He told me that our son, Hisashi, would be better off living with his sister and her husband in America; I was too weak to argue with him. My mother said I had lost my mind to give up my child. Her judgment of me was cruel, but I knew she was right.
“You are like a monk for three days,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“You give up too easily. You carried your baby for nine months; you took care of him for three years; and after all that you give him away. What was the point of that struggle? Do you not love him, Noriko?”
“Of course, I love him. But what if Ichiro dies? The doctors can’t tell me if he is doing better or worse and we have no money. I will be a widow with a three-year-old. I don’t have the courage to face such a fate alone.” I shocked myself hearing how defeated I sounded. A year of trying to buoy my husband’s spirit was dragging me into a sandpit of sorrow.
“The family will find a way to help you if it should come to that. In the meantime, you must stand up to your husband. You are not just an obedient Japanese wife who walks behind her husband staring at his ass. What has become of you? You used to be such a rebellious child. Now you are like a pillow with all the feathers pulled out.”
“Ichiro tells me that I am selfish to want to keep Hisashi. He sneers and says, ‘What kind of life can we offer him?’ I had no answer. I still have no answer.
“Mother, are you disappointed in me?”
I cannot testify that this is exactly how the conversation with my mother went, but I did not ask her for help or turn to my brothers or sister. I felt too ashamed for the situation Ichiro and I found ourselves in. And it was no one’s fault.
And now here we were in a sparse room at the Dai-Ichi Hotel in Tokyo with the rain falling against the window blurring the edges of the Shinsaibashi train station across the street. Hisashi was still asleep next to me, his body warm; his black bangs lifting as he gently breathed in and out, in and out. I touched his rosy cheeks and brushed a few strands of hair from his eyes. He sat up, his beautiful smile greeting me – so innocent and unknowing of what lay ahead.
Pressing his hand against his pajamas he looked up at me. “Shee shee Mama. I have to go to the bathroom.”
“Can you wait a few minutes? Your daddy is just finishing his shower.”
“That’s my good boy.” I kissed his head and breathed in his sweet scent.
Ichiro opened the bathroom door, a cloud of steam hanging behind him. Pulling his belt to the tightest notch, he looked as if he was wearing a bigger man’s business suit. The medication was stealing his appetite. He complained that nothing but liquor had any flavor.
“So, our little man is up. We don’t have much time. The train will be leaving in less than an hour. I want to be at the terminal early so we get a seat. I don’t have the energy to stand for the entire trip to the airport.”
Taking his father’s gold lighter off the table, Ichiro spun the flint and took a deep drag on his cigarette.
“Should you be smoking, Ichiro?” I asked.
“What difference does it make? Please don’t annoy me with your questions. Smoking is one of the few things I enjoy.”
Hisashi pulled my hand reminding me that he needed to use the bathroom. I picked him up. “You are getting so heavy. All the weight your daddy is losing he must be giving to you.”
Ichiro ignored my comment. Turning on the radio, he flipped the dial to the classical music station. “Do you recognize this? Beethoven’s Ninth. His last and greatest symphony. No composer has written a tenth – not Mahler, not Bruckner, not Schubert. They all died trying. Sad isn’t it?” How easily Ichiro distracted himself from what they dreaded: this day, this hour, this moment. He habitually hid his emotions inside the coffin of his intellect.
Hisashi sat down on the toilet seat as I instructed him so that he wouldn’t make droplets on the tile floor. I wiped the fog off the mirror, quickly brushed my teeth and combed my hair. The fluorescent light exaggerated the faint scar on my forehead where a shard of glass hit me, marking me forever a hibakusha – a survivor of the Hiroshima bomb.
I opened Hisashi’s suitcase and took out the new outfit I bought at Takashimaya. Ichiro said I was wasting our money, but I wanted him to look his best for the trip to America. I had washed the shirt to soften the fabric and cut the label so that it wouldn’t scratch his neck. With these small gestures, I wanted it known that I was a good mother. I helped him close the buttons of his shirt and then holding up the short trousers, Hisashi stepped into them and pulled the suspenders over his shoulders. I thought, “Keep going. Tell him what to do next.”
“Here. Put your socks on.”
“Left leg. Now right leg. Done, Mama.”
I sang out: “Put your left leg in. Put your left leg out. Now do the hokey pokey and turn yourself around. . . ”
Hisashi finished the song: “And that’s what it’s all about.”
Ichiro turned up the volume on the radio, signaling that we were annoying him. “Do you hear it, Noriko? The final movement of the Ninth – the famous chorus. “
Wer ein holdes Weib errungen,
Mische seinen Jubel ein!!
“What does that mean, Ichiro?”
“If I remember correctly, my professor said: ‘Whoever has found an obedient wife,
let him join our songs of praise!’ I couldn’t agree more.”
Laughing he grabbed Hisashi and put him on his knee.
