The week before Christmas 1989, I sat in an outpatient ward in Kumamoto University Hospital waiting for the doctor to take a look at a head cold that threatened to ruin my holidays.
Down the hall walked a friend, a doctor from Bangladesh, who greeted me minus his usual smile.
“Two days ago I got a call from home,” said the man, blinking. “My father had a heart attack. I’m trying to get a flight back, but there are no seats. In the meantime, my father’s passed away.”
Suddenly my head cold didn’t seem so bad.
And as I struggled to express condolences, part of me realized that the good doctor’s plight would one day be my own. For when people make a commitment to living abroad, they also sign up for the inevitable — that sad and mad dash home, hopefully to catch one final moment with a fading loved one.
Speed up the calendar to Christmas, 2001. For me, that moment had arrived. “He went code blue right in front of me,” cried my sister over the phone. “They put him on the respirator and he pulled through, but . . . ” She couldn’t go on.
The “he” was my father — actually my stepfather — a man who went back in my memories almost as far as those memories go. The call was the cap to three days of ominous e-mails. Was it a small stroke? His liver? How bad was it?
No one knew. Should I fly? No one could say.
I watched my family in Tokyo decorate our tree and decided to wait. After all, my stepfather had the constitution of a horse. He would surely be out of the hospital and back in his easy chair in no time.
My sister’s telephone call shattered that hope. Like my Bangladeshi friend, I was stuck on stand-by. It took a day to get a ticket, and the next day I was in the air.
“Going home for the holidays?” asked the woman next to me on the plane. Visions of parties and presents sparkled in her eyes.
“Me, too, and I can’t wait,” she said. “Getting home on Christmas Eve! How perfect!”
Perfect enough not to let anything bother her. Not the baby screaming in the row behind us nor the turbulence that rocked us about like dashboard dolls. The woman even smiled when she threw up.
“Hey . . . what’s a little shake? It’s Christmas, right?”
Right. But that didn’t stop the turbulence. In fact, it made the turbulence inside even stronger.
“What do you mean you lost my bag?” Now I stood with a luggage attendant in Minneapolis.
This man had the holiday spirit, too. I didn’t need to remind him it was Christmas Eve, but when I told him I was rushing to see a critically ill relative and just had to have that bag, he withdrew his cheer and claimed to understand.
Yet, his empathy produced no results. I arrived home with no luggage to find my stepfather in a coma.
So the next day I sat in an intensive care unit, wearing my brother-in-law’s clothes. Outside, it was minus 12 degrees and snowflakes were dancing at the window. Jet lag had made me the ideal candidate to stay the night while the rest of my family took a well-earned break.
Next to me, tubes ran in and out of my comatose stepfather like so much spaghetti. Every now and then, the machines around him beeped, but he never moved.
Sharp thoughts scissored through my head . . . memories of my stepdad from decades past. Visions of my family waiting in Tokyo. Guilt for not having flown at that very first e-mail.
And would it be like this for me in 20, 30 years? My own children dashing from across the globe to arrive at my bedside on time?
Later I took a break in the reception room where the coffee flowed free and the Muzak played “Silent Night.” With me was a grandmother who looked like she belonged in an ICU herself. Instead she was spending Christmas night with her hospitalized husband.
“Our kids would have come, but — you know — it’s Christmas. And it’s so far.”
I decided not to tell her where I’d flown from. Rather I told her I was sure her kids had wanted to come. I was sure of that very much.
We talked and when she left, she said, “Don’t stick beans up your nose.”
A statement, she explained, gleaned from her daughter’s pre-school experience with a bowl of chili. The doctor had to tweezer the beans out.
“So now I use that to mean, ‘You take care of yourself . . . till we meet again.’ “
Christmas passed, days went by and New Year’s approached. My stepdad did not awake, yet he showed signs of improvement. The week with family turned out more sweet than bitter. Shortly after my luggage caught up, my ticket read that I had to return.
So what do you say? To a man who cannot hear and to siblings and to a mother whom you never really know when — or if — you will meet again?
Luckily I had learned a new phrase. “Don’t stick beans up your nose.”
I arrived back in Tokyo to find an e-mail saying my stepdad had snapped out of his coma and his prognosis was good. He never knew I was there.
“We missed you,” said my wife with a hug. A sentiment that I could only reciprocate. For missing people is one thing we international families do very well.
After all, we get far too much practice.