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The Thirsty Journey

    It was one of those spring days that break open like a fresh bag of pot-pourri, all fruity smells and earthy aromas. The sky stretched its blue arms across the city of Komaki. Sitting on the outskirts of Japan’s fifth largest city, Komaki, like most towns in Japan, was mostly houses interspersed with small, private rice fields. The sun gazed down on us, smiling gently behind a cottony haze, and blessed the growing life of the Japanese land.
    I arrived a little early as usual for my English classes at the Komaki Community Center. Waiting outside looking up at the sign above the entrance stood a charming young woman. She stood on the blue-green bricks of the front entrance, holding her white purse in front of her with one hand and her hat on with the other as she looked up at the sign. She was wearing a bright red dress with a white belt, white shoes, and a red hat with a white band around it. She stood about five feet tall and weighed about 100 pounds. Her hair was cut short around her face. She had dimples when she smiled, which was often, and a pointed chin. Her lips resembled bright, red flower petals.
She turned her wide, brown eyes my way as I walked up.
    Oh, hello,” she said. “Are you the English teacher?” and she laughed with one hand over her mouth. Before I could answer, she continued. “But, of course, you are. You are the only foreigner here in Komaki.” And she laughed again a little more heartily as she once again covered her mouth.
    I could not help but smile. “Yes, I am the teacher, but how did you know I was a foreigner?” I teased.
    “Oh,” she giggled. “But, of course, you are. You are tall and have blue eyes and light brown hair and . . . spots on your face.” She accentuated this last phrase by touching her finger to her face lightly and rapidly in several different places. As she tried to remember the word for these spots, she wore a perplexed smile and her eyebrows knit together in concentration.
    “Well, you’re right. I am from America, and in English we call these spots ‘freckles’.”
    “Oh, yes. ‘Fleckles’.”
    “Your English is very good.”
    “Yes. Thank you.” She smiled with satisfaction. I noted that unlike a typical Japanese, upon receiving my compliment, she had not tried to deny it.
    “My name is Michael.”
    “I am Michie. Nice to meet you, Mr. Michael.”
    “You, too, Michie.”
    “Oh, it’s very funny,” she laughed from behind her upraised hand. “My name means ‘person who came from across the sea,’ but you are person who came from across the sea, ne.”
    “Yes, that is true,” I concurred with a smile. One could not help smiling when with Michie.
    “Spring is a time for beginnings. And I think, Mr. Michael, today we are beginning on the road of friendship.” Her head tilted slightly, waiting to see what my response to this observation would be.
    “ ‘The road of friendship’. I like that. I hope we have a pleasant trip.”
    “Oh, yes,” she smiled brightly, eyes wide, “and a safe journey.” Since she only chuckled lightly at our joke, her hand made it only half way to her mouth.

    Michie was talkative and friendly. She immediately made many friends among the other students. She had been married for three years at the time she joined my class. She had no children yet. In talking with some of the other students during tea time, they told me of illness and difficulties in the womb. I had never discussed these things with Michie directly. In fact, I got the sense that no one ever talked with Michie about these things. I found from my other students that even her doctor gave her only the barest information. It was her husband and in-laws who, not unsympathetically, informed her friends of her physical ailments. Just as the doctor felt it better to spare Michie the pain of knowing exactly what was wrong with her, so too my students made the same decision in regard to me. Therefore, I never knew how sick Michie really was.
    The topic came up one time over tea.
    “Michael.” She had dropped the “Mr.” after the seventh time or so I had corrected her. “Tea time with students, it is very important.”
    “Why is that, Michie?”
    “Sharing a drink, it is important for social . . .” she searched for the word with the furrowed-brow expression I had come to know so well. “. . . smooth relations,” she concluded. “When you offer someone a drink, you show kindness and respect. When we drink together, we always make sure to keep the glass of our friends full. To have thirsty friends, it is rude.” She smiled triumphantly.
Michie and I continued on our road of friendship for several months. She was one of my best students. Therefore, it was quite a surprise when for a period of two weeks, Michie did not come to class at all. When I asked the other students in her class about it, they informed me she was in the hospital.
    “What happened?” I asked with some surprise and great concern.
    “She is sick . . . in the womb,” was all the information volunteered to me.
    “Can I visit her?” I asked.
    After leaning in their heads close to one another for a consultation of opinions, one of them responded, “Yes, we will take you.”

    Japanese hospitals are fairly similar to American ones. It is dastardly hard to find parking anywhere close to the entrance. This space is reserved for the taxi line and the disabled. Japanese also rely much more on public transportation, and this line of taxis was just one more example.
Three of my students, 30-something housewives with pleasant demeanors and fashionable appearance, escorted me across the red bricks of the entranceway. I felt the same mix of “Thank-God-its-not-me” gratitude and “But-it-easily-could-be” anxiety that I feel whenever I enter hospitals, no matter the country.
    We rode the elevators up to the third floor. It was exceptionally quiet and clean. There was none of the friendly and casual camaraderie found among the staff of American hospitals. Nurses were professional and courteous, and a little curious about this rare foreign visitor to their section.
My three escorts led me to outside Michie’s room.
    “We wait here for you.” The stepped off to one side, and stood near the wall.
    “Are you sure? I don’t mind if you come in too,” I assured them.
    They glanced at one another, and, as often occurred during my time in Japan, I became aware that there was much I was ignorant of about these people and their culture.
    “You enter. We wait here. Please.” They smiled encouragement, but the secret knowledge they shared and I didn’t lay just beneath the smiling masks they had put on for me.
    As I entered the room, I was reminded of another difference between Japanese and American hospitals. All the hospital beds in Japan are built with a smaller pull-out bed. Family members are expected to take responsibility for some of the care of the patients, often sleeping overnight to do this. Michie was in a room with five other women, three to a side. Hers was the middle bed on the left side, although this was not clear to me at first.
    It was difficult to match this woman with the one in the bright red dress I had met almost a year earlier. This woman wore a faded white hospital gown, looked twenty pounds lighter, and had none of Michie’s energy. It was only when she smiled that I could truly recognize her.
    She welcomed me with a weak and subdued voice, not at all like the bright and cheery voice of our first greeting nearly half a year before.
    “Hi, Mr. Michael. Thank you for coming.” I didn’t bother to correct this lapse in her English.
    “Hello, Michie. How are you today?”
    “Not so good.” She looked at me with pleading eyes. “I am sick. I am scared. I want to have a baby, but I don’t think I can. I am sorry for my husband.” She was nearly babbling. I sensed that there was much she wanted to say, not only to me, but to all living things. But she had not the energy. Her eyebrows were slightly furrowed in a weak imitation of her familiar look of concentration as she desperately tried to keep her thoughts in coherence.
    “I’m sure you will be fine. Just rest and eat well.” Now it was my turn to wear a smiling mask of false sentiments. She did not look like she would be fine at all.
    “Mr. Michael, I don’t want to die. But the doctor won’t tell me my illness.”
    “I don’t know, Michie, but I’m sure you will not die.” I was scared. How could things have come to this, and why? What was her illness, anyway?
    “I will come and visit you again tomorrow.” I reached out and gently squeezed her fragile right hand, the one she had so often raised to her mouth in laughter.
    “I am so tired. I do not want to die.” Her voice was barely a whisper.  Her tears were leaving little trails of moist salt down her cheeks. She no longer had the strength or desire to laugh or raise her hand to her mouth.

    It was only after she died that I was told the truth. She had had ovarian cancer. Her doctor, family, and friends all knew she was dying. Apparently only Michie, who didn’t have the chance to believe, and I, who was to naive to believe, were left in the dark.

    I attended her funeral three days later. It was held at her house. Her body was placed in a coffin in the living room. The double sliding glass doors that led from the living room out into the front yard were opened up. People formed a curving line of black from the yard and down the street as we waited to pay our respects to the husband and family. Black hair, black ties, black purses, and black shoes under a black and gray sky which seemed to be withholding its rain out of respect for the occasion.
    The Japanese burn incense at a funeral to help the soul on its journey upward. The white and gray smoke slowly coiled towards the sky, twining together then separating again, much like our lives. I had brought white lilies instead of incense. I was fighting back my tears. I felt I had failed her somehow. That there was more I could have done or said if I had only known the truth.
    When it came my turn in line, I took my flowers to the husband and tried to bow as respectfully as I could. I then returned to the street where some other students of mine were gathered. The black snake-like line of mourners had fragmented into small groups, as if it had tried to charge against the death inside the house and was rebuffed and splintered as a result.
    Michie’s mother came out of the house scanning the crowds. When she saw me, she came my way. I had learned enough Japanese to understand that she wanted me to come into the house. My heart began to flutter nervously in my throat.
    She led me beside Michie’s casket. I had never been this close to a dead body before, and I didn’t want to be this close now. Michie’s eyes, those wide brown eyes of mirth and life, were not completely closed, and I could see the dull yellow around her pupils staring at me. Her stomach, which had never known the joyous swelling of a new life, was now swollen with decaying gases.
Her mother wanted me to pray for her. Although she spoke only a very little English, she mixed it with simple Japanese which I was able to comprehend. You’re American, she was saying. You’re a Christian, aren’t you? Please pray for my daughter’s soul.
    I didn’t know what to pray, but I bowed my head and did my best. Then her mother was handing me a cup filled with water. On top of the water, a small green leaf was floating. Her mother pulled me nearer to Michie’s face. For her journey, her mother said. She ran her hand lovingly down the front of Michie’s throat. She must have a drink for her thirsty journey, she urged.
    Michie’s words about friends came back to me, and now the tears came as well, but tears mixed with a warmth, a gladness. Here is how I could show Michie my affection and respect for her.
I took the leaf, wetted it with water from the cup, and gently traced it over her lips, which were wearing the same bright red lip-stick as on the day we first met. The water pooled where her teeth rested against her lips, and then spilled gently down her cheeks, much like the tears that were running down mine. The “girl from across the sea” had crossed back over. Our friendship road had found its end.
    And her friend from across a different sea had been there to offer her a drink for her thirsty journey home.

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