by Yuri Kageyama
Reading at the Pink Cow in Tokyo June 8,2008.
When you cut your finger against the end of a piece of paper, and it hurts and the blood spurts out, you remember blood, lots of it, curdling red ink with a sweaty smell, is rushing around your body, all of it, brain, eyeballs, cell tissue, spine, toes, your heart is pumping like quivering red rubber and your lungs are going in and out, in and out.
When you stop to think about it, you want to scream and you almost forget how to breathe.
People who believe in Reincarnation say it would be a waste of lives to have so many people alive and then die and so god must recycle all those lives.
It is nothing short of a miracle we continue to live everyday despite all the deaths everyday. And each one of us is dying gradually everyday.
But for the most part, we don’t get shot, we don’t get run over, we don’t crash, we don’t get a deadly disease, we don’t get stabbed, beaten to death, crushed in an earthquake, commit suicide, and we live live live live.
And each day adds to the next day and pretty soon we are old but still we live and we don’t think about the blood circulating or the each and every breath we take or the fact that we have averted death for the moment.
We are alive.
But we could at any moment take a long silver needle and poke it in our eye, blinding ourselves in blinding rage.
We could jump into the wind from the station platform as the train glides in with a rattle, although the mirror is there to remind us how ghostly we look and make us think again how foolish this act is that we are contemplating to die this moment instead of the next moment when we do get shot or get cancer or our hearts stop or our lungs fail.
My mother is dying of pancreas cancer, and I can finally smell death, that unmistakable stench that sticks inside your nostrils for hours, maybe even a day, trailing you from the hospice room.
She has lost so much weight she looks like a bird, her nose pointed like a beak in a mummified face.
She lies curled up in the bed, her arms clasped into herself, a scrawny embryonic chick in a nest, and her beady eyes are expressionless, unmoving, staring into your eyes, and she won’t close them because she knows you are her daughter and these may be the last moments, and she needs to look, but you just want her to close her eyes so you can leave and forget.
She couldn’t even speak then.
When she could still move, when she was at the hospital, not the hospice, where patients are getting treatment to live, she was just a burden on the nurses and they want her to move to a hospice, she would grow delirious on pain-killers and start walking around the hallways naked, announcing: She must leave now because Otoosama _ her husband, my father _ has arrived to get her.
My father is dead.
Before that, when she was still undergoing tests, and she had always instructed us she never wanted to know it, if she ever got cancer, and so we couldn’t tell her, she says to me: “I wasn’t a very good mother, was I?”
This is a very important conversation.
But I brush it off. I don’t want to talk about this, do I? because then wouldn’t we be talking about her death?
“I watch you and your sister, how the both of you think about and interact with your children,” she says. “And I realize I wasn’t a good parent. I know this watching the both of you as parents.”
She goes on, matter of fact, her father, was a big believer in education and sent all his children, even the daughters, unusual for those times in Japan, to urban schools.
My mother was second from the youngest so she was barely in elementary school when she was sent to live away from home with her sisters and brothers to go to good schools.
And so she grew up never knowing the intimacy of a relationship between a mother and child.
She doesn’t have to apologize. And I should reach out and hug her, but all I remember is how she never stopped him, her husband, my father, when he beat me, how I had to cower, never apologizing, and all she did was sit quietly and pray and be patient and believe the anger will pass like a typhoon, leaving behind just tiny purple bruise marks on sallow skin, as sanity returns to the Ph. D. in engineering, professor, salaryman, head of the household, and all would be well.
He needs a break from work, it is stressful, he needs to go the family beach villa.
She has already made arrangement, and I must go with him, the ever faithful daughter, because he can’t go alone.
“It can’t be me. It must be you,” she says, as though this is decided, ironing the white shirts and folding them on top of each other on the tatami mat.
She doesn’t tell me until years later. She worried about me every day, praying he wasn’t beating me.
He didn’t beat me. We took turns rowing a wooden boat. We went fishing til our fingers smelled like worms. We lowered cages into the water with fish heads, and drew them up to find crabs entangled with each other.
But I can’t forgive, not just yet, though no one has to apologize.
I call my sister on the train back from the hospital.
“She is going to die,” I say, breathless, more from excitement than from sadness. She is dying but she is realizing and she is changing.
What she is saying is so profound she had to be dying. Really dying.
It should have been like the movies.
I should have forgiven her, a moment of reconciliation before the moment of death.
You are a good mother.
Remember all the Ryunosuke Akutagawa stories you read to me in the kitchen, but you told me the stories I wrote, secretly, in big block letters in a worn out notebook were petty and would never amount to anything?
Remember how you wanted to go back to school for your Master’s degree, but you had to cook and clean and you gave up?
Remember how you won awards with those elaborate sumi calligraphy on rice paper, painting ancient words no one could read?
Remember how you sat naked in the bath tub, thinking your solitary thoughts, and you hated your husband, my father, because he bought you the wrong-size ring in an overseas business trip?
Today, you taught me how people keep evolving til the last moment of life.
No, you are not a bad mother at all.
This is the best gift you have given me.
I have learned the lesson of death although I still can’t understand how we manage to keep living day by day, lungs breathing and heart beating and you feel so faraway and I can’t remember barely anything else about you.