First published in InvAsian: Growing Up Asian in America, Asian Women United, 2003.
A Well-Made Life
He had always something to offer us when we visited – ripe tomatoes, corn, bell peppers, persimmons, loquats, Mission figs... After growing season was over, he plied us with Cool Whip containers filled with sugared and frozen raspberries, or plastic miso tubs packed with umeboshi (pickled plums). His umeboshi were extraordinarily firm, plump and sweet; his secret was to substitute green apricots for plums. In the rainy season, when he spent more time indoors, he fed us new dishes learned from Japanese TV or magazines, elaborately fussy concoctions better suited to Tokyo housewives than to a callous-palmed old man in mud-caked workboots.
I’ll never forget the day my mother, Auntie Sumi and I drove into the gravel yard behind the house for our monthly visit and went to the back door, as usual. (The front door of a farmhouse is reserved for the occasional minister or insurance agent.) The back door gaped open, but Jiichan was not inside. We peeked into the garage and sheds, calling, “Jiiiichan! Where aaare you?” Just as we began to get really worried, he strode like a god over the peak of the roof.
“I’m up here,” he called as he strolled casually down the sloping roof and slung himself down onto the porch.
“Jiichan!” Mom cried, “We were getting worried! What are you doing!”
“I didn’t hear you” (his hearing was failing, too). “The roof’s been leaking, so I thought I’d better take a look.”
Auntie Sumi clucked under her breath, “It’s lucky he didn’t break his neck. My goodness, at his age!”
They fussed over him like two grumpy hens, while I stood silent, marveling that a ninety-year-old man with serious health problems could still handle his own affairs with such casual aplomb.
But that was his last hurrah. Within a few months, Jiichan declared it was time he went to a rest home. He wanted one run by Japanese, with Japanese clients and Japanese food. Mom made over fifty phone calls before she found the right situation, in a ranch-style house in town. It was run by a Japanese American man. His Filipina wife was eager to learn Japanese cooking. Jiichan would enjoy sharing his recipes.
He made his preparations in good grace, winnowing the accumulations of a lifetime down to a couple of suitcases, but we could see that he had mixed feelings about trading the spacious farm for a shared bedroom and a tiny fenced yard. “Shikata ga nai, there’s no alternative. It’s all for the best,” he said. “It’s my heart. Inaka de (in the country-side) I could die out here and nobody would know for days...”
After a few weeks, I noticed that he seemed a little depressed. He was losing interest in personal hygiene. He even stopped shaving. As the stubble in his chin grew longer, Auntie Sumi shook her head. “My goodness, he’s really letting himself go.”
On our next visit, instead of work shirt and boots, Jiichan sported a padded Japanese vest and slippers. A wispy little ojisan’s beard sprouted from the end of his chin.
Auntie Sumi laughed. “So that’s why you stopped shaving!”
His eyes twinkled. “Well, I decided that now that I’m an old man, I should look like one.”
I was momentarily relieved, but as the months passed, I noticed that in quiet moments, his eyes dulled like a trapped dog’s. He missed the farm, and his remaining friends were too feeble to visit him.
After a year or so, he was moved to a skilled nursing facility. Jiichan missed the Japanese food at the home care facility, but shikata ga nai, he needed oxygen now. We visited him there just before Christmas. Despite the twinkling trees and tasteful furniture groupings, the spacious sitting room felt as impersonal and transitory as a hotel lobby.
Mom asked how he was. “Fine,” Jiichan said, but he was subdued and laconic, speaking only when we asked a question. “The place is fine. Not much to do but watch TV. There’s only one other Japanese here, and he’s too deaf to talk with. The food’s okay, but too much meat and potatoes. No rice.” He avoided our eyes without seeming to. When I looked carefully, I saw a deep, quiet sadness.
“I love you, Jiichan,” I said as we left.
“Hai, hai , so desu ne. Yes, so you do.” He nodded distantly, as if saluting the memory of the long-gone times when we used to walk together in the strawberry fields, as if he were looking down a long tunnel towards a place he’d never see again.
“He’s not going to stick around much longer,” I thought. “He’s had enough TV.” I wasn’t surprised that he died a week later.