Fiction | March 01, 2002

SABURO’S FATHER belonged to that generation which, having survived the war, rebuilt Japan from ashes, distilling defeat and loss into a single-minded focus with which they erected cities and industries and personal lives. Reflecting on this as an adult, Saburo felt it accounted at least partially for his father’s stoicism. This was conjecture, of course. When Japan surrendered he had been only six, too young to remember what his father had been like in peacetime.

Saburo’s memories of the surrender included his uncle Kotai being brought home, delirious with hepatitic fever, from Micronesia. He lived only a few weeks, unconscious the entire time and nursed round the clock by Saburo’s parents. One of the visitors to their home was Uncle Kotai’s sweetheart, a pretty girl of nineteen on whom Saburo had a crush. She wiped away her tears with a handkerchief patterned with cherry blossoms and announced brokenly that her life was now over. Saburo was impressed. “Big Sister really loves Uncle, ne!” he said later that day to his parents at dinner.

“The grief didn’t hurt her appetite,” his mother said curtly. She was referring to the rationed tea she had served at lunch as well as to a certain fish cake that had been purchased, after two hours of waiting in line, for their own family dinner.

In a dispassionate voice, Saburo’s father explained that the amount of energy you have is limited, just like your food, and that when you love a sick person you have to make the choice of either using up that energy on tears or else saving it for constructive actions such as changing bedpans and spoonfeeding and giving sponge baths. “In the long run, which would help your uncle more?” he asked.

Saburo supposed the constructive actions would.

“That’s right,” his father said.

Saburo’s father had not fought in the war. He was barred from service because of his glaucoma, which was discovered for the first time during his military recruiting exam. So he stayed home while the war claimed the lives of his best friend, then his cousin and last of all his brother-in-law Kotai. Growing up, all Saburo understood of glaucoma was that it consisted of some sort of elevated pressure within the eye. “Your father has to keep calm,” was his mother’s constant refrain. “Don’t you dare upset him, or his eye pressure will go up.” It seemed to young Saburo that this condition was in some insidious way a result of the war, not unlike those radioactive poisons pulsing within surivors from Hiroshima.

At Uncle Kotai’s funeral Saburo had overheard a woman say, “At least in his short life he was never thwarted.” He understood later that Uncle, the babied youngest son of a wealthy family, had had no profession save that of martial arts champion and dandy. He drank too often, laughed too loudly, used too much hair pomade. Saburo had very few memories of him or of their former wealth, which had been lost in the Tenkan bombing, forcing Saburo’s family to move into the merchant district. He did recall that once when he had gotten a nosebleed as a little boy, Uncle Kotai stopped it instantly by giving a hard chop with the side of his hand to a specific vertebra on his nape. “Aaa, be careful!” Saburo’s mother had wailed, watching with both hands pressed to her mouth. Uncle Kotai used another trick when Saburo tried to tag along on one of his outings. “Let me come; I want to go too!” he had demanded, squatting at his uncle’s feet and clutching fistfuls of his long yukata. With a rumble of amusement, Uncle Kotai reached down to press some secret nerve between thumb and forefinger, and Saburo’s fists miraculously unclenched.

Seen across the gulf of the war that separated them, this lost uncle held for young Saburo all the magic of a lost era, a magic emanating from throwaway details: a photograph of Uncle and his well-dressed friends sitting around a heavily laden banquet table, heads thrown back in laughter; or his mother’s nostalgic recounting of Uncle’s outrageous pranks. The aura of careless abundance often wafted up around him, faint and nebulous as spirit incense. Yet running through this wonder was a hard thread of moral disapproval. Uncle had had it coming. Saburo had overheard his mother telling a neighbor that Uncle Kotai had been born in the year of the rooster. Roosters, as Saburo knew, finished their crowing early in the day.

