My mother-in-law waited in her hospital room while my husband and I sat in the doctor’s office. Our son, Kei, slept across my lap, his temple sweating against my forearm. I shifted his weight and tried to tune in to the doctor’s words. There were many technical terms that I couldn’t make out, but I understood “gan” (cancer) and “shutsu” (surgery). I watched Yusuke’s face, gauging the seriousness of the disease in the tightness of his jaw. His eyes were dry. He nodded slowly and thoughtfully. He seemed to have hope.
But what if she died? What did Confucious say about orphans? Was a son then tied to his parents’ graves? I knew that my mother-in-law believed her husband’s spirit would get angry if she didn’t put out green tea for him every morning, or light a cigarette and leave it smoldering at the family altar, like a stick of incense. Yusuke had always shrugged off these practices as superstition, though he still knelt at the altar in the mornings and chanted a sutra.
I did none of these things. It was understood that I, as a foreigner, did not believe and my heresy was politely ignored. I wondered if Okasan would pray to her dead husband when she found out that she had cancer. But after we bowed our way out of the doctor’s office, Kei now draped over Yusuke’s shoulder, my husband said, “Don’t tell my mother about the cancer, okay? We’ll just say that it was benign.”
My jaw dropped. “Why?” If I knew my days were numbered, I’d hop on a plane bound for Tanzania. I’d visit all the museums I hadn’t yet gotten to. I’d eat chocolate cake whenever I wanted and splurge on massages and manicures. Or, I might try to cure myself.
“If we tell her, she might lose hope. She must retain her vitality. She must be strong.”
I didn’t agree, but I nodded. “Okay. I won’t say a word.”
He got us settled in the car, then went back to check on his mother in her room.
A few days before the operation, we took her to the hospital and helped her settle in. Until the surgery, she was assigned to a ward with three other patients. They all stared at me, the foreigner, curiosity beating out politeness. I probably would have stared, too. There wasn’t much to do in that room. A coin-operated TV sat on a table next to each bed. The window afforded a view of the parking lot. The other women had been in the hospital for weeks and there was no one sitting at their bedsides.
My mother-in-law made a grand entrance. She stood in the doorway, the only one with make-up and styled hair, and announced her name. And then she begged everyone’s cooperation and tolerance: “Yoroshiku onegai shimasu.”
“This is my son,” she said gesturing to Yusuke.
He bowed and mumbled his own greeting.
She didn’t bother to mention me.
I decided to cut her some slack. She was a sick woman, after all. And these other patients would find out soon enough who I was. I’d promised Yusuke that I’d take care of her, in the same way she had taken care of me when I was in the hospital before the birth of our son.
Okasan sat down on the edge of the bed, her spine straight. Her feet dangled a few inches from the floor. Her hands lay in her lap, cupped one within the other. She sighed.
“The food here is quite good,” I said, wanting to reassure her somehow.
Ah, yes. I was the one who couldn’t tell the difference between food cooked on a gas range and food cooked on an electric one, the woman who thought that Thai rice was just as tasty as the Japanese grain. What could I know about food?
A nurse came in then with a pair of pajamas. “Why don’t you change into these, Yamashiro-san?”
My mother-in-law sat there for a long moment without acknowledging the nurse. I could tell she was going to be a difficult patient. Finally, the nurse laid the striped pajamas on the bed and strutted out.
The next morning, the day before the operation, I dropped Kei off at the neighbor’s house with a pile of his favorite books and toys.
He started wailing as soon as I turned my back. His cries echoed in my head for the rest of the day. I could still hear them as I drove to the hospital, radio blasting, mind scrambling for conversational gambits to carry my mother-in-law and me through the next six hours.
I breezed into her room with a neatly-wrapped parcel — pajamas from home, tangerines, and the long-handled tool she used to beat the stiffness out of her shoulders. I’d included a photo of Kei being silly. I figured the sight of a boy with pants on his head and tongue sticking out would add some much needed levity to the situation.
She grunted when I handed over the bundle, but smiled when she found the picture. She immediately propped it up next to the TV.
I noticed that the lady in the next bed had an oxygen mask cupped over her face, whereas the day before she had been breathing on her own. It must be hard to keep up your spirits, I thought, when everyone around you was dwindling.
“That your little boy?” another patient asked, limping in with her I.V. pole.
“Yes,” I said. I was sure that she’d already heard all about me.
“Kawaii,” she said. “Cute.”
I tried to ignore her bald head. I made myself look straight into her eyes when I said, “Thank you.”
When the woman had struggled back under the covers and flicked on her TV, Okasan finally spoke. “What’s wrong with me? I want to know.”
I froze. I thought we’d talk about the weather or how her orchids were faring. I had two or three anecdotes about her favorite grandson lined up. I wasn’t prepared to talk about her diagnosis.
