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Saturday, May 22, 2004

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

A sudden pause on the bridge of dreams


I don't expect much from life, but I do assume that when I shake myself up from my dreams in the morning, I will at least be returning to those dreams at night.

But that's not guaranteed. For sooner or later all earthly dreams come to an end.

On a clear day in April with a happy sun coaxing out the first short sleeves and skirts of a promising new spring, my wife's mother passed away at our home in west Tokyo.

For years my wife's mother had floated in and out of this family (and my humor column) like a diffident ghost, one now given up at last. When alive, she shuffled meekly about the safer edges of our household, bent beneath the ringing of a language she could not follow and the stompings of grandsons and a son-in-law who dwarfed her in height, weight and voice.

Shuffled, that is, until three years ago, when -- as if symbolic of Japan's entire graying society -- she took to her bed and never got up again. So my wife changed diapers. In the last months, it became my job then to rise at 3 in the morning and flip her gently from right to left, a bedsore preventive she could not do herself.

She did not rage against the dying of the light. She withered, she shrank, she melted. Never vocal and never complaining, in her final year she rarely spoke at all. Her television played, but she did not watch. Her eyes focused instead on people and places that appeared only in her mind. Eventually my wife even had to feed her.

"What will you do, when your children come?" she asked me once on that day long ago when I trembled forward to ask for her daughter's hand in marriage. She had opposed our union, but with her husband soon to be hospitalized and there stretched upon his own bed of death, she sat outnumbered and defeated.

"Love will find a way," I answered with the blind and bold courage of youth. Too refined to scoff, she only nodded -- and so my clumsy answer held. Yet never could she have dreamt that she herself would become like a child in her foreign son-in-law's house.

How could she? She grew up amidst the shimmering rice fields of Kyushu in a Japan of kimonos, wooden clogs and bayonets. As a high school girl she would flee to the river to escape American firebombs, carrying her own mother upon her back. During the black-and-white years of the 1950s, she and her husband would then raise four kids and a business -- a supermarket -- on a bottomless supply of Japan's finest resource, pluck.

Never in those times could she have pictured herself husbandless and adrift with no place to go but an English domain within the rattle and hum of distant Tokyo. Unimaginable.

"She has a month," our home-care doctor told us in January, and we believed it. So when that one month turned into three and the doctor next said we had better clear the coming week, we weighed that comment with an ounce of doubt.

Still, my wife rearranged all her classes -- except one -- and stayed by her mother's bed. She was bustling back from that one class when her mother slipped away. Our faithful home-helper tried, but could not shake her awake.

I banged through our door somewhat later, still unaware but yet perplexed by a hospital bicycle parked in our yard. My wife stood in the entranceway with her face undone and her hands unable find rest until they clawed around my shoulders.

She squeaked out two words: "She died!" Then the tears took over.

In the adjoining room, a nurse folded my mother-in-law's hands upon her bosom. At 137 cm and 32 kg, she looked like a pixie at rest.

The world turned funereal. Undertakers arrived with black suits and velvet voices. The phone rang and rang as if possessed. So did the doorbell. My wife knelt to help bathe her mother's body and convulsed in sobs as she brushed the familiar winter-gray hair.

Relatives began arriving from throughout Japan, chief among the missing being our own sons, away at college in the States. We crammed rented futons into every nook of every room, with some pulled right alongside the dry-iced coffin. Uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, grandkids and children . . . silent bows all the way to the tatami . . . black neckties, pearl necklaces, fresh lilies, and the mourning pinch of incense . . . with always someone weeping.

As well as laughing. Kids giggled around the "kotatsu" while their parents swapped stories and drinks. Caterers seemed to snake-dance to our front door. For three straight nights, my wife hugged her sisters and gabbed away until our neighbor's rooster gave first call to the dawn. She hardly slept at all.

Neither did I. I tried, but instead peered at the ceiling and wondered if I closed my eyes, would I open them to discover that I too had been lost in a dream? Would I find I had not really married a Japanese girl and lived the prime of my life in a faraway land? Would I awake to cornfields and maybe a job at Wal-Mart rather than a somber and sentimental Japanese funeral?

I thought too how my wife's mother, in her inscrutable patience -- sometimes forlorn, always proud -- had influenced my wife, my children, my work and my tomorrow.

The service was merciful, even beautiful, with my only regret being that my sons were not there to take one last glance at the tiny seed that had somehow produced international oaks.

At the end, the family stood in respectful black as the casket rolled into the rising flames of eternity, where there is no east and west, and what the mind's eye hopes for really does exist.

Pleasant dreams.

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com


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