 

When Saburo joined the track-and-field team in his first year at Bukkyo High School, the sport was enjoying a popularity it had not known before the war. At the time, few schools could afford baseball bats or gymnastic equipment. And there was something in the simplicity of the sport-the straight path to the goal, the dramatic finish line-that stirred the community to yells and often tears. On Sundays entire families came outdoors to cheer, Thermoses of cold wheat tea slung across their chests. They sat on woven mats and munched on rice balls, roasted potatoes, hard-boiled eggs and pickled shoots of fuki gathered up in the hills.

“So what distance are you running?” Saburo’s father asked at the dinner table.

“Eight hundred meters,” Saburo said. He would have preferred a long-distance event, which commanded the most respect. But he had watched those runners stagger toward the finish line, eyes rolling back in their heads, some even vomiting in the grass afterward-and he had been afraid. Sprints came next in popularity, but Saburo was not particularly fast. Two laps around the track seemed the most appropriate distance.

“Eight hundred meters? Is that all?”

“I just want to focus on one,” Saburo said,, “and perfect it.”

His father nodded in approval.

Saburo’s father was old, much older than his mother. His gray hair, ascetic cheekbones and scholarly decorum (he was professor of astronomy at Nangyo University) commanded both respect and distance. When sitting down beside his father at the low dining table, Saburo had moments of readjustment similar to entering a temple from a busy street. Dinner-table conversations, more often than not, were monologues on the moons of Jupiter, the Andromeda nebulae or various theories on cosmogony. Chewing his food slowly-a habit from rationing days, when the rule had been one hundred times-Saburo let the academic words flow through him like water through a net. What he heard was his father’s voice: a voice like the universe, regulated and unknowable, with the endurance of silent planets rotating in their endless, solitary orbits.

Something about the running must have struck a chord with his father, although as far as Saburo knew, he had not been a track man in his youth. At any rate, the following evening at dinner his father made an announcement.

“On.the days you don’t have practice,” he told Saburo, “I’ll be taking you out to Kaigane Station to clock your runs.”

Saburo’s mother looked up from ladling rice into a bowl. “Maa, Father, what an excellent idea!” she said. She then turned to her son, surprise and pleasure still in her face. “Saburo, thank your father,” she said. Saburo was not altogether happy with the actual arrangement; his devotion to running was not that strong. Nonetheless, he was suffused with a quiet; manly pride that he tried to mask with an expression of nonchalance. “So nice, ne-a father and son, doing things together!” sang Saburo’s mother, expecting no reply and getting none besides a good-willed “That’s right” from her husband. Dinner that night felt very much like a rite of passage, and Saburo’s mother served up the mackerel with a gravity reserved for celebratory red snappers.

Saburo’s father never attended Saburo’s track competitions; he left that to his wife. But he always inquired after the results at dinner, showing more interest in his son’s times than in his rankings-a good thing, since Saburo never placed especially high. The boy never thought to question his father’s absences or to complain. His father was simply different. He was old. He was an academic, whereas Saburo’s friends’ fathers were grocers and merchants. If he got excited, his eye pressure would go up.

But from that evening on, each time Saburo came home on nonpractice days, his father was waiting, still dressed in his Western-style lecture clothes: white short-sleeved shirt and gray trousers, creased and starched. They sat gingerly side by side in the streetcar as it bumped and clattered through the bustling fish vendors’ district, the smells and raucous vendor calls floating in through the windows. It was awkward and silent in the streetcar, just the two of them. Saburo’s mother, with her cheerful chatter, so often served as their buffer. Saburo stole a glance at his father, who was carefully holding both their tickets ready in one hand, even though there were still a dozen stops left to go. He wished his father were like his friends’ fathers: sun-browned, guffawing men who ruffled children’s hair with affectionate ease.

The streetcar rattled on until there was no more open-air market, only an asphalt road slicing through kilometer after kilometer of rice paddies. Kaigane Train Station was the final stop on the route. Because of postwar cutbacks the train came through only once a day now, so in the evenings the station was deserted.

Only here, with silence stretching over the open fields like an extension of his father, did Saburo feel complete harmony between them.

