Mom’s question came at me through the phone: When are you coming back to Japan?
Not this month, Mom. I’ve got too much going on.
Okay, I guess it’s a good thing you’re busy, she said.
But I’ll come in August.
I call my parents every other day from the States, but sometimes I’ll wait an extra day to get Mom to pick up the phone and call me. If I’m the only one who does the calling, I’m afraid she’ll forget how to call me if there’s an emergency.
When are you coming to Japan again? She asked me this question only two days after I’d told her I’d be going in August.
Remember, I told you. I won’t be visiting this month, Mom. Too much work here.
Okay, I guess it’s a good thing you’re busy.
But I’ll be back in August.
Then three days later: When are you coming home again?
August, I told her. Say, are you asking because there’s something you want me to do? In April she’d done the same thing, asking me over and over when I’d be back. When I tried to figure out why, she admitted, well, it’s no big deal really, but I’d like you to go to the post office for me. So when I went home a month later, I went to the post office.
This time too, she said, well, it’s no big deal really, but I’d like you to go with me to the hospital. The other day I went to a surgeon to talk about my varicose veins, and he told me an operation would help. Next time you’re home, I want you to go with me and hear what he’s got to say. No hurry. Next time. He said it can wait until September.
I arrived in Kumamoto on August 24. The heat was brutal.
This isn’t so bad, people were saying, but I’d grown used to the dry air of southern California, and the humidity was sheer torture. I felt like I was being broiled alive, like I might melt away in a syrupy mess. I’d brought my daughter with me this time. She was sweating from head to toe, and her thin, soft hair stuck to her skin everywhere it touched. I was so annoyed at her sloppy appearance that I couldn’t look at her. As the sweat poured off me, I blew up. Why don’t you ever listen? You don’t know what summer is like in Japan, but I do. Why don’t you listen? I tell you to tie your hair up, off your neck, but you never pay attention.
The next day, my computer broke. It wouldn’t boot up. I’d been thinking of getting a new one for a while, so I calmly went to the computer store and picked one up—tower, monitor, keyboard, software—the whole deal. When I sat down to use it, however, I realized I’d made a huge mistake. It had a new operating system, which made me feel like I’d left everything I knew behind for a brand-new life. I couldn’t figure it out at all—nothing worked like I thought it should. What was the damn machine for if I couldn’t use it to write? I couldn’t figure out the most basic things, like how to send emails in Japanese. Just imagine! A poet who writes in Japanese, finally back in Japan, but only able to type in English! What was I to do? If all I could do was write “Ito Hiromi desu” (This is Hiromi Ito) and “gera OK desu” (The book galleys are OK) in English letters, the machine wouldn’t do me any good at all. What a disaster.
Meanwhile, Mom had no idea anything had happened to my computer. It didn’t even cross her mind that I might have another problem that was driving me nuts. As soon as she saw me, she’d start talking about her legs, and then she’d show them to me. Her wrinkled legs. Her poor wrinkled legs were dappled with dark spots from her knees to her ankles.
Here, look, she complained. This isn’t how legs are supposed to look. They’re all stripy. What do you think’s going on? It’s not urgent, but I’d like you to go with me and hear what the surgeon’s got to say. He said an operation might help.
Could we do it in September? I asked. She had told me the doctor said it could wait until then. The next day, however, she repeated, here, look at my legs.
I’d come prepared to be frank with her. Mom, listen. Aiko’s going to start school in September, so I’ll have a lot more time then. Can’t we wait?
Sure, she said. September will be fine.
Except for the problem of her legs (and the post office too, I suppose), Mom was able to live normally and have normal conversations, even though she was aging quickly.
She’s depressed, Dad told me one day when she wasn’t around. After he’d undergone surgery for stomach cancer, his legs had grown weak and he spent whole days sitting, barely moving. He’d grown hard of hearing and didn’t like talking anymore. Mom was left all alone trying to deal with him. She had to shout for him to hear, but he seemed to get by, floating from day to day, buoyed by her support and verbal abuse.
She’s depressed, he said. She just wants to get the hell out of here.
Early the next morning, I got a call from Mom. The first words out of her mouth: Will you take me to the hospital today?
Didn’t I tell you yesterday I’d be happy to take you in September?
I want to go today, she said. It doesn’t matter if you come with me or not.
What do you mean, it doesn’t matter? If I don’t go, who will? Of course, I didn’t say the last part out loud.
Of course, nothing would be nicer than if you’d come too.
Yesterday you said we could wait until September, but now you want to go today? What’s going on?
I’ve been in pain since last night.
Once she admitted that, I knew we had to go. I pushed everything aside and took Mom to see the surgeon, dragging Aiko along too.
Hospitals and medical clinics are places of stagnation. The buildings are old, warped, and rotten—full of so many holes that if you had trouble walking, you’d get stuck and never find your way out. The surgical clinic we went to was no exception. Dozens of people with swollen legs, mostly around Mom’s age, were waiting in the long hospital corridors. They were so old and motionless, it was like they were playing dead. They waited with such quiet, single-minded devotion that I wondered if they had forgotten who they were and what they were waiting for. As we waited, my mind wandered. Why doesn’t the hospital make appointments? My god, I wanted to get the hell out of there. If I’d known how long this would take, I would’ve brought a book or some work, but honestly, I probably couldn’t concentrate. Why am I so scatterbrained? Time inched slowly forward.
Aiko started whining, I’m bored, I’m bored. I gave her a book and told her to read it, but she refused. I’ve memorized it, every word, I’ve read it dozens of times since we got here from California. She’d brought the book from the States. She’d read it in the airport, in the airplane, then again after we got here. She’d read it over and over because it was the only thing she had to read—just a cheap American paperback, already falling apart. Please, Mommy, she whispered reproachfully. If I just had a Gameboy for times like this—a Gameboy like all my friends in California. They’ve all got one, Mom, all my friends.
Mom’s legs and feet had even more dark purple spots now, from her knees down to the tips of her toes, and the swelling was terrible. One leg had developed ulcers and grown inflamed—she had holes in her flesh, and the skin around them was turning black. She wasn’t registering a fever, but the ulcers burned like charcoal.
The surgeon supported Mom’s leg, held some sort of machine to it, and listened. It’s just like I told you the other day, he said. It isn’t bad enough to warrant surgery. The veins are still working and the blood’s getting through. If anything, I think your problems are more in the realm of dermatology. Go see a dermatologist. And with that, he wrote her a referral to a dermatology clinic.
As we were leaving the surgeon’s office, Mom tripped. There was nothing to trip over, but she still fell flat on the ground. A man ran over and tried to help me get her up. She squirmed as she rose unsteadily, trying to regain her balance. With an embarrassed smile, she said, my goodness, that was quite a tumble, wasn’t it?
The next day, I took her to a dermatology clinic.
Dozens of people sat quietly in the waiting room, all with itches, rashes, and blisters. Aiko was mumbling, I’m bored, I’m bored, so I gave her some change and told her to go outside and buy some juice.
You think she’ll be okay? Mom asked. She’s just come to Japan, she doesn’t know her left from her right, but you’re sending her out on her own? Aiko darling, don’t let anyone spirit you away, okay?
Aiko grumbled in English, she thinks I don’t know anything. She thinks I’m helpless. Aiko left the room haughtily, only to rush back moments later, screeching, the machine ate it, it ate my money! I didn’t get anything, I don’t know what happened, what should I do?
Sure enough, as the expression goes, she didn’t know her left from her right. I had to go to the store with the vending machine out front and ask the clerk for her money back.
There’s a problem with her blood vessels, the dermatologist said. He opened a thick book and looked for a photograph. He showed us a picture of someone with festering legs. They looked badly burned—blistering and full of pus. Necrosis, he said. You’re in real trouble if it gets this bad. I’ll write you a referral to a doctor in the big hospital. He knows all about this sort of thing, okay?
Mom said, tomorrow’s the day I get my medicine. I’ll let my regular doctor know I’m going to have to go to the big hospital. And that was how it came to be that, on the very next day, I took Mom back to her usual doctor in the very same clinic where she goes every two weeks. And that was also the very same day Aiko was supposed to start school.
