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Saturday, Jan. 7, 2006

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Getting away? No easy trick


Think you need to get away? In our case, a mother-in-law in dwindling health, jobs of various importance and a sense of responsibility too puffed up for our own good had resulted in this: For six years my wife and I had not taken a vacation. And this in beehive-busy Japan.

Yes, at times various work assignments had pulled me from Tokyo. On occasion, too, I was able to dip my toes in my hometown, once on a deathbed visit to my father -- a deathbed from which he got up and walked away.

But my wife, nursing her own mother on that very same bed, had hardly escaped even once in all those years. Each summer we formed plans, and each summer something always arose to shatter those plans to bits.

Her mom's death and a period of mourning later, and we were at last due. In July I bought plane tickets for a September vacation abroad. The days rolled by and I wondered what would stop us this time.

"You're too pessimistic," said my wife.

And now I can answer . . . "Oh, yeah?"

. . . Four weeks to go, and I have a writing deadline of 25,000 words that must be finished before we leave. My research is complete and I know I can make it. I live at my keyboard.

Three weeks to go, and my son -- back in Japan for the summer -- decides he's had it with the intestinal pains that have plagued him for weeks. A checkup reveals he has ulcerative colitis, a worrisome and chronic ailment that I am stunned to discover will not be covered by his U.S. insurance.

I work the phones and pound out e-mail, but not a single company offers help.

"So what's a little diarrhea?" the boy says with a grin. "I'll be fine."

Two weeks to go, and in America my father is suddenly hospitalized with the same illness that nearly killed him years before.

"How is it?" I ask my sister on the phone.

"Not good," she says.

"What's that mean?"

"It means I'll keep you posted."

One week to go, and I say farewell to my son at Narita Airport as he flies back to college. He looks swell, but requests and gets a seat by the toilet.

I rush back home, where I still have 10,000 words before finishing.

Five days to go, and the school where I work on weekends telephones. "Um, we can't find a replacement. We wonder . . . could you stay?"

"What? Just cancel class."

"We can't do that. Think of our reputation."

"Who cares about your reputation!"

"Think of your job."

That makes me pause -- to hear them say, "Won't you please find your own replacement?"

So I work the phones and pound out e-mail. Meanwhile, off in the Pacific, a hellish typhoon turns toward Tokyo, due to hit land in five days.

Four days to go . . . and 8,000 words.

I call the school back. "All right, I found a guy who will cover for me. But I'll owe him favors for the rest of my life."

"That's OK," says the school. "We found someone. Weren't you notified?"

At the same time, our son e-mails. His PC is up and running -- but he doesn't feel well.

"But don't worry. I'm only bleeding a little."

Three days to go. My computer crashes.

Obscenities fail to fix it, so I fall back to Plan B: our second computer. But this means I must redo certain files. Outside, the wind is starting to whip.

Two days to go.

"Honey," says my wife, "I think the dog is sick."

The dog IS sick. And she has never been sick before. I rush her to the vet. He defines the problem in undecipherable medicalese and then shakes his head at the X-rays.

"Is it bad?"

"Well, I suspected ovarian cancer, but I can't find her ovaries."

Which is because she has been spayed. I refrain from strangling the doctor, even when he gives me the bill. He also gives me a strong dose of antibiotics. For the dog, that is.

"Will she be OK?"

He shrugs. But says she need not be hospitalized.

The last day. Outside it's pouring. Inside I am typing almost as fast. I take a break and check my Japan Times mail. One reader rips my writing into as many jagged pieces as he can in 100 words. I stare at the screen dumbfounded. From behind, my wife yells: "Write! Write! Write!"

I finish and send. For a few hours we listen to the rain and then leave behind concerns for ailing son, father and dog, and catch daylight's first train. It is already packed, yet the rain causes no delay. But the line to check-in is the longest I have ever seen, a record soon broken by the line to change money and then the line for immigration. Our plane perches on the runway for two hours as the winds howl. Finally we move. Somehow, somehow we slide through a hole in the clouds and are off.

"Where are we going?" says my wife. "I can't remember."

Did it matter? We slept late in fluffy beds and read fat novels by the pool. We strolled our way through famous sights, yet missed many more and felt none the worse because of it. We practiced being lazy and -- slowly, surely -- the week squeezed back some much-needed breath.

Seven days later, we sat on the runway in our return flight to Tokyo. Engine trouble stretched our vacation longer . . . and longer. When we hit Narita, we had but a handful of minutes to catch the final train. We raced through customs and then sprinted headlong for the rails.

A bright sign in the lobby read, "Welcome to Japan!"

And oh . . . by now both son and father were extremely ill. And our dog . . . our dog was dead.

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


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