Saburo took his place at the makeshift starting line exactly 800 meters south of the platform (they had measured it out on the first day, using a 100-meter ball of string). His father waited back at the platform, a slight, gaunt figure next to the metal station billboard. As he peered at his wristwatch, clutched in both hands, Saburo raced toward him on the asphalt. A sea of rice plants, dyed red from the sunset, undulated on either side. On those spring evenings, the sharp green smell of growing things stung Saburo’s nostrils as he sucked it in and pierced his lungs like frosty air. His elongated shadow floated beside him with effortless strides, like a long, fluid ghost. If he suddenly stopped running, his shadow might have kept on going.

“Two-forty-nine,” his father said. Saburo panted, leaning over with hands on knees, waiting to regain his wind so he could run it again. Somewhere in the paddies, frogs were croaking.

“Are you pacing yourself?” his father asked. “Remember, it doesn’t matter who’s in front of you. Beating your own time’s all that matters. You can do that with practice. So don’t be affected by those other runners.You just keep on improving, slow and steady.” Everything his father did was slow and steady. Saburo pictured how he might run: rationing each breath, timing each footfall, looking neither left nor right at anything else around him.

 

Saburo quit the team after one year in order to devote his second and third years to tutoring sessions for college entrance examinations. His father said gravely that it sounded like a fine idea. Despite his relief-he had never really liked the running or its accompanying pressures-Saburo felt guilty over ending their sessions, which he sensed his father had enjoyed and wished to continue. He had the sad premonition that they would never again have a similar experience. As it turned out, the sessions could not have continued anyway; within a year, Kaigane Stations activity increased, along with the upswing in Japans economy, and the surrounding fields gave way to construction sites for future buildings.

Over the next few years prosperity continued, bringing with it an increase in motorbikes and automobiles-menaces in the cluttered, swarming alleyways of the merchant district. Saburo’s mother was a casualty of one such motorbike as it made a sharp turn around the corner near the seaweed grocer’s. She died several hours later on the hospital operating table.

Saburo was nineteen at the time, home from the university for New Year’s vacation. He and his father took a taxi to Shin-jin Municipal Hospital as soon as they heard of the accident. Mutely they waited on a bench in the hallway, faces blanched from the blue fluorescent light. The doctor finally arrived, told them “nothing could be done to save her,” lingered a respectable interval, then hurried away to his duties.

Saburo turned to his father. He was hunched forward with his elbows on his knees, gazing down into his dangling hands, which showed the beginnings of liver spots. He seemed to have forgotten his son’s presence. “Father-” Saburo said. There was no response. The awkward streetcar rides flashed into his mind, and in that moment of panic he understood himself to be on the verge of something he had feared, subconsciously, all his life. Lifting his hand, Saburo rested it on the middle of his father’s back. Despite the gravity of the situation, his gesture felt ill-timed and melodramatic. There was no response through the scratchy wool of his father’s sweater. Saburo lowered his hand to his side.

When they got home from the hospital, Saburo’s father stopped before the calendar hanging above the kitchen counter, above a bowl of water in which kelp strips were still soaking for that night’s dinner. With a black ballpoint pen, his father drew a big firm X over the box for
the twenty-eighth day. “December twenty-eighth,” he said, retracing the X over and over with growing force. “This was a bad, bad day.” Each time Saburo passed the calendar, that black X jumped out at him from an otherwise empty month, the tips of four neat triangles curling outward from where the ballpoint pen had sliced through the paper.

In the ensuing weeks, Saburo had a recurring dream about high school track. In this dream two runners were ahead of him but not by much, and it was only the first lap; he was positioned right where he wanted to be. But wait. The crowd was cheering too much for just the first lap. Then he knew, as one does in dreams, that he had made a mistake. This was not the 800. This was the 400.

