Wonderful, wonderful! Outside, the world as we know it is on the brink of collapse, but here in my study it is snug and warm; my books surround me, the coffee is hot and fresh . . .
There is a perfunctory knock at the door; before I have time to swing my feet off the desk, my wife is in the room. “I have to talk to you.”
About my unemployment, no doubt. But no: “It’s about mother.”
“She is getting worse (悪化している, akka shiteiru).”
She is indeed. My mother-in-law (姑, shūtome) lives with us. It is a cross I have borne (十字架を負った, jūjika wo otta) as graciously as I could for nine years. I never liked her, and she returned the compliment. Now she is 83 and suffering from ninchishō (認知症, dementia). What should my attitude be?
“Last week . . . I didn’t tell you . . . they caught her at 7-Eleven — shoplifting.”
“They were very understanding. One of the clerks brought her home. I . . . ” She is in tears. “I can’t cope any longer. Moetsukiteiru yo! (燃え尽きているよ, I’m burned out!) And you do nothing…”
“She’s not my mother.” We’ve had this argument before. “Look, Reiko, there are shisetsu (施設, institutions) for people in her condition.”
“Sure there are. And in the old days there were mountains where they dumped old people. They were called ubasuteyama“
“Reiko, be reasonable! You’re not saying a yōgo rōjin hōmu (養護老人ホーム, nursing home for the elderly) is the same as an ubasuteyama?”
“I’m saying you’re so anxious to get rid of her that you’d toss her into a shisetsu long before it’s necessary!”
“I . . . ” Is that true? I’d be lying if I said it was entirely false.
“Those yōgo rōjin hōmu are konzatsu (混雑, overcrowded) and jinin busoku (人員不足, understaffed). Kaigo fukushi-shi (介護福祉士, care workers) are dreadfully underpaid. Last week I read about a kangoshi (看護師, nurse) caught shooting kakuseizai (覚醒剤, stimulants) in a shisetsu toilet! And you want my mother . . . “
“What about that hōmu herupā (ホームヘルパー, home helper) you hired? Isn’t she working out?”
“She and mother don’t get along (naka ga yokunai, 仲が良くない).”
There are a lot of people her mother doesn’t get along with.
“It’s not the helper’s fault,” said Reiko, as though reading my thoughts. “I know mother can be difficult (ganko, 頑固). But the helper is a professional, after all.”
“Yes, well . . . kaigo no puro mo ningen da ne (介護のプロも人間だね, professional care-givers are human too).”
“If only you would help out a little (sukoshi gurai demo tetsudatte kurereba, 少しぐらいでも手伝ってくれれば), instead of pretending she doesn’t exist!”
“Speak of the devil,” I murmured. The subject of our conversation had wandered into the room.
The old lady’s gaze was fixed on me — a shocking gaze filled with malignant, venomous hatred. “You!” she hissed. “You’re the one who ruined my life! (お前のおかげで人生めちゃめちゃだ！ Omae no okage de jinsei mechamecha da!)”
“Grandmother . . . ” My daughter, just home from school. Kimika is 10, and here’s a strange but true fact: with her, the old lady is almost — not quite but almost — normal (kenkō-so, 健康そう).
“Kimi-chan,” she said mildly, having apparently forgotten all about me. “Let’s go into your room, child, and you can read me a story. Will you?”
“Of course, grandmother,” said the little girl, leading the old woman away.
Reiko sank into an armchair. There was a long, strained silence. In vain I sought for something to say. The ringing of my cell phone was a welcome relief.
“Professor Keyes?” A woman’s voice.
“Ex-professor Keyes.” A perverse pleasure I seem to draw from rubbing salt in the wound of my forced early retirement .
“This is Hashimoto . . . ” Oh dear. A former student I was once perhaps a little too close to (boku no kawaii seito, 僕のかわいい生徒). “Yes, I see, thank you.” I rang off, leaving her to figure out — she’s no fool (baka ja nai, 馬鹿じゃない) — that I couldn’t talk just then.
“Keyes’ Point” appears on the first Bilingual page of each month.