Yuki stared into her eyes in the mirror trying to catch the cancer staring out. It was tricky. Trapped in her wounded body, it was a serpent – poisoned, irradiated, withdrawn, and resting. But it would regain strength and it would strike back. She could see its flickering tongue. It would soon kill her.
How deep her eyes were, how unnerving, like amber and its depth in time. Far below the surface the serpent coiled. And surrounding her eyes and the serpent, a mask pale as mist. Months ago, her brittle hair had left her in clumps. She raised her thin arm and slid her hand over a bald, shiny head. Then she smiled. She had been taught long ago to smile even in tribulation, and it was a difficult habit to break. And she was always beautiful when she smiled.
The mirror stood on a small vanity of institutional plastic and stainless steel. To her immediate left stood a vase of mauve tulips, their petals stretched embarrassingly open. Under the vase was a small square note-card of thick ivory paper. On the card in black ink, in lovely script were the words “You can beat this. I’ll be back next weekend. Love, Karen.” Next to the tulips was a pile of envelopes, letters, emails, scribbled notes, and adjacent were two tubes of lipstick, various lotions, a lustrous black wig and iridescent orange and green bottles of pills.
The room was small and rectangular, but windows on the far wall opened onto a spacious well-groomed lawn, interrupted by an occasional towering Douglas Fir. Those trees were probably over one hundred and fifty feet tall the day I was born, thought Yuki. Such paltry things we are, except for our hubris. Life and death toy with us. We lose whatever nobility we’ve earned in their gaze.
Two crows strutted beneath the nearest tree, hunting in the pine needles for treasures, squawking at each other. Yuki watched them for a few minutes then turned away. She would be leaving tomorrow and she was scared. This home was a brief respite for her, and her journey beyond the front door was uncharted.
Memories came to her at random. If she tried to remember something, it was hopeless, but then, out of the blue, one came. But not always the one she wanted. And not always when she wanted. This memory came to her in a dream, and began with her running down a long hallway, her mother waiting at the far end, arms outstretched. But when she ran into her mother’s arms they turned to dust and fell to the ground, and there was nothing there to grasp. Nothing tangible. And now was a different time, a loud pompous man orating, “To dust we shall return, we shall be turned to dust.” Her arms were gone. Her mother was gone. She was alone in the long hallway, only the silence of the wood creaking, the shadows of footsteps redacting.
From down the hall, Yuki heard dinner plates rattling on a metal cart, the cart’s wheels rattling on the tile floor. First Carol Guterson, then Wendy Riordan, then Yuki, then Diane Faber, then Kitty Notely. The nightly feeding ritual. Heavy white plates covered with steel discs, a hole in the center to let out steam. Slices of tasteless turkey smothered in runny gravy, hyper-orange carrots, hyper-green peas, a carafe of tea, black, and a slice of cake edged with gummy pink tasteless frosting. Miho made sure to place a tsukemono on a small saucer.
Yuki always tried to eat it all. Another thing she had been taught that was difficult to forget. There were always lean times. But these days she largely failed and vomited it all up. The tea however, came after, and always soothed her.
How interesting, she thought, the way a life is constructed, most habits and tendencies taking root while a young child, learned from your parents. You carry them with you like gifts or curses your whole life. And then, in the liberation of death, they become irrelevant. You stare them down. You dissolve them.
Yuki was seventy-two and both her parents were dead. Her mother had died eleven years ago at the age of eighty. She had related to her mother the way her daughter Alice related to her – on weekends and with irregular phone calls. Karma, they used to call it. Yuki had no right to bitch, but she laughed bitterly. If only we could retrieve the past like some old sweater we knitted, and redo the stitches.
Her father had died shortly after she’d begun classes at the University of Washington. A sudden massive heart attack while on his regular morning walk. Her father, Furuya Hiroto, or Hiroto Furuya as he began calling himself in America, had been a judge in Japan, but had left in 1932, the year Yuki was born on U.S. soil. Coming to America had been a matter of principle for her father, who she remembered as a moral and philosophical man, although his principles often left him inflexible. Hiroto felt his country was becoming dangerously expansive and bloated with hubris. He idealized America as a land of freedom and opportunity, just like the posters stated.
Once in America, Hiroto shunned everything Japanese. Moving from California to Seattle, he refused to settle in Japantown, and opted for lower Queen Anne. Luckily, he had money that he brought from Japan. He studied and took a job as a paralegal with an international law firm located on Fifth and Mercer. He courted white Americans for friends, and succeeded. Yuki’s father was intelligent, amiable and generous.