Eventually, however, he was rescued by the memory of one long-ago Mother’s Day when he had presented his mother with a necklace he had woven from sweet peas and clover. She had exclaimed over it, then added, “But the best present you can give me is good grades so that someday you’ll do well at the university and make your country proud.” What a let-down that had been at the time. But now her words glowed hot in his brain, and for the first time Saburo understood how loss could resolve itself through complex transfers of emotion. Back at school, subdued but focused, he immersed himself in his engineering studies.

His father, meanwhile, altered his domestic routine: Each night at six, he strolled to the o-den cookery, where he chewed his dinner, calm and controlled as always; on Friday evenings, he dropped off his clothes at the launderer’s. The rhythm of this new schedule suggested years of familiarity, as if no prior way of life had existed. Saburo remembered with a pang the seamless way his father had replaced their running sessions with paperwork. Over the next few months, when Saburo came home on his increasingly brief visits, he noted the gradual disappearance of his mother’s effects-with the exception of one framed photograph beside the family altar-leaving the house monkish and austere, a mirror of his father.

Saburo pondered the fact of his parents’ arranged marriage. Did that lessen the heartbreak? Once, his father, while turning down the volume of a Madama Butterfly aria swelling forth from the radio (he was not a fan of Italian opera, which was “full of ego”), had muttered, “True love, true love … who even knows what that means?” Saburo could not tell if a response was expected.

Yet years after his wife might have faded from memory, Saburo’s father mentioned her, if only in passing, each time his son came visiting: “Now your mother, on a day like this she would have loved sitting out here in the garden.” Saburo thought how much easier it would have been if their emotions-his and his father’s-could have been realized, apportioned and spent, in their entirety, over his mother’s lifetime.

 

At thirty, Saburo was doing well for himself. He held a respected position at a civil engineering firm. After years of saving he had purchased a Western-style condominium in the up-and-coming Kiji district, built over those fields where he had once run. A handsome man, with something of his Uncle Kotai lurking about the lips, Saburo attracted women with an ease he did not fully understand. It required little effort: some lighthearted banter, which came easily in adulthood, and on occasion a calculatedly mischievous grin. Given his unremarkable past, this was gratifying to his self-esteem. “Takes after Kotai-san,” said one elderly woman from his old neighborhood. But unlike his uncle, Saburo did nothing in excess, not even banter. Perhaps it was this restraint that attracted the women. At any rate, Saburo was in no rush to marry; there was plenty of time. Life was pleasant and under control. On weekends he swam laps with sure, unhurried strokes.

Around this time, his father’s glaucoma began giving him trouble. Over the decades its pressure had increased steadily despite medication, and several years ago a severe migraine had required that his right eye be replaced with a glass one whose chestnut hue was a close, but not exact, match with the more faded brown of his left eye. Now his peripheral vision in the remaining eye had disappeared to the point that his father could see only what was directly before him, as if looking at the world through a narrow pipe. During one of his sporadic visits, Saburo saw how his father patted the air around him like a blind man. He proposed-in the same quiet way his father had once announced the running sessions-that he visit his father every Sunday, at which time he would take care of all grocery shopping and outside errands. Afterward he would escort his father on a walk through the neighborhood streets, which were too dangerous now for a frail, halfblind man in his seventies. His father’s ready acquiescence, in contrast to his usual self-sufficiency, indicated how grave the situation must have been.

And so a new routine began. They strolled in the afternoons, through narrow alleyways where morning-glory vines, their blooms shrunk to purple matchsticks in the afternoon sun, cascaded over old-fashioned bamboo lattices. It became second nature for Saburo to walk two steps ahead on flat surfaces; otherwise his father, with his tunnel vision, would lose track of him entirely. Occasionally in the alley they met a housewife who stopped her sweeping to bow watchfully as the pair passed: the younger man taking slow, tiny steps, the distinguishedlooking old gentleman shuffling close behind him.

