Eons ago in an America light-years away, my wife and I stopped at the only eatery available in a town that hit the bull’s-eye in the middle of nowhere. As we ordered coffee and toast, an old man shuffling past suddenly stopped and spoke to my wife. She may have been the first Oriental he had ever seen.
“I am not,” the man said, “the village idiot.” He shoved his stubbled face close and my wife flinched.
“Nor am I the village drunk.” And now the man pressed her at the elbows and made her stand.
“What I am is the village hugger.” And so saying, he hugged my wife. “I find,” he said, “this makes the world a better place.” Then he moseyed on, hugging every person in his path.
From that scene of unexpected harmony we now turn the world upside-down.
I slouch on a rumpled cot in a hospital ward in the American Northwest. My second son lies out before me with tubes in his body and a packet of blood suspended above his head. A nurse wiping his brow tells me she too has a 21-year-old boy, a marine somewhere in the firestorm of Iraq.
“He usually e-mails every day, but I haven’t heard from him now in a week.” There is a tremble to her lips.
A surgeon enters. I am jet-lagged from my flight, so his words but flutter through my ears: operation . . . risk . . . chance of cancer . . .
“But your son’s a lucky fellow. If he’d come but two days later . . . well, let’s not think about that.”
No, let’s not.
The surgeon smiles. He has a velvet voice and a bedside manner, both well rehearsed, I suppose, on patients just like my son, those too feeble to argue back.
“You decide,” the fellow says. “But even if the medication works, I’d still advise surgery. Many people go on to lead normal lives.” Then he goes on with his normal life and strolls from the room. The nurse follows. My son weeps.
“What did I do,” he says, “to deserve this?”
For longtime readers of this column, this is the same son who once happily dreamed of growing up to become a giraffe. Now ulcers are chewing out his insides. He has dropped 40 pounds in a single month.
My mind replays images of the day I met his mother, standing carefree in the Kyushu sun, of our awkward but determined romance, and of how we beamed with youthful conviction that our Japanese-American bond would triumph over whatever obstacles life flung our way. But life bides its time and sets traps one can never expect.
“It’s not your fault,” I tell him of life and its twists. But he is not in the mood to listen.
Einstein must have birthed his theory of relativity in a hospital. Time crawls. We talk. We play cards. We watch the IV tube drip. Every hour — morning and night — I help him rise for the toilet. While he discharges blood, I intake coffee.
On the phone his mother is frantic. It’s frightful to have a child across the world and in harm’s way. My son’s nurse would agree.
“How’s my father?” I ask my wife.
Incredibly, on almost the same day I rushed to the States for our son, my father also collapsed and had to be helicoptered to an emergency ward in the Midwest. From Oregon to Illinois to Iraq, the Earth seemed to be spinning in flames.
“Holding his own,” she says. “You do the same.”
I tell her the medication will surely halt the bleeding and I will bring our son back. I promise her that. We try to hold each other through the telephone line.
From his bed, my son says the first thing he’s going to eat when he’s well is a plate of nachos. Yet he knows his sickness is incurable. He may live to be 80, but he will never be well. Not entirely.
“But I’m gonna get better. I am.”
And so he does. Well enough so that I can soon walk the hospital halls and haunt the cafeteria. Sometimes I almost weep myself at the kindness of nurses and doctors. Other times, I boil with stress-fed emotions. I grumble about U.S. health care, medical bills, sugar-pumped cafeteria cookies and a distant war I have never understood.
Another distraught person, whose bumper stickers I can just imagine, seethes across the table and says: “Tell me, mister. Why do you hate America?”
I glare back and tell him I don’t. He says I should then shut up or go back where I belong. “This is the best country in the world and we don’t need your kind.”
I tell him I love my country so much I can’t stand to see it sink to his level. He stomps out, and it’s a good thing too. I’m sure he could have beaten me to a pulp.
He’s gone, but he’s not gone. I sit there in a defensive pout and pick apart our words. A defeating thought rises from within my memory, a thought that floats above the pain of sickness, conflict and sorrow and nudges my conscience:
The village hugger, I bet, would have handled that differently.
Upstairs, the nurse is beaming. “I got e-mail from my son! He’s fine!”
Great, I tell her, great. May all sons everywhere live long and prosper.
My own son is on his feet. The doctors have released him for a plane ride, but once in Japan, he must zip straight to the hospital.
“We’re going home!” he says.
Home . . .
After so many years in Japan, on which end of the far-reaching ocean does that magic land lie?
Or does it matter? My son and I hug — a hug that spans the globe.