I hadn’t opened a Japanese textbook in months. Lord knows life had a way of getting in the way.
And then Mom told me one day, “My friend Nanako’s husband died.”
“He what?” I asked.
“Died,” she repeated, “fell over, died.”
Like little kernels of popcorn popping in an aluminum pan, questions popped into my mind, not one at a time sequentially, but sometimes three or four at a time, followed by a lone straggling question and then again, several at once.
What happened? How old was he? Where was he?
Was it sudden?
Where was Nanako? Did she go to work? How is she?
There were no answers. Only questions. “I’m going to bring food over to her and her father on Monday,” Mom said. She was always showing her love through food, to those close and to those not so close. “Will you come with me?”
So I sent an email to Makoto. “How do you say, ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ in Japanese to acknowledge when someone died?”
He wrote back the next day, “You say, ‘konotabi ha goshushoo sama deshita/ この度はご愁傷様でした,’ or ‘gomeifuku wo oinorimasu/ ご冥福をお祈ります.’ Both pretty hard to say. It’s one of those things you only use for the specific occasion.” One an acknowledgment of grief, the other a reference to happiness in the next world. The richness of the sounds rolling off the tongue in Japanese and the dignity that went along with them made me never want to express the sentiment again in English. I said the words aloud a few times, and then the words were mine. Maybe for life. Maybe not.
We went over carrying trays of grilled meat, corn on the cob, and green beans. The meat, whether intentional or not, carried a slight hint of Taiwan.
“Oh, thank you so much!” Nanako said as she held the house’s front door open for us. A smile turned into a whimper and a few tears that were gone in mere seconds. Grief was the strangest of experiences: jerking us around from heart-wrenching pain one minute to inexplicable joy the next. It was no wonder that the Chinese hired professional mourners at these times to put on a show for neighbors. How could anyone understand anyone else’s grief and the mysterious outbursts of absurd behavior that came along with it? How much easier it must be to cover all this up with people trained to wail, sob, and deflect the criticisms of others.
“O jama shimasu,” I said, loud enough only for myself to hear, taking my shoes off at the door.
Nanako’s father, an old Japanese man in his seventies came downstairs and into the living room, a minimalist space with Japanese accents here and there: a scroll painting hanging on a wall, a single orchid plant on the coffee table, individually wrapped crackers from a shop in Ginza.
If there was a confusing grief showing from Nanako, there was no grief here from Sato san, as I learned to call him, just a bright, toothy smile and lucid eyes behind square spectacles.
“Hajimemashite,” he greeted me.
“Hajimemashite.” And if there was any time to deploy the shushoo or the meifuku phrases, this was it, but as I felt the energy of the man in front of me, I knew that this actually wasn’t the time to utter them at all. There was peace in the home already.
“Dozo. Dozo,” he said to me, gesturing towards the couch, and there we sat reminiscing on the good old days in Tokyo: the food, the kabuki, and Togoshi Ginza of all places. Turns out we had the same former stomping grounds.
“Sou desu ne. Sakanaya san no chikaku ni sundeimashita,” I told him as we identified the exact location of my former apartment and the best fish vendor on the road.
Togoshi Ginza’s white sign with black writing hanging over its crowded shops flashed into my mind, all the bicycles parked on the side of the road, the baskets of fruit laid out in front of fruit vendors, the mess of flashing hiragana and kanji billboards luring customers into dark izakaya caves. Natsukashii. Yappari.
“Momo wo tabemasuka,” he asked. (“Do you eat peach?”)
“Hai, tabemasu.” (“Yup.”)
He disappeared into the kitchen momentarily, then came back with gorgeous orange momo.
Momo we ate.
“Banana wo tabemasuka,” he asked.
Back into the kitchen. He presented frozen banana slices.
And bananas we ate.
“Kono banana wo chotto kitte, reitouko ni irete, sono mama de tabemasu. Konbini no aisu mitai desu ne.” (“I slice the bananas, pop ’em in the freezer, and eat them like that. They taste kind of like iced candies from the convenience store, don’t they?”)
“Ocha wo nomimasuka,” (“Green tea?”)
“Hai, nominasu.” (“Sure.”)
Ice cubes clinking against my glass, “Itadakimasu,” I said, and iced green tea we drank.
So what about the deceased husband? It seemed there was no time to speak of him in-between the nostalgia, the laughter, and the fruit feast. Not for Sato san.
I looked at Nanako, engaged deeply in conversation with Mom, where the details emerged. Jerry was an American, a soldier, a heavy drinker, a heavy smoker, had a heart attack suddenly in the bathroom, fell over and died. The end.
Was he a kind man? An intelligent man? What were his hobbies? His passions? I don’t know. All I know is that Jerry was an American, a soldier, a heavy drinker, a heavy smoker, had a heart attack suddenly in the bathroom, fell over and died. The end.
And now I find myself going over to Sato san’s for Japanese classes. An educator for most of his life and a Japanese teacher now, he sets up an easel and a board, which he taps with a pointer made of connected pencils, lecturing me on sonkeigo and kenjyougo. We eat momo and banana and drink green tea and talk about Jerry’s indulgences.
“Are you gonna go back to Japan?” I ask Sato san.
“No. Fukushima won’t be my home anymore. This is home now,” he tells me.
I nod my head and write my keigo.