Now that Saburo was an adult, their conversations were no longer awkward. Any conversational opening inevitably led to a lecture on astronomy; thus, little was required on Saburo’s part. He felt relaxed, self-assured in the knowledge of all he was doing for his father. At appropriate pauses, he made a comment over his shoulder (“That kind of magnitude is hard to grasp”) or asked a question (“And how was that discovery received by the scientific community?”). His father, he realized, had a passionate side. At rare intervals, when caught up in some obscure detail, the old man’s voice rose with fervor, and he came to a full stop in order to make his point. Saburo pictured his father as a student in some university tea house, robed in good-quality silks and ardently discussing science, ideals, the future of the world. It was a brief, fragrant whiff of that prewar world of which Saburo had never been a part.

Sometimes he discussed his own work-the new railroad they were currently building through the Hiei pass-or else he inquired after his father’s routine, which seemed to consist largely of scientific reading interspersed with eye exercises, radio news programs and long sitting sessions in the garden. But as time passed, Saburo dwelled less and less on such mundane topics. He began looking forward to his father’s monologues, which at first he had tolerated out of filial duty. They filled him now with a sense of wonder, of vast sweeps of time and space and human endeavors and intellectual possibilities. It reminded him somehow of those open fields of his childhood. On his way home after these visits, riding the bus through the open-air market-which at that hour was cluttered and bustling in the warm red glow of paper lanterns-Saburo was keenly, inarticulately aware of the sky beyond, purpling and darkening.

An exception to this companionable routine came several days after a quarterly eye checkup. His father’s range of vision had dropped, not by 0.5 to one point as expected, but by two points and a quarter. “If I go blind now, at my age,” he remarked gravely as they shuffled their way along the alley, “I plan to end my life.”

Saburo froze. With anyone else he would have said all the right things: “Don’t be silly! There’s always something to live for! I love you and I’m here for you!” He was good at such gestures, especially with women. But someone like his father must not be insulted by such clichés. This was not a cry for pity but a non-negotiable decision related out of courtesy. Saburo knew his father must have pondered this alone for months, weighing the pros and cons in his academic fashion.

After a few minutes Saburo asked, “How would you do it?”

“With a gun. Very simple, just hold it to your ear and pull the trigger.”

“Not something easier,” he asked tentatively, “like gas or sleeping pills?”

“Those don’t work right away. Someone finds you halfway through, then they’ve got you in the hospital, making a big fuss. You come out of it half paralyzed, brain-damaged.”

Saburo said nothing. They walked silently. The alley was deserted, and the early-autumn sunlight slanted down, reddish, at a low angle. They approached the Sunemuras’ olive tree; its branches leaned out over the old-fashioned adobe wall of their garden and shaded the alley. Waiting for his father to reach his side, Saburo cupped his hand behind his father’s sweatered elbow as they passed beneath the olive branches, steering him around the slippery black pulp of overripe olives that had dropped onto the cement. He did this every time they passed the olive tree, although his father’s refusal to lean on him, to physically acknowledge the assistance in any way, made Saburo remove his hand the moment they were in the clear.

“That’s life, Saburo.” His father’s voice was grave and modulated as ever. “And your time will free up. There’s nothing wrong with that. You need more than a busy job and a sick parent.”

They walked. From somewhere in the distance came a faint smell of burning leaves.

Then his father launched easily, noncommittally, into a deploring commentary on this week’s radio series on Mars. “Life … on … Mars!” he said dryly, mimicking the radio host’s dramatic tone. “Hehh, they can’t even present simple facts without dramatizing them all out of proportion.”

Only now did Saburo notice that the underarms of his own imported linen shirt were damp with sweat. He thought he had outgrown this terror from the day of his mother’s death, when he had reached over to touch his father’s back. His mother would have known what to do. Mother … Once when Saburo was in the first grade, she had gripped his face between her hands and, driven by some intense private emotion, kissed the top of his shaved head with furious pecks.

After the visit with his father, on the bus ride home, Saburo reviewed the situation realistically. Outsiders would not understand their exchange. They would not see that his father, far from begging for sympathy, would have considered it out of place. The truth was that there was an understanding; they had no need for embarrassing displays. Saburo thought of the railroad they were drafting at work, its parallel ties never touching, yet exquisitely synchronized, committed
in their separateness as they curved through hill and valley. That, he was comfortable with. That, he could do.