“Yes, hold on tight.” Ichiro suddenly coughed. Beads of sweat appeared on his forehead. He stopped and lifted Hisashi off his knee.
Hisashi took out an imaginary coin and tried to put it in his father’s pocket. “Here, Dada. Again, again. “
“No, that’s enough for now. You’ll ruin your new suit. Your mama wants you to look your very best for your new parents.”
Wide-eyed, Hisashi hit his father. “No. No. No.”
Ichiro pinned his arms down by his sides as tears rolled down my son’s cheeks. “Calm down. It’s time for us to go. Put your jacket on and your shoes. I don’t want to hear another No out of you.” Hisashi’s lower lip quivered.
Opening his briefcase, he held up the documents: “Passport, tickets, letter to stewardess,” and then turned the radio off as the news interrupted the music. “Good morning listeners. Today is February 29, 1964. Leap Year. Don’t forget, ladies. You may ask your boyfriend to marry you, if you dare.” So next year there would be no February 29. Will I light a candle on February 28, or March 1, and say a prayer for my little boy and wish that someday I will see him again, if not in this lifetime then in the next?
I put a framed wedding photograph of Ichiro and me on top of Hisashi’s clothes so that he wouldn’t forget what we looked like and tucked a heart-shaped box made of paulownia wood between the layers in his suitcase. Inside the box was Hisashi’s umbilical cord that all good Japanese mothers saved from the time of their child’s birth as a symbol of the connection between mother and child. As of today it would no longer belong to me. It was to be passed on to Mitsuko. Closing the suitcase, the latches snapped shut, the sound echoing off the barren walls.
The late February air was damp, and the cloudy sky promised more rain. Blackbirds swooped down on the branches of the barren trees which in a month would be pregnant with cherry blossoms, the city parks clogged with viewing parties organized by happy families and visiting tourists, reveling in the beauty and impermanence of the pink snow. I tried pushing the thought out of my mind, but a voice kept repeating, Hisashi will not be here to see the cherry blossoms. You and Ichiro will be all alone.
Ichiro and I clasped our son’s hands and lifted him over the muddy puddles in the street to make sure that his new shoes did not get wet. “Higher, higher,” Hisashi shouted as if we were playing a game. Ichiro stopped to catch his breath. He leaned over and rested his hands on his knees taking shallow breaths to clear his lungs and bring the blood back into his head.
“Are you all right, Ichiro?”
“Just a little dizzy. Give me a moment and I’ll be fine.”
Distracted, I didn’t realize that Hisashi had escaped my grip and jumped right into a puddle, splashing his shoes with mud. Ichiro slapped Hisashi on the behind. “You naughty boy. Your mama is going to have to wash off your shoes when we get to the airport.”
“Ichiro, go easy on him. He’s just trying to hold your attention. We can’t expect him to always be an obedient child. Especially today. . .”
Ichiro wiped his mouth with his handkerchief and tucked it back into his breast pocket. “You’re right, Noriko. I shouldn’t be so harsh, but this is as difficult for me as it is for you – even if I don’t show it.”
We found a seat in the front car. The doors closed and the train pulled out of the station picking up speed as it headed toward Haneda International Airport. Hisashi sat on my lap next to the window and called out the names of the passing images: bicycle, dog, car, wagon. His vocabulary was expanding rapidly and he was speaking in complete sentences, the result of all the books his father read to him. He was smart like Ichiro, but he was also a very emotional and sensitive child – which he inherited from me. My son was like a cup filled with tea poured at the same time from two defective kettles. After what we were about to do, neither of us deserved him.
Ichiro scanned the Help Wanted Section of yesterday’s Osaka Shimbun that he had brought from home. He meticulously circled “salesclerk needed in menswear department at Daimuru Osaka Shinsaibashi”; “bookkeeper position at Nippon Steel”; and hesitating a moment he marked “taxi driver, Osaka Transportation Company.” A job so beneath him, but the pay would probably be good through the Olympics next summer. Folding the paper, he put it back in his briefcase. The rocking of the train was making him sleepy and he struggled to stay awake. I watched his eyes begin to flutter behind his glasses which he had recently taken to wearing as his eyesight seemed to be worsening. There were times that I didn’t recognize my handsome husband.
Hisashi pulled his cap off and hid his face. “Where are you, Dada?”
“Right next to you. Where did you think I was?” He then tickled his son’s stomach and Hisashi squirmed in my lap. “Let’s keep him quiet so that he doesn’t get overheated.” I unbuttoned his maroon jacket and gave him a glass bottle filled with water. He sucked on the worn rubber nipple until there was nothing left in it but air.
The voice over the loudspeaker announced, “Next stop Haneda International Airport. All passengers must disembark. Please check around your seats to make sure you have all your belongings.”