“You should talk to Yusuke,” I said. “I didn’t understand everything the doctor said.”
She sighed. “I did talk to him. A small cyst, he said. Nothing to get excited about. But I know that he’s lying.”
I turned away so she wouldn’t read the truth in my eyes. “I’ll make you some tea.”
I thought about fleeing. The door was just three feet away. If I made up some excuse — a fever for Kei, a long-distance phone call from my family — maybe I could make a graceful exit. But after I brewed the tea and handed Okasan her cup, she started to talk about something else.
As it turned out, the day went by quicker than I expected. Visitors came with packets of money and boxes of cakes. I kept busy serving them tea and rounding up folding chairs. The ladies from Okasan’s ikebana class and English conversation circle, and, for half an hour, Yusuke, took care of the small talk.
By the time they’d all left, Okasan was exhausted and ready for a nap. She slipped into sleep and I just sat there thumbing through magazines, trying to figure out which Japanese celebrity was bedding whom.
After Okasan had been dressed in blue paper and loaded onto a gurney, after we’d pressed her hand and urged her to be strong, we went into a little room to wait. Other families waited with us. Some had been there for awhile, to judge from the debris of meals. One woman was stretched out on the long vinyl sofa, her head pillowed by a bag of knitting. Her shoes and socks were off, revealing gnarls and corns. She snored softly. With time, I guessed, you could get used to that place, feel just as comfortable as you might in your own bedroom. Worry and grief crowded out shame. When someone you loved was on the table or hooked up to a respirator in the ICU, what you looked like to strangers didn’t really matter.
So I didn’t worry too much about the streaks of chocolate ice cream on Kei’s T-shirt. Yusuke hadn’t shaved in a couple of days and his eyes were puffy from too much whiskey the night before, too little sleep.
I’d put on make-up and brushed my hair. My dress spilled smoothly over my hips. I thought that I looked good and that there was something obscene about it. Better if I’d smudged my mascara, wrinkled my clothes.
In the corner, a man was chain-smoking. A young woman fiddled with her cell-phone, in spite of the sign prohibiting satellite calls. She belonged in some nightclub, a booth at Mister Donut’s, not this purgatorial chamber.
Yusuke paced and sighed. Kei spent a few minutes studying our companions before he began raiding the bookshelf. Children came here often for last looks at grandparents, for their first lessons in mortality. The kids’ books were well-worn, thumbed through, some of the covers hanging like one-hinged doors.
Kei found a book about ships and settled on a sofa to “read” it aloud. I watched his rosebud mouth working out words, the thick lashes, the dimples in the backs of his hands. Like always, I got lost in his beauty. Sometimes it made me ache. I wanted to gather him up, the way children embrace teddy bears or favorite blankies. I even wanted to share him a little, knowing that his magic touch could change the atmosphere in that little room. He could make us forget about needles and knives. One little squeeze and all tremors would be gone.
The operation lasted for four hours. When, at last, the surgeon called our name, Yusuke stepped forward and I pulled Kei onto my lap. He was half asleep by then, having run up and down the stairs more times than I could count. His belly was full of rice balls and bananas.
The surgeon smiled a little and the creases in Yusuke’s forehead softened. They bowed to each other and the Yusuke turned to me. “They think they got it all,” he said. “I’ll go in and see her now.”
I nodded. I started rocking Kei to sleep. I didn’t want him to see his grandmother in a morphine haze, tubes trickling liquid into her veins. I wanted to keep his world perfect, free of sorrow and disease, for just a little while longer.
When I finally went in to see her, I transferred Kei to his father’s arms and went in alone.
She was small against the white sea of a bed. Her eyelids fluttered open. She whispered something. I leaned closer to hear it.
“Gan, desu yo?” Cancer, right?
I nodded, not quite sure if she could see me, or if she would even remember this later.
“But you’ll be okay,” I said. “The doctors got it all out.”
Her eyes closed again and she dove back into the twilight zone.
I put my hand on her forehead, the closest I’d ever come to giving her affection.
I wasn’t sorry that I’d broken my vow not to tell. She had a right to know. Besides, she’d figured it out on her own. But when I saw the despondency in her eyes two days later, I wondered if she was going to put up a fight or if she had already given up.
She wouldn’t eat, said the drugs made her queasy. The hospital gruel went cold and hard.
“C’mon, Yamashiro-san,” the nurse said. “If you want us to take out the I.V. you’d better start eating.”
She closed her eyes and set her jaw, mad at the world and one foot stepping toward the grave.
The doctor dropped by with good news. “Her blood count is good. The suture is healing nicely.” But as soon as the doors had creaked shut, she’d hiss, “Uso bakkari.” Lies, all lies.
“Look,” I said. “If you want to get better, you have to think positively.”
“You don’t care what happens to me,” she replied. “You’re hoping that I die. I know. I was a daughter-in-law once, too.”
I brought in balls of rice wrapped around sour plums, green tea cakes, bits of fish — all her favorite things — but she wouldn’t take a bite.
Finally, I brought in Kei and propped him on the edge of the bed with a spoon and some pudding.
“Obachan, say ‘ahhh.'” Kei dipped the spoon into the cup and carefully launched it toward her lips.
She kept them pressed tight at first, but who could resist that little boy charm? She cracked a smile and then broke down for a taste.
Kei cooed and clapped. I pretended not to notice that she was giving in.
In the mornings, after Yusuke had left, I lingered over Kei. Sometimes I’d watch him for a full ten minutes before tickling him awake with feather strokes on his soles, soft kisses on his belly. He rolled into my arms, smiling, his eyes still shut.
He was big enough to ride a tricycle, big enough to wash his hands without my help, big enough to answer the phone, even. But I carried him like a baby to his place at the breakfast table. I watched as he woke to scrambled eggs and triangles of buttered toast.
His passion, just then, was dinosaurs. In between bites, he recited a litany of ancient beasts: mastodon, tyrannosaurus rex, brontosaurus, raptor. I asked him questions, just to keep him talking, just to stay a bit longer in the world that most interested him.
“Are brontosauruses carnivores or herbivores?”
“They eat grass,” he said in his most professory voice. “Herbivores.”
“And how about raptors?”
One look at the clock told me I was running late. I’d miss my mother-in-law’s breakfast time if I didn’t get on the ball.
Kei was just going next door, to the neighbor’s house, but I packed him a lunch and a bag of toys. I tucked a photo of myself in his pocket.
Mrs. Kitagawa wouldn’t accept money for babysitting. She gushed about joy and honor every time I brought Kei over, but of course I paid her back. I’d already started tutoring her daughter, Maya, at a cut rate. I was parceling out my slang and colloquialisms at bargain basement prices.
Kei could get dressed by himself, but I slid his pajama bottoms down his legs and pulled off his top, leaving Anpan Man inside out on the floor. My hands skimmed his back and belly, the shoulder bones jutting like angel wings. I breathed him deep before I tugged a T-shirt over his head, helped his hands find the armholes. He had an arm around my neck as he stepped into his pants. I’d seen him put on his shoes many times before, but as he sat in the entryway, I held his foot in my hand and guided it into a sneaker. Then the other one.
“Why do I have to go to Maya’s house?” he asked, eyes dark, like it was a punishment.
“Because Obachan is in the hospital. You know.”
“Why can’t I go with you? You said I make her happy. I can feed her.” He tugged on my arm. “I can help you.”
Yes, every time he entered the ward, she softened. She tried harder. But it was not Kei’s job to make her well. That was asking too much. He was only four years old.
“Obachan gets tired easily. She needs to rest and there’s nothing for you to do while she’s sleeping.”
He drooped. Kicked at the floor.
“Hey,” I said, tilting his face up to mine. “I’ll miss you. A lot.”
I spent that day, and the days that followed with Okasan, fetching drinks, boxes of tissues, and doing her laundry. I hummed along as she ran through her daily complaints, hovered while she took her medicine, and drew the curtains around her bed when she wanted to take a nap.
In the evenings, Yusuke took my place. We exchanged only a few phrases each day. That is, until one night when he burst into the room where I lay sleeping with Kei.
I forced my eyes open and glanced at the illuminated numerals on the alarm clock. It was well after midnight. Visiting hours at the hospital ended at eight, but Yusuke often stayed later, especially when his mother couldn’t sleep.
“Why did you tell my mother she has cancer?”
I saw his hands, curled in fists at his sides. I put a finger to my lips and nodded at our sleeping child, and then I joined him in the harsh hall light.
“I didn’t tell her,” I whispered. “She guessed it herself.”
He shook his head. “You confirmed it. You could have told her that she was wrong.”
“She’s not a child,” I said, my own voice rising. “She has a right to know.”
He laughed — one short, sharp bark. “She thinks she’s going to die. She’s depressed. She’s not even trying to get well.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Sorry. Ha. A lot of good that does.” He stormed down the stairs and out of the house. In the morning, he was still not there.
I brought Kei to the hospital that day for a few hours. I stood in the doorway for a moment until she noticed our presence.
“Kei-kun!” Just one look at him and pink was already flooding her cheeks. I became invisible.
“Go on,” I whispered, urging him forward.
He stumbled toward her bed with a goofy grin and she smoothed out a spot for him on the white sheets. “Obachan, do you feel better?”
I stepped out of sight, thinking I’d go get myself a cup of coffee. Halfway down the hall, I heard her laughter mingled with Kei’s. I kept walking. She wouldn’t be dying anytime soon.