is wearing my glasses. I’m blind but have Uncle Crunchy the hamster and Kayo is cutting her eyes in my direction as if I might suddenly try to eat it. Dai is making a silly face. Sachiyo looks dazed or ill. It’s clearly cold—we’re in sweaters and hugging the kotatsu.  I have lots of other pictures from Japan, but he’s in none of them.

‘I feel left out,’ he told me once.

He was a lonely man, but didn’t need to be maybe. Maybe he didn’t know how to just let go and become a part of things. To forget all those hang ups. I sometimes know how that feels. Don’t we all?

Is this all I’ve got? All the memories?

I’ll miss you Hide. I’m sorry I didn’t call. I’m sorry I can’t be there now to say good bye.

We’ll light some incense here, Buddhist style.

And I’ll say a Christian prayer.

And I’ll recite the poem that I recited for my own father.

Ample make this bed

Make this bed with awe

In it wait till morning breaks

Excellent and fair

Be its mattress straight

Be its pillow round

Let no sunlight yellow noise interrupt this ground

And maybe a poem in Japanese—something about the snow of winter, and how the flakes look like cherry blossoms, and the melancholy, and how the spring flowers are long gone but the memory remains, and it falls outside and gathers in every growing drifts.

A link for the seven gods...
The Mogami River--courtesy of the Tohoku Kanko website


Jeff Gibbs said...

I am posting comments by friends who either couldn't or didn't post here...From Brenda: I was thinking when we were at the sushi Bar and Dai had poured water into the Sake carafe.I didn't realize it, Hidekazu didn't either. And since his cup was empty I filled it... he was none too pleased to sip water when he thought it was Sake. I was so embarrassed. I don't know who the joke was more on... Him or I

Jeff Gibbs said...

From my mom: I can't even begin to find words to express this blog, tears came and have not stopped yet I remember my visit with the family in Japan and the beautiful orchid plant Hidekazu game me and how disappointed I was I could not bring it home with me. Left it with my son who was suppose to keep it alive...........oh what beautiful "sticks" it made!!!

Jeff Gibbs said...

From Jen
Quick memory...Hide searched high and low to get me distilled water because I heard that was good to drink and even though he sure as hell didn't know what I needed it for, he went out earnestly and brought me home his successful finds

A. Craig said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
A. Craig said...

Hide was good at sketching, too. He once penciled a portrait of me--a memento I've kept in all my moves since leaving Japan fourteen years ago.

The toe-biter

Jeff Gibbs said...

Ha! Eiichiro claims he does not remember the toe bite but he was not himself for months after that!

A. Craig said...

Jeff--I have a couple of things I'd like to send you. E-mail me your mailing address. It's gmail, and my username is annejapan