Ichiro picked Hisashi off my lap and I carried his suitcase and my husband’s briefcase. A long flight of stairs led into the main terminal. Ichiro’s steps slowed until he turned to me. “Take him. I can’t carry him any longer.” I clutched Hisashi’s warm body next to mine. I could feel his heart beating just as it had when he was inside me, or did I imagine it? I kissed his neck and sang softly into his ear:
You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy when skies are grey
You’ll never know dear how much I love you
Please don’t take my sunshine away.
We had played this song so many times on the phonograph that he could sing along with me. When I reached the last line, I started to choke back tears. He picked up the lyric. “Please don’t take my sunshine away,” and then he kissed my cheek which was wet with tears that I could no longer stifle.
Ichiro ignored us and walked directly up to the ticketing agent at the Northwest Airlines counter handing him Hisashi’s one-way ticket from Tokyo to San Francisco. The clock overhead read 9:30. The black second hand juddered like a rusty music box marking the minutes until Hisashi’s departure. I wanted to turn back time to the day that Hisashi was born; that I held my perfect baby in my arms and promised to never let him go.
The agent looked through the documents. “I see everything is in order, Mr. Uchida. Since your son is traveling alone, we have assigned a stewardess who speaks Japanese to take care of him during the flight. There is one stop in Hawaii, but he can stay on the airplane with the other passengers who are also continuing on to San Francisco. Does he have any luggage?”
Ichiro answered, “Only this small suitcase. I measured it, and it will fit neatly under his seat.”
The agent stamped Hisashi’s passport and handing Ichiro a boarding pass said, “Mr. and Mrs. Uchida, I am afraid that you can’t go onto the airplane. When it is time to board, the stewardess will escort your son to his seat.”
“No. It’s not right. We want to be with him until the very last minute.”
“I’m sorry. These are the rules. Only ticketed passengers can go onto the plane, Mrs. Uchida. “
“Are there no exceptions? Hisashi is only three. What if he is afraid?”
The agent crossed out something he had written on a pad of paper in front of him, as if he was trying to get rid of me. Pausing a moment, he said in a low voice, “You should have thought of that before, Mrs. Uchida.” Turning to my husband he asked, “Who will be meeting your son in San Francisco?”
Ichiro answered, “My sister Mitsuko Mishima, and her husband, Harry. They paid for my son’s ticket and made all his travel arrangements.”
The agent filled out a form and handed it to Ichiro. “Give this to the stewardess. She will make sure that your son is turned over only to his aunt and uncle. Northwest Airlines is responsible for his safety and we want to be sure that he is placed in the proper hands upon his arrival.”
A line was forming behind us. The agent looked impatient. “If you have no other questions, you can just wait in the lounge area. There will be an announcement when the airplane is ready to board.” He leaned over the counter. “Have a good trip, Master Hisashi.”
The three of us found a place to sit. I had forgotten to eat breakfast, but I felt sick to my stomach. Opening my pocketbook, I handed Hisashi a hard candy. The syrup dribbled down his chin. I was afraid that he’d mess his new shirt. “Why don’t we go to the bathroom one more time. I can wash your face, and clean off your shoes, my angel.”
Hisashi followed me mumbling to himself. “What are you saying, Hisashi?”
“San Francisco, Mama. San Francisco.”
“Yes, that is where you are going.”
He hesitated for a moment and then asked, “You are going, too, Mama?”
“I don’t think so, but there are lots of surprises waiting for you.” I forced myself to smile. “Now be a brave boy and do just what your Papa and I tell you. Will you do that for me?”
I turned the faucet on and washed the sticky syrup off Hisashi’s face. Then I leaned down and scraped the mud off his shoes so that they looked brand new again. Hisashi wrapped his arms around my neck. “Carry me, Mama.”
I lifted my son and held him close. I wanted to remember the weight of him, his sweet scent, the softness of his cheek. I wanted to run away with him, to get back on the train, and take him to Hokkaido, to Kyushu, somewhere never to be seen or heard from again. But I had no money and I had made a promise to Ichiro to give our son away. “For a better life.” It sounded hollow now that the moment had finally arrived. How was I going to live without him? I didn’t know.
Ichiro was standing at the gate holding Hisashi’s suitcase, speaking with a stewardess. He waved me into the line. “This is Miss Yume. She will take good care of you, Hisashi.” Trying to remain calm I said, “Miss Yume, please be sure that Hisashi eats all his meals. When he says ‘shee shee’ that means he needs to go to the bathroom. In case he starts to cry, I have put a photograph of my husband and me in his suitcase. Perhaps that will comfort him.”
“Don’t worry, Mrs. Uchida. We will do everything to make your son feel taken care of. It is not often we have a three-year-old traveling alone. I don’t mean to hurry you, but perhaps we should get on board so I can settle him in his seat ahead of the other passengers.”