The doctor took a look at Mom and said, yes, it appears she’s had a stroke. The MRI is almost as old as her, so maybe that’s why nothing showed up. By that time, she had lost all movement in the big toe on her right foot. Two weeks later, her right hand was hanging from her wrist. Two more weeks, and she’d lost movement in the fingers of her left hand. The paralysis was spreading quickly. Even though the hospital specialized in geriatrics, there were limits to what they could do. The doctor wrote a report to take to a surgical clinic, then her family doctor gave us a referral to an orthopedic surgeon, and then the orthopedic surgeon wrote a referral to a neurologist in another hospital.
That was how our pilgrimage from hospital to hospital started. I’d take her in her wheelchair from one hospital to another, and when we were done, I’d bring her back home. Each time, we had to wait for ages. We’d go in the morning, and when midday came, I’d buy some rice balls and eat them with her in a corner of the waiting room. Often, we’d still be there when it was time for Aiko to come home from school. On those days, I’d call the school anxiously and ask to speak to the homeroom teacher, then explain the situation and ask if they’d mind keeping Aiko at school a little while longer. Next, I’d have to call Dad and tell him to take a taxi to pick Aiko up. Or I’d call the neighbors and ask if they’d allow Aiko to stay with them until I got home. I’d apologize repeatedly and explain that she’d arrive around 4:30. Then I’d drive home—no, speed home—as fast as I could, ignoring all but the stoplights.
I’d even make right turns. They drive on the left side of the road in Japan, so making a right turn means turning across traffic. It might sound irrational, but turning against traffic totally terrifies me. I always avoid right turns on those overcrowded streets—there’s nothing scarier in the world to me—but I was so desperate to get home for Aiko that I did it anyway. Yes, that’s right. I turned right for her. Some of the roads in Kumamoto are so narrow, there’s barely enough room for two cars to pass, but I managed to do it anyway.
People would honk at me. Yeah, at me. I didn’t slow down, I just cursed under my breath. Don’t be such a jackass. Don’t blame me, I’m just a middle-aged woman in a little car. Give me a fucking break.
The gas and electric bills tended to pile up in my mailbox in Kumamoto. Other things piled up too, including reminders to renew my driver’s license and books of poetry from people I’d never met. You can pay gas and electric bills in just about any convenience store, and I could easily ignore the books of poetry, but I couldn’t ignore the reminders about my driver’s license. I had to make a trip all the way across town to the office that handles such things. Ordinarily, I don’t mind errands like that, but it was really, really far away at the foot of the mountains. I kept putting it off, and the expiration date kept getting closer and closer. Finally, early one Sunday, I set out with Aiko. I thought I’d take her to the big toy store in the mall afterward.
She’d said, I wish I had a Tamagotchi. I could use my time better if I had one, she insisted, I’d have more fun when we’re waiting in hospitals and in airports and in planes.
She said, all the Japanese girls have one, every single one.
She said, I don’t want to be different. I want to be like my friends, I was different from all the other girls in California.
The other girls in California have Caucasian faces and Caucasian hair—that’s what she meant.
I said, there were lots of Mexican kids in your class, weren’t there? She responded, yeah, lots, but the kids that weren’t Mexican were American, there were lots of them, and they all look the same, they’re all blond, I was the only one who was different. Well, only me and that girl (the one with the mother from the Philippines), no, wait, just me and that girl and that other boy (the one with the parents from India).
The numbers keep growing, I thought.
She responded, it doesn’t make any difference, I’m still a minority. I don’t want to stand out, I don’t want to be different.
I got the picture. I decided to take her to the toy store in the mall after renewing my license.
Sold out! The new model had arrived just a few days earlier and had flown off the shelves. An employee told us they wouldn’t be getting another shipment for two more weeks. Aiko was really, really disappointed—her already small body seemed to shrink to half its size. Was she trying to make me feel even worse? She was so dejected that after we left, I decided to make another stop, hoping to make her feel better. I stopped at a teeny-tiny place that sold rubber balls and other things. I made an excuse and told her I wanted a ball. I handed her some money and told her to run into the store to pick one up for me.
A few moments later she came dancing back, rubber ball in hand, speaking excitedly in Japanese. Mommy, I found one, I found one, I found one, I found one, they’ve got one! I asked her what she was talking about, and she shouted, Tamagotchis! You’re kidding, I thought. The shop wasn’t much more than the sort of makeshift stall you’d find selling cheap junk at festivals, but to my surprise, she was right. Tamagotchis. According to the young woman working there, they weren’t the newest model, but even so, there were only two left.
It’s okay, it’ll be okay! Aiko screamed in Japanese, one girl at school’s got one like this, another girl too. She reached for her Tamagotchi excitedly.
She could hardly wait until we got back home. She made it come alive, gave it a name (it was a boy), hung it around her neck, and hurried out to play with one of the neighborhood girls. From her, she learned how to make it hibernate. She played with it for the whole rest of the day. She fed it, let it defecate, and collected her points. Things went so far that I scolded her for not paying attention when I talked to her. In fact, I scolded her twice—no, three times—saying, you’re not listening, all you’re doing is playing with that darn thing. Even so, she didn’t put her Tamagotchi to bed until she went to sleep. The instant she woke up the next morning, she woke it up and started playing with it again. Then she put it back to sleep and, reassured that everything was okay, went to school.
Or at least, that’s what I’d like to think happened, and that’s what I’d like you to think too. In reality, I was too busy to pay much attention. I was busy with Mom, busy with Dad, busy with myself, and then the cycle started all over again—busy with Mom, busy with Dad, and so on. During one of the rare twenty-minute stretches of free time in the middle of my crazy life, I was stalling, dreading going out again, when I happened to notice the Tamagotchi on Aiko’s desk. It wasn’t sleeping like it was supposed to—instead, the screen showed it had returned to its unhatched state. The date and time were completely wrong, and the screen was blinking. Perhaps the creature had died while Aiko was fiddling with it, or maybe it was taking its last breaths. I tried to give it emergency first aid, but as soon as I reset the time, the screen switched on and the thing came out and started hopping around. It was alive, strong, and healthy. I later found out that the blinking date and time meant it was hibernating, and by fiddling with it, I’d woken it up.
It was like I’d woken a sleeping child. Having slept so soundly, it was full of energy. It looked at me with its charming little face, a bit hesitant like it needed to pee. I stared at it helplessly, not knowing what to do when it began to go. Electronic pee splashed all over. Too late. I needed to put it to sleep. I tried pressing the different buttons, but I didn’t know what I was doing.
There I was, busy as always, helping everyone—Mom, Dad, Aiko, my husband. I never have any time or money, I never have any freedom, so how could I possibly find time to mess around with her Tamagotchi? Still, if I set it aside, it would starve, freeze, get smeared in its own feces, and be dead as a doornail by the time Aiko got home. I didn’t want to play with it, but I had no choice. As I was fiddling around, I had an idea. I pulled out my computer, went to the net and searched “make Tamagotchi sleep.” And with that, I learned how to put it to bed.
Mom was getting used to her wheelchair. In fact, it seemed like it had become part of her. It wasn’t just the big toe on her right foot that was paralyzed now. Her right thumb, index finger, middle finger, ring finger, and little finger had become paralyzed too. All the fingers on her right hand were affected. Meanwhile, she was losing movement in more and more of her left side—both her fingers and toes. Only the ring finger and little finger on her left hand were working. I parked her wheelchair in a corner of the hospital dining hall and bought her a rice ball. She clutched it between her ring finger and little finger, carrying it to her mouth like an eagle clutching its prey in its talons. When I was little, she’d scolded me countless times for not eating my food properly—cut it out and eat right, she’d say. Now she was the one eating strangely. No one had said a thing, but I could hear her words echoing in my ears, and a mean-spirited part of me wished I could say, now who’s eating funny?
