Kashima and Namazu
The myth goes that there’s a giant catfish who whips around in the mud below Japan and his name is Namazu. He’s the cause of earthquakes and seismic devastation in Japan. In ancient times, Namazu was out of control, causing many earthquakes, one right after the other. Finally, a hero came, the thunder and warrior god, Kashima Daimyojin appeared with the kaname-ishi, or pinning stone. Kashima dug deep down into the soil and inserted the rock, pinning Namazu’s head and keeping him still. The story says that this stone still controls Namazu and lessens the intensity and frequency of his fury. But, every so often, Kashima lets down his guard and Namazu struggles out from under the kaname-ishi and all hell breaks loose. Japan’s earthquakes are caused by a giant catfish. This story was told to me by Midori.
I’m somewhere by the planetarium. I wanted to go, but after spending two hours in the Nagoya Science Museum, which doesn’t cater to non-Japanese speakers, I wasn’t up to spend another hour trying to decipher what was being said about our galaxy. I suppose I’m being fussy. I found a vending machine on the street corner and bought a cold Ooi Ocha green tea. I’ve drank so many bottles already I think I smell like it. It’s warm out and muggy. I find a bench in the park adjacent to the museum and take a break beside the giant sphere of the planetarium. I have a couple more hours until I’m supposed to be at Nagoya City University Hospital to relieve my sister in-law, Midori and hang out with my brother, Franny.
I’ve been in Nagoya 36 hours and in that span I’ve learned to exchange basic pleasantries, order food, and take the subway. Nagoya is organized, the infrastructure is insanely well imagined, people are courteous beyond measure. There’s an organizing principle that unites these attributes and it goes beyond the necessity of order in a highly populated city, it’s a philosophy of harmony. The balance is achieved through engineering and mathematics. The subway is a prime example of this. Nearly 60 miles of track and a total of 83 stations are dispersed within 6 lines. 5 lines cover north, east, south and west, and a sixth line, the Meijo Line, is in the shape of the circle—it lassos the heart of the city. The three major city lines all intersect with the Meijo line twice. This system, when all is working, functions like the gears of a pocket watch—one train intersects with another line at the same time that line’s train arrives. Commuters rush out and swap trains and again the platform is clear. It’s a work of art to watch people move the way they move here.
Despite the wonder of the city, and the newness and strangeness of being in a foreign place, something’s not right. And, when I say not right, I mean not right with me. Anxiety comes for me at the strangest times. Like, when I’m watching television, eating, or visiting Franny in the hospital. Even when I’m buying snacks at the hospital cafeteria I suddenly feel like the floor is going to open up and swallow me. The worst is at night when I’m alone in Midori and Franny’s apartment. On their balcony, I look over the sweeping blanket of city lights and my nerves begin to twitch like the red lights on top of the buildings flash. The immensity of the city takes my breath away and I feel lost, or more precisely, that I’m losing my soul and disappearing. There’s so much about my brain I cannot control; I have so many intense feelings that travel into my blood faster than I can stop them. A profound absence of self-worth and existential merit floods in, then retreats, to later return, like an ocean tide. I’m caught feeling I ought to always be moving, but I’m too scared to go anywhere. Yet, I find myself in a Japanese park, next to I giant sphere, so I’ve been able to go somewhere and do something, but still the poison persists in my head and ravages my insides. Like I said, it’ll be gone in an hour, and then come back. Still, unmovable, my brother is dying.
I get up and walk. Walking helps and I slither through the streets to outrun my anxiety. I check my phone for messages and things are more or less the same. I haven’t texted my ex, Shannon. I did hear from my mom’s nurse, Margo, and mom is slipping further away into the void of Alzheimer’s. Mom has barely spoken since I left and is refusing food. Margo said my other brother, Liam is stepping up and has been all over mom’s care while she’s been working. Apparently, it’s still awkward between them, but at least Liam said sorry for being rude, which she admitted made her feel better. Still, despite what good Liam is doing, mom is getting worse. The end is speeding up.