 

His father’s cancer, a year later, came as a complete surprise. The possibility of another disease had never occurred to Saburo; there was simply no room for it. It began when his father telephoned him early one morning, his voice fainter than usual yet admirably steady, to say he had terrible stomach cramps and could Saburo escort him to the emergency room? Never before had his father called him at home. “No need to bother you,” he always said. “It can wait till Sunday.”

Doctors sedated his father for the rest of the day; they took X-rays and informed Saburo that a large tumor was obstructing his colon. An emergency colostomy was performed. “Terrible!” said one doctor around Saburo’s age, shaking his bristly head and peeling off his rubber gloves. “The cancer’s spread all over the place. Maa, the white-cell count is incredible! Why wasn’t it caught before?”

“My father doesn’t like doctors,” Saburo said.

The young doctor made a knowing grimace. “That generation, well,” he said.

Waiting for his father to regain consciousness after the operation, Saburo stood before the window in the little hospital room, alternately peering back over his shoulder at his father’s bed and gazing out at the city below. The landscape had changed since he had been here last. In his youth, dusk would have melted those distant hills to smooth lines like folded wings. Tonight, against a fading sky of pink and gray, the sharp black silhouette of the hills bristled with crooked telephone poles. The hills themselves were spattered with mismatched lights. The rate of progress, he recalled someone, somewhere, saying.

“What happened?” his father murmured within the first few minutes of coming to. Saburo had to bend over to hear him. He was attached to an oxygen tube, an IV and an ancient machine with rather grimy indicator knobs. The machine filled the room with a soft, continuous roar.

“Everything’s taken care of, Father,” Saburo said. He explained about the colostomy.
“I don’t have to use this bag for the rest of my life, do I?”

The truth was his father had only a few months left to live. That news could wait till tomorrow. “I’m afraid you will, Father,” Saburo said.

“Sohh . . .” A sigh like a deflating balloon, then silence.

The following day Saburo had no chance to break the news; specialists were performing tests most of the day. For lunch Saburo ate a plate of rice curry in the hospital cafeteria. Through the glass wall, he watched nurses striding by in the hall, clipboards pressed against their chests. The sight of them-the very smell of this place-stirred up memories of his mother’s death; he was conscious now, as he had been then, of his utter uselessness. From now on, it was the nurses and doctors who would do everything, to whom his father would turn for help. Which would help your uncle more? he remembered his father saying.

“One of them told me the results,” his father reported that evening. “Quiet fellow, very nice.” Sipping miso soup from a Styrofoam cup, his father recounted the details of the cancer that had already metastasized to his stomach, lymph nodes and lungs. “The doctor recommends,” his father said, “a small place in Fuji-no with round-the-clock medical staff . . .” He was tiring now, taking short, shallow breaths. “. . . and dietitians. That’ll work out best for everybody. It won’t be for long.”

If only he could have broken the news to his father. If only he could have caught the spontaneous reaction, however minute! He saw ahead to how his father would die, as courteous and restrained in his final hours as he had been in his life. Saburo had expected more: a brush fire to drive some vague, crouching thing out of hiding. He had dreaded an onset of naked emotion, had pushed it off to the future when he would be better prepared, but never, he realized now, had he considered the possibility of it not happening.

That night Saburo dreamed he came across his mother in the alley, playing jump rope in her apron with some neighborhood girls. Strands had come loose from her bun, and she was flushed, laughing. She noticed him and said brightly, “Ara, ara! Is it time already?”

“Mama! There you are!” Saburo cried out. Such relief surged through him that it lifted him out of sleep. Lying awake in the dark, it took him several moments to comprehend that his mother had been gone for years.

 

Saburo did what he could. He ate well, three meals a day. He cut back drastically on his work hours. He curtailed his social life, although on occasion he lightened his routine by inviting a girl to accompany him to the movie theater. He deliberately chose comedy: Teppan-gumi or foreign films featuring Charlie Chaplin.

Nonetheless, the situation took its toll. The old track-and-field nightmare returned. Unable to fall back asleep, Saburo tossed and turned, seeing before him his father’s glass eye crusted over with yellow mucus, as it had once looked when a nurse forgot to wash it out with eyedrops. Or he saw him wearily close his eyes and whisper, “Thank you’.’ after a nurse changed his colostomy bag.

By now his father was installed in the recommended Fuji-no hospital for terminally ill patients. He had little strength-he had never quite recovered from the operation-and he fought to sit up, even to shift position on the bed. Still, he courteously attempted conversation. “How are you holding up, Saburo?” he asked each evening, as if his son were the ailing one. To save his father’s energy, Saburo did most of the talking. Then, running out of topics, he took to reading History of the Cosmos, a book he had found on his father’s desk at home. There was something soothing about reading aloud; all meaning dropped away, and he was borne along on a cadence reminiscent of boyhood, when his father’s voice had washed over him at the dinner table.

One evening the reading lulled his father to sleep. Saburo gazed at the drawn, wasted face. The hospital was silent-it might have been midnight instead of seven o’clock. If Saburo stared long enough in the eerie fluorescence of overhead lights, the pallid face with its sunken eye sockets became that of a corpse.

Above the blanket, his father’s hand twitched in sleep. It was the surreal quality of this moment-a tenuous balance of his father’s unconsciousness, the temporary absence of night nurses, the lingering effects of reading about an impersonal cosmos-that made Saburo reach out with one finger and touch his father’s hand. Its folds were cold and surprisingly loose, like sea cucumbers he had once poked as a boy in the open-air market. The forearm was warmer, but so much smaller, so much more frail between Saburo’s fingertips, than eyesight had prepared him for. Saburo went on to trace the bony blade of a gowned shoulder. This felt like a violation, and it made him nervous: Was his father really asleep? Maybe he was conscious behind those closed lids. Maybe the touching bothered him but he was too polite, or too weak, to react. But Saburo couldn’t stop. He couldn’t help himself.

The physical contact dissolved some hard center of logic within him. And Saburo wondered, with sudden urgency, whether his father was really as self-sufficient as he had always assumed him to be. Might his father have hoped for a different reaction the day he talked of suicide? Might he have longed for closeness but not known how to go about it? Unlikely, but still … dangerous thoughts.

Saburo had made the best decisions he could, as his father had, surely, with all his careful ways. But warped by circumstance and changing worlds, compounded by time and habit, the results had come up short. It was inevitable. The longer one’s life, the more room it left for errors of calculation.

If things had been different he might have told his father, as other sons surely did, “I admire you more than anyone I’ve ever known. For your intellect, for your great dignity.” If such words were possible, he would have felt only the clean, sharp arrows of pain; there would have been a rightness to it all, a bittersweet perfection of a setting sun. What Saburo felt now bordered on nausea, which had always terrified him. He had thrown up only two or three times as a child, but he still remembered that instant of panic when it all came rising up, unstoppable.

His father’s eyes opened. “Saburo?” he whispered.

“I’m here, Father,” Saburo said. He stilled his hand, keeping it over his father’s icy hand. It occurred to him that his father would not be able to feel this. Poor circulation in the extremities, the nurse had told him, causes numbness.

“Aaa, it’s you. . .” his father said.

“Father,” Saburo began. He stopped. His Adam’s apple was constricting, shot through with the ache, long forgotten yet familiar, of impending tears. He waited until it subsided.

“Father,” he said in a rush, “I’m not good at saying fancy things.” His throat closed up again, and he sat helpless.

His father’s good eye had turned toward his son’s voice, the pupil shrunken to pinpoint from glaucoma medication. Saburo felt a great mute pain open out in his chest. It reminded him of track days: anguish escalating unbearably in oxygen-deprived lungs, the blind rush down home stretch on legs that were too slow.

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