She said, oh goodness, I need to go to the bathroom for a second. I took her to the wheelchair-accessible restroom. She spoke out loud to herself, saying yotto, yotto—something Japanese people say to themselves when they’re making an effort. In this case, she was trying to maneuver onto the toilet. I summoned my strength to help her to the right spot, and I pulled down her pants and underwear. She urinated. Only two of her fingers were working so she couldn’t wipe herself. She said, I’m sorry, I hate to ask . . . So I helped her wipe. She’d done a greasy bowel movement in the toilet, but she hadn’t seemed to notice, making it harder for me to wipe her clean. Luckily, it was one of those fancy Japanese toilets with a bidet option—push a button and a stream of warm water shoots out. I turned it on, stuck my hand into the stream of water, and sloshed it around to clean her dirty bottom. It didn’t bother me that she had defecated without knowing it. It didn’t even bother me that I had to help her wash, but it was hard to watch her grip her food with her two claw-like fingers and carry it to her mouth. And her shit was just that. Shit—it smelled terrible. But that’s life. Yeah, we eat, we shit. And our shit stinks. Honestly, those are the most natural things in the world.
I woke Aiko at seven.
Every morning, she asked me in Japanese, do I have to go today? She whispered, I don’t want to go to school. She looked at the school menu and read the hiragana syllables one at a time: today’s lunch is going to be sa-ba no te-ri-ni (mackerel with sweet ginger glaze), nat-to ji-ru (fermented bean soup), na-su no so-ku-se-ki-zu-ke (pickled eggplants). That just made her whine even more. Do I really have to go? As if she could no longer hold back, her complaints started gushing out in English: So-and-so’s mean to me, there’s another mean one too, they’re mean for no reason.
I put Aiko in the car and dropped her off by the school gate. The bell rang. It was time for the children buzzing around the schoolyard to go in. I watched as she put on a tough expression and disappeared into the crowd. Next, I stopped at Dad’s. The dog was barking, barking happily, barking and shedding hair. A little after nine, I went to pick up Mom from the hospital. I pushed her to the car in the wheelchair. I took her in my arms, helped her stand, then grabbed the top of her pants to drag her into the passenger seat. Mom said yotto like she did getting on the toilet. I folded up the wheelchair and put it in the back seat of the little car. I’m good at dealing with such things. I’m a down-to-earth, practical person, so I get things right the first time around. I joked to her that I could probably get a job as a caregiver, then I drove to the big hospital and got the wheelchair out again. Then I grabbed Mom by the top of her pants and maneuvered her into the chair. Yotto. She sank in heavily. Then I wheeled her through the automatic doors. I walked and walked down a long corridor, then parked her in a corner of the waiting room. We spent half the day there.
Mom said, oh goodness, I need to go to the toilet, there’s a diuretic in the medicine I take for my high blood pressure. In the restroom, I grabbed the top of her pants and hauled her over to the toilet. She urinated. Mom said, oh, it feels like something’s coming. A soft, slippery bowel movement slid out, and I wiped her clean. I said, Mom, come forward a little bit, and she swayed her body as she leaned forward. Yotto.
As a young mother, I’d done the same thing countless times. My baby’s bottom was smooth and pale pink. What came out was yellow and green and so pretty I could almost imagine mistaking it for pudding and giving it a taste. It smelled slightly sour like spoiled milk, so it seemed a gross exaggeration to label it “shit.” That’s why I started using the cuter, more benign-sounding “poop.”
Compared to those baby bowel movements, Mom’s loose stools were shit. They had the same foul smell as the ones I make.
Each time she used the toilet, I had to stick my hand in and help her wash. It wasn’t long before my hand started to smell. It didn’t matter how much I washed up afterward, the smell never completely went away. As I stuck my hand into the jet of water shooting out of the toilet to clean her up, I said a prayer: May this stink be taken from me.
At such times I think of Lord Jizo
The Jizo on the bustling pilgrimage route where I once walked
The temple with the large cauldron out front
Inhale the burning incense, let it permeate her body
Through mother’s fingers, mother’s toes
Through the nerves running to the ends of her limbs
Pull out the deep, deep thorns penetrating her body
Take away the scent of shit clinging to my hands
As I pour clear water
Upon your small stone chest and stomach
Let me scrub away
Let me scrub away
All our suffering
From The Thorn Puller. Originally published in Japan as Toge-nuki Jizo: Shin Sugamo Jizo engi. © 2007 by Hiromi Itō. Translation © 2022 by Jeffrey Angles. Published 2022 by Stone Bridge Press in the MONKEY imprint. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.