An old woman passes me on the sidewalk and I think about how long she has left to live. I think about what she’ll die from, how she’ll die, who will be there, what it’s like to die alone, what a Japanese funeral is like, are they buried or cremated, how do people mourn in Japan? The questions swirl in my head and I create little vignettes of how different scenarios could play out. I think about the flower arrangements and figure there’s a whole practice around what type of flowers to use is order to celebrate, to mourn, and to remember. I’d like to go to a Japanese florist and see how they’re displayed. Flower meaning is so ingrained in Western culture you don’t even think about it relative to other cultures.
I can’t take the humidity any longer and my tea is gone. I go underground, underneath the city to the markets connected to Nagoya Train Station. I take it easy at first. There’s a shit load of people walking with intension. Some are going to the subways lines, some to the local train lines, others to the bullet train lines. There are ushers with white gloves, there are people with different colored masks, there are no homeless people, panhandlers or buskers. I work my way deeper into the shopping centers and marvel how large the spaces are. The further I go in the greater the mall expands. There are no windows, skylights or clocks. I stumble upon a food market. Fruit, vegetables, dumplings, packages goods and a massive fish market in the back. Thousands of dead fish ask me with their eyes how complex the HVAC system down here must be to keep everybody breathing fresh air. I don’t know, I say, very complex. But, you don’t like air anyways, so why does it matter? They all blink at once in recognition of this fact.
I take a moment and sit down on a bench. I’m a little overwhelmed by the magnitude of this underground bunker and the thousands of people coursing through it like blood. They march through in a constant stream, obviously used to being so tightly packed. In fact, everyone is calm, going with the flow, positioning themselves well ahead of time for when they’ll break off. The people around them help with their exit and then fill the empty space upon their departure. I watch these tidy negotiations of crowd dynamics and laugh at the absence of any American equivalency; things are more chaotic back home.
It’s time to take a train to the hospital. There’s only standing room. No one will look at me unless they’re sure I’m not looking. A disproportionately large percentage of the commuters feign sleep and most others are on their phones. I’m reading a book on Japanese etiquette and feel out of touch, like I’m missing the deeper subtext. I have to remember that so much is the opposite here. People don’t wear masks to protect themselves from you, but to protect you from them. Strangers don’t look at you out of respect. There are thousands of other codes I don’t know. I must be breaking a code per minute.
I switch lines at Imaike Station and it’s less crowded. Everyone is seated and in a controlled sleep. In fifteen minutes I’ve taken two trains to cross town and I’m now underneath the Nagoya City University Hospital. Seamless. I need something to drink, an iced coffee, something to keep me awake. I go to the Starbucks in the hospital lobby and Google how to say iced coffee in Japanese. The translation is aisukōhī, which literally sounds like iced coffee. This is a trend I’m beginning to pick up on. I exchange arigatos and head to the elevator and when it opens there are several people inside. They make space for me and slightly bow. I bow back without thinking and join the fray. Nearing the eighth floor I make a subtle gesticulation towards the door the everyone repositions. The doors open to oncology and I say thank you very much.
Franny’s sitting up on the side of the bed with his back facing the doorway. He looks over his shoulder to see me and holds out his hand. I grasp it and he holds onto it and presses the outside of my hand to his face. His skull is well defined from underneath his skin, as are all his other bones, besides his legs, which currently hold forty pounds of fluid. They look like rubber chew toys for a crocodile. His skin is yellow and diaphoretic. He’s shaking, or maybe just rocking. Which is worse?
“It’s the fucking anxiety I can’t take,” he says, in a raspy cigarette chokehold. He’s no longer in the grip of delirium.
He presses a call button and a nurse comes in.
“Rescue, kudasai,” he says to her and she walks out to retrieve what I gather to be the chemicals which comprise a “rescue.”
“Just sit with me,” he says, rocking in place.