It was almost a rule of law in the house not to speak Japanese, or to cook in the “old ways.” Beef, potatoes, lettuce salad and ice cream, usually strawberry, replaced rice, tofu, fish, bok choy, tsukemono and miso soup. Chairs replaced tatami mats. Forks replaced chopsticks. Only Yuki’s mother tried to remain traditional, ultimately obeyed Hiroto. She became American too.
Yuki remembered how disbelieving and stunned her father was when they were forced to go to the camps. Herded like cattle into the train at King Street Station. Her father stated over and over to anyone who would listen that he was a patriot. He would go and fight for his country. Yuki remembered him being hit with a baton by a policeman whose sleeve he’d grabbed. She had been terrified, her father kneeling in the street, still holding the policeman’s sleeve.
It was not until he was in camp, and finally offered the chance to assert his new American identity, that he declined. He was too old he said, and far too jaded by then. He refused to renounce his citizenship, however, as many Nisei did. The camp hadn’t just scarred Hiroto and Yuki, it had shattered them and left them to put themselves back together.
She turned to the window again but the crows were gone. Shadows lengthened across the grass. She wanted to forget so much.
Her mother, Mizuki, had lived alone in her small bungalow in Kalispell, Montana, where she’d moved after Hiroto died. She lived there the remainder of her life and never moved back to Seattle. Her mother had died of a heart attack as well, cooking breakfast. Smoke from the burning pan alerted a neighbor. The family, what was left of it – a straggle of aunts, one daughter and cousins – buried her in a small hillside cemetery overlooking Flathead Lake. Yuki wondered if her mother could see the lake from where she lay? That was how she’d imagined it. When you died you were in the ground but also in the sky, and you could see everything. If the winds were up today, the whitecaps would break far off shore the way they had the day of the burial. Yuki had not cried at the funeral, but she had cried many times since.
She toyed with her peas.
Her doctor’s visit, several months ago, had been a routine checkup. Some stomach problems Yuki had attributed to stress. What followed had been chaos that left her disoriented and weightless, as if she could blow away. After a barrage of tests, she’d been informed she had stage four pancreatic cancer. Stage four? She didn’t know how to act. How many stages were there?
The GTX cycles had been the hardest. Gemzar, Taxotene, and Xeloda in five cycles over fifteen weeks. And then radiation, and her beautiful hair had left her. She hadn’t wanted to see anyone, which made her friends more insistent to see her.
“This is not the time to push your friends away,” Karen Pope told her, somewhat forcefully.
And then, after chemotherapy and radiation had savaged her, the doctors performed surgery, the Whipple procedure, named after the first man to slice out half the stomach, the gall bladder, head of the pancreas, duodenum, jejunum and adjacent lymph nodes. Pieces of her body removed. After the operation she wondered what they did with them? Toss them in the county dump? Sell them online for research? She had never experienced such pain as when she woke from that recent episode of her life. Pain killers became her best friend.
Tomorrow her daughter Alice would come and get her. Tomorrow was her last day of hyper-green peas. Alice would deliver her from FirCrest Convalescent Home to her Queen Anne condo with its walls of glass and sweeping views of Elliot Bay, its abundance of orchids, her cat Kitso, and an inevitable mountain of mail, phone calls and email. Her post-operative stay at Fircrest had been arranged on her doctor’s advice. Yuki, left to her own devices would have returned home immediately, and as soon as the pain was bearable drowned herself in work. But now she was thankful someone else had made the decision.
Although the stay at Fircrest was often frustrating and difficult, it had given Yuki time to think and reminisce, something she hadn’t done in a long time. It had given her time to remember.
Even at seventy-two Yuki loved her work. She’d gotten into real estate after graduating from the University of Washington with an MBA in 1956. Before Seattle was anything but an amalgam of neighborhoods drained by the original skid road. Before Starbucks and Amazon and Microsoft and REI put it on the map in a big way.
Yuki was hired by Katherine Street Realty to do their books, and being bright, learned the ropes quickly. She liked people and getting out of the office, and soon the ledgers weren’t nearly as appealing. She obtained her real estate license in 1959 and began what turned into a long and lucrative career, initially for Katherine Street, then for her own company.
It was Miho poking her head around the corner of the room.
“Are you sleeping?”
“You always ask me if I am sleeping,” replied Yuki. “Am I ever sleeping?”
“Sometimes, but then you don’t answer,” Miho answered laughing. “How are you feeling?”
“Like I’ve been hit by a truck and dragged for miles.”
“So, you want pain medicine?”
“Yes, and a sleeping pill and some tea.”
“You want some tea. Ahh, you must be feeling better. Tea before bