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Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2001


The other little woman

"Tom-san," she called.

That was all. No specific request. No sign of pain. Just the name of her daughter's husband.

In another room, on another floor, in another world, I sat dripping before my Macintosh, trying to click together some saleable chuckles about the spliced life of an international couple. It was the last day of a sweaty August, 1999.

"Tom-san . . ." she called again.

My mother-in-law stands 127 cm. She weighs 34 kg -- after supper -- and at all times evokes a personality as delicate and demure as her bones. Already she had lived with us for over five years, padding quietly to her room whenever my sprouting sons and I roughhoused or cranked up the rock music or thundered into English dialogue, a language from which she can pan about as much sense as from the barks of seals.

Sometimes -- lots of times -- she would pass entire days without uttering a word. A wee, wrinkled woman mousing down the hallway.

So when she called, I leaped. She and I being the only ones home.

"I have to use the toilet," she grimaced. "And I can't walk."

I bent over her. "What do you mean you can't walk?"

She had walked that morning. She had walked the day before. In fact, she had been walking for over 75 years with not a hint of trouble. Why was now different?

"I just can't."

And from that moment on she never has. I lugged my office chair to her side, eased her on top and coastered her down the hall to the bathroom. Within a day she had a wheelchair and within weeks used a port-a-potty by her bedside. By Christmas she was in diapers.

Our doctor lined up the culprits: "A lack of calcium when she was young. A steroid medication that further soaks up bone matter and strength. Plus, she's elderly. Sometimes age will just smack you."

"Or how about stress?" I wanted to add. "The weight of living with your daughter's choices. Of being a simple Japanese woman pressed into a house of inscrutable language, culture and cuisine."

While I sometimes hark back on a Midwestern past of snow-crusted cornfields and linoleum-floored values and marvel how I ever ended up married and living in Japan, the doglegs of fate must break so much sharper in the eyes of my mother-in-law. How, she must wonder, could life have ever pulled her this way?

Raised among rice paddies in rural Kyushu, her earliest and perhaps only interest in the outside world came at age 20 when she was handed a bamboo pike and taught to thrust it into the throat of an advancing GI. Standing 147 cm in clogs (she was taller then), she figured the last sight she would ever see would be of a bear-sized American soldier chopping at her with a bayonet.

Peace brought marriage to a feisty entrepreneur whose retail business boomed with the economy. Her hard-charging husband would have surely squashed their child's betrothal to a foreigner, but he collapsed well before the Japanese bubble, leaving his wife with too many concerns to deny her daughter.

So what did she think when she spied this goose-necked American boy, armed not with a bayonet but with a bouquet, creaking through her front gate? Was she gloomy over her daughter's future? Resigned? Certainly she did not foresee her own destiny as well.

We don't talk a lot, she and I. There has never been much to say. "Good morning"; "I'm off to work"; "I'm home now"; "Good night" -- we ride the regular rhythm of Japanese greetings. I remain fortified in the knowledge that she doesn't speak much to anyone, Japanese friends and family included.

Yet, how can she be satisfied? Trapped in a half-foreign world within her own homeland. Does she consider herself to have tossed snake eyes in life's gamble for happiness? To have made all the wrong decisions?

Or might she instead judge the goulashed world of her daughter as somehow sweeter than the plain offerings of day-to-day Japan?

I am never going to know. Along with her loss of locomotion has come a steady increase in senile dementia. She now converses with people who aren't there, begs to be served lunch at midnight or snacks merrily on cakes that only she can see.

My wife will giggle about this. That is, when she isn't choked up.

There is no bright side. Except that approaching senility has not shadowed my mother-in-law's spirit. If anything, the looser her grip on reality, the more she appears to enjoy the mixed spin of her daughter's marriage. She smiles more, laughs more, talks more -- though not much of it makes sense.

"She's picked up that part from you," pokes my wife. "Your Japanese skills have finally rubbed off."

Long-shot humor, even an air ball like the above, often provides needed fuel for dry days of diaper accidents and soiled bedsheets.

Yet, through this my mother-in-law retains her newfound buoyancy all on her own.

"You are always so nice," she beams as I slide away her supper tray. "So sorry to trouble you."

Politeness that to me hinges with irony, as who is the troubled here and who is the troublee seems altogether blurred.

Gratitude, however, remains preciously clear.

"Thank you, mother," I tell her.

Her eyes rise and she smiles warmly through the years of her life.

"My pleasure," she says.

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