I put my arm around him and we wait out the anxiety attack. He gets one nearly every hour or two. When they arrive he grows scared, irritable, and inconsolable. I can’t imagine the fear of staring down the hallways to death’s door. The nurse comes in and she says rescue to Franny.
“Rescue, kudasai” he says.
The drugs are pumped into his IV and within a minute I feel his body loosen up. He takes a deep breath and runs his fingers through his curly hair.”
“Fuck me,” he says.
He lays back in his bead and I help position his pillow. He’s staring up at the ceiling like he’s looking for something lost in his mind and it’s hard to look at him because he doesn’t look
Like Franny. He’s emaciated, grey, a bag full of organs. He asks me to fix his compression socks. One at a time I pull them into place and re-cover the swollen calves. I lay them elevated on a pillow and cover them with a blanket.
“All situated?” I ask.
“Yes, thanks brother.”
I sit across from him on a small chain and take a drink of coffee.
“How’s mom?” He asks after a while.
“she’s not too good,” I say. “She’s not really herself anymore.”
He nods in understanding.
“I’ll tell you later what the doctors say about my condition,” he says.
This is the second time he’s said this and I don’t expect he’ll ever talk about it.
“sure, bro, whenever you’re ready,” I say.
I hear Midori speaking Japanese in the hallway. She comes into view speaking with Fanny’s doctors/care team. She appears upset, but is listening attentively and asking questions. They all come in and I stand up to greet them.
“Mr. Francis,” the doctor says, “we have test results that the tumor in your stomach has shrunk. This is good news. We also have medicine to take the swelling down in your legs.”
“Thank you,” Franny says, distantly.
“We hope these treatments will make you more comfortable.”
Again, Franny acknowledges the doctor with a diffident thank you and looks out the window.
The doctors, the head nurse, and Midori resume speaking in Japanese and it’s another long conversation, which appears to me as a meeting between civil strangers trying to make useful arguments, counter arguments and offers in order to devise a full-proof plan. They leave the room after five minutes still engrossed in the logistics of it all.
“What you saw is so Japanese,” Franny says. “Every minute detail is explored and considered and hammered into paper and ground into powder. It takes forever to get anywhere.”
I’m not sure that’s what’s going on, but Midori did appear to be growing agitated.
The more surprising aspect of the meeting was the fact Franny showed no sign of understanding them, or at least very little. He had told me he could speak Japanese and passed his J2 language competency test. However, whenever Japanese is spoken he appears lost in the surf. It’s nothing I’ll call him on, but another facet of his life in Japan incongruent to what I imagined. Perhaps, his medicine has a hand in his confusion.
I look over and he puts his headphones in. I look out the door and the doctors have just left Midori. Her shoulders are caved in and she looks like she might fall over. I leave the room, approach her and she grabs my hand and guides me away from the door to be out of Franny’s sight. She begins to cry.
“The doctors say Franny’s condition is terminal. The cancer in his throat hit his lymphatic system and is everywhere. He doesn’t have long at all.”
“What about his stomach tumor?” I say. “Why did they give him good news?”
“Franny needs hope now and it’s bad luck to consider the worst outcome,” she says.
I want to grill her and say they lied to him by omission, but something holds me back and I realize I need to look at it oppositely, and that they told him what they did to give him hope. Still, it’s a hard pill to swallow as I’ve always been told clinical is clinical and the truth, in medical matters, must always be delivered to the patient. However, in this application, it’s up to Midori if and when. I withhold my judgment to remain sympathetic.
She picks her head up and a black bob surrounds a pairs of warm crying eyes, perfect nose, and fresh pink lips. A childhood scar from fire ripples from her chin down the left side of her neck. She’s wearing a Van Halen t-shirt and skinny jeans.
“I don’t know what to do?” she says.
“We make him as comfortable as we can,” I say.
“I just can’t keep living at the hospital. There are so many bills and I haven’t been able to work. I’m afraid I’ll lose my job and what will we do then?”