Ichiro crouched down. “You go first. Mama and Papa will come later. We will be on the very next airplane.” Handing him his red wooden truck he said, “Don’t forget your zoom zoom.” Then he hugged his son for the last time.
I kissed Hisashi hard as if my lips were burning a permanent scar into his cheeks. Miss Yume took Hisashi’s hand. “Wave goodbye to your mama and papa.” He did as he was told and then followed Miss Yume down the ramp, but at the last minute he turned around. I could see that his cheeks were glistening with tears, but he didn’t cry or call out. He pulled his cap down over his eyes and like a brave soldier kept walking.
Ichiro and I stood at the window until the airplane taxied down the runway, lifted off, and was devoured by rain clouds. Burying my face in Ichiro’s neck and sobbing through my tears I asked, “Why did you tell Hisashi we will be on the next airplane?”
“I thought telling him we would be coming soon would make it easier for him to leave us. I didn’t want him fussing and whining in front of all the other passengers.” Shrugging his shoulders in defeat, he said, “Even if we had enough money to buy tickets, the U.S. Immigration people would send me right back to Japan like a piece of battered luggage stamped “CAREFUL, TUBERCULOSIS.”
I felt a sharp pain in my chest as if my heart were cracking open like a clay urn firing in a noborigami kiln. Turning away from Ichiro, I wanted to ask him, “How could you do this to me? To Hisashi?” But I knew the answer. I had only myself to blame.
The night manager of the Dai-Ichi Hotel looked up from his reservation ledger as Ichiro and I walked through the empty lobby. “Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. Uchida. Would you like some tea and rice balls sent up to your room?” Before Ichiro could answer, he continued. “And if I might inquire, where is your son? Such an enchanting child. So happy.”
Ichiro answered, “He’s on his way to visit relatives in America. We are expecting a call from San Francisco to let us know that he has arrived safely. Please connect the call to our room no matter what time it comes in. And have our bill ready for us. We are going back to Osaka tomorrow morning.”
“With pleasure, sir. May I wish both of you a good evening.”
Halfway up the stairs, Ichiro turned around. “On second thought, send a bottle of hot sake to our room. This weather is giving me a chill.”
The hotel room was dark; I felt along the wall for the overhead switch. The maid had stored our futons and comforters in the closet. I slid the wardrobe door open and unrolled the bedding leaving Hisashi’s comforter on the shelf. Ichiro turned on the radio to the news station: “Takamatsu Construction Group reported the addition of one thousand full- and part-time workers to meet the deadlines for next year’s Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo.”
I thought, “Maybe there will be a job for Ichiro. If there is so much demand, a prospective employer might overlook the gaps in his employment history. Since he was fired as manager of the restaurant, he hadn’t been able to hold down a steady job."
As if reading my thoughts, he said, “With the economy so brisk, I might have better luck now.”
There was a gentle knock on the door. A waitress brought a bottle of sake on a lacquer tray and placed it on a low table in the center of the room. Bowing he closed the door behind him.
Turning my back to Ichiro, I unbuttoned my blouse and stepped out of my skirt while he quickly undressed. Sitting on a cushion, I waited while Ichiro filled two porcelain cups with sake. Handing me one, he drained his cup in a single gulp and refilled his cup. I took a few sips and then slid under the comforter. Ichiro turned off the light and lay down beside me. Kissing me gently and then with more force he caressed my breasts. I smelled the familiar scent of his after-shave cologne mixed with the smell of sake and tobacco. Even in pain and sadness, the power of our physical attraction to one another was overwhelming. Like two survivors on a life raft, we clung to one another, riding each wave of desire as if it might be the fatal one that would wash us overboard and into a roiling sea. Our passion was all that we had left to keep us from drowning in our unspoken sorrow.
Just before dawn, the telephone rang. The night manager said, “As you instructed, sir, I am putting your call through from America.”
Ichiro recognized his sister Mitsuko’s voice. I could hear her through the receiver. “I’m holding Hisashi in my arms. He is such a precious child – so smart and lively. The minute I put him down he escapes, and Harry has to chase after him.”
Ichiro asked, “Is he smiling?”
“Yes. The stewardess says that he was a good passenger, running through the airplane saying hello to everyone during the flight.”
Ichiro said, “Promise me, Mitsuko, that you will take good care of him. You must be sure and give him a good life – something that neither Noriko nor I can afford to do. From now on he is your son, and not ours.”
I tried to grab the telephone. “Let me say hello to Hisashi. I need to hear his voice; and I want to tell him that I love him – that he is my sunshine.”
“No, hearing your voice will only confuse him. My sister will let us know how he is doing in a few days. Then maybe when he is settled, I’ll allow you to speak to him.”
I left Ichiro holding the telephone. Turning on the shower, I let the steam engulf me and the heat scorch my skin. Sliding to the floor, I screamed like a mother in mourning for her dead son.