I don’t have an answer for her, but I’m listening. It scares me to think she’s been dealing with this alone, with no family to help until now. It frustrates me because Franny didn’t do a thing to prevent this calamity from happening. When his voice first shrank, and he was diagnosed with polyps in his throat, he refused to quit smoking and drinking. When the cancer finally arrived they said they could operate, but he’d lose his voice, so he opted for radiation and chemotherapy. Even then, he didn’t quit smoking and drinking.
“Otōto,” I hear from the room.
We go in and he’s in his wheel chair.
“Let’s go for a walk,” he says.
Midori wipes her face and begins to untangle his IV for the journey. I put his slippers on and grab his sunglasses. We wheel him out into the hallways and the head nurse says something to Midori, which boils down to, no smoking. We stuff ourselves into the elevator and I notice a little girl staring at Fran and Fran smiling back at her. The girl buries her face into her mother’s thigh and waits us out—I can’t tell if she’s afraid or not. At the ground floor the security guards give us a slight bow and we walk out into the afternoon sun. Fran puts his sun glasses on and says, let’s blow this popsicle stand, so we wheel ourselves to the far corner of the hospital where there’s a Shinto shrine and a stone bench. Once there, Fran fiddles around for his cigarettes and lighter. He exhales with a sigh of relief.
He’s committed himself to a feedback loop of equating a cigarette break with relief, but they actually make him feel worse.
“Don’t look at me like I’m a criminal,” he says, halfway jokingly to me. “Two a day isn’t going to kill me.”
“I’m the one who feels like a criminal,” I say.
And, I do. Yesterday on our walk he directed me all the way to a store, asked the clerk for a pack, and then said they were for me and had me pay. The situation made me so uncomfortable I couldn’t think and I just bought them for him. It was a total set up which exposed a side of Fran I’d forgotten. He can be manipulative, but in such a cunning way you know he’s having fun while he’s doing it. I think it gives him a false sense of power to direct other people, but it makes me feel invaded and disrespected. I want to say something to him about it, but when I look at him I see a dying man with the look of desperation in his eyes. At this point it’s true, it’s too late for him, so if he wants to smoke, let the fucker smoke. But, the sentiment makes me feel empty and culpable for his poor decisions.
What I can’t tell is if Midori is in denial, or if she really believes he can get better. She heard the doctors say Fran’s case is now terminal, but now she acts like the news isn’t ideal, but not catastrophic either. I suppose I have no right to judge and perhaps there’s more to it than simply a case of denial. She’s been through so much, and has been going through this for so long, she’s become a prisoner to it. The worry becomes a routine, the fear, a friend, and the slivers of hope fuel her to continue around the wheel. But for Franny, he’s not buying it. He knows he’s paying for his decisions and it’s hard to watch.
He sits in his wheelchair lost in thought, holding his cigarette like a French Existentialist while working out the difficult questions to do with life and death. His mouth is slightly open and his teeth hang like individual pillars of smoke-damaged ivory inside a burned out temple. He’s monking it. Midori is lost looking at the mini shrine we’re sitting next to.
“What are you looking at?” I ask her.
“Inari, god of Foxes, amongst other things. She can be temperamental—or he. Inari has many shapes. Maybe we shouldn’t be smoking so close to her?”
“Yes, dear,” Franny says, making light of her worry.
Franny disappears again in thought.
“What are you thinking about?” I ask Fran.
He looks up like I’ve thrown a bucket of water on him.
“Mom,” he says.
“What about her?”
“She used to put on these extravagant dinners, do you remember?”
“I remember Christmas dinner was always massive.”
“She had it dialed in to name cards and individualized party favors.”
“I remember that.”
He kept his smile, but looked away again like he’s accessing more memories.
Do you remember when we made a home movie out of one of your nutcrackers and the Little Mermaid? Who’s doll was that?”
“Erin’s,” Aja’s, our sister’s daughter.
“We pressed her back so she would sing and then set her in the spinning microwave. Erin was fucking horrified. AAAaaaAAAHHHAAAaaa,” Franny began to sing, mimicking Ariel’s song.
“Man, that was mean, but so funny.”
“I don’t know what she was so worried about; we set the microwave to defrost.” He looked at me, recalling more, “Liam dropped your nutcracker and broke it,” he says.
“I remember that too.”
Fran lights another cigarette.
“You were so lucky you weren’t around mom when she was drinking.”
“I guess,” I say, annoyed to have to hear the insinuation of how easy I had it, but also to have to listen to another bad mom story.
He reads me.
“But you were,” he says.
“I was lucky to grow up with two heroin addicts for brothers,” I say.
“It’s not comparable. Before you, in our family the only member you could count on was the Green Turkey (mom’s parrot), and that was just for a good swear word or two. Everything was always crazy, there wasn’t an adult you could count on, it always felt like I was drowning.”
“I get that,” I say, “but to dismiss my experience because yours was worse doesn’t provoke any feelings of compassion inside me. You and Aja have held mom hostage for her mistakes for decades now without taking an inventory of the lives you’ve effected.”
Franny looks me in the eyes.
“I don’t have to. The damage was so great I barely know the bad I do most the time. It’s not that I’m upset at mom for her bad decisions, I’m upset she let us become corrupted by them. When my dad left I had a nervous breakdown and I needed nurturing—I didn’t get it. I was permanently changed, different than other people, capable of anything to get what I wanted, without the impulse control to stop myself. I’m defective and I’m pissed about it.”
“Fanny, you’re not a bad guy,” Midori says. “I know your childhood was traumatic, but you’re a good man and husband.”
“Thank you, dear,” he says, not believing her words.
“You’ve come so far from there. You don’t do drugs anymore, you came to Japan for a new life with me. These are all great things,” she says.
“They are great things,” I say.
“They’re maneuvers from underneath the waterline,” he says, lighting a third cigarette.
“What does that mean?” she asks.
“I’ve always lived in the negative,” he says. “Those things just got me back to zero and once I got to zero I went back down into the negative again.”
“That’s not true,” Midori says.
“I don’t know,” he says, sounding exasperated. “Nothing I can do about it now.”
“Why’re you ripping on yourself?” I ask. “All I was getting at was things weren’t great for me either and my experience doesn’t have to be measured next to yours.”
Franny grows grim and his skin becomes pale. I can see sweat forming on his forehead.
“You were there when I tried to kick heroin at Aja’s weren’t you,” he asks.
“Yes,” I say.
“I’m sorry I asked for so much ice cream,” he says, smiling. “I mean, I’m sorry you had to see that.”
I’m left feeling wounded, wounded for the adverse reason, being that this is the first time he’s ever apologized for anything. Perhaps, it’s self-recognition of an unhealed injury which smarts. Maybe the apology ripped off the scab. I’m thinking of something to say when I notice Franny’s looking up to the sky. He yawns, but then freezes. His mouth is open. He looks grotesque. Midori gets up to touch him and right then he begins to shake. The tremor grows in intensity and I remove the cigarette from his hand and tell Midori to get help. She runs away and I do what I can to let Franny’s body move where it wants without hurting himself. Eventually, his quaking body begins to only tremor and slowly slide down the wheel chair. I hike him back up and look up to find a small crowd has gathered to watch. A woman is motioning at the hospital. I say in English, help is on the way. Someone understands and translates. Franny’s in a fugue state, breathing heavily, unable to prop himself up. A doctor, nurse, orderlies and a security guard arrive. They work on him and call an ambulance. Midori is back and cupping her hands around her mouth. I slip into the back ground and put my arm around her. Franny is loaded onto a stretcher and taken to the emergency side of the hospital for observation. I pick up his bag, but leave the pack of cigarettes on the ground.
I was so moved by your story and the insight you had in what your brother was feeling. I am looking forward to reading more of your short stories. I am so impressed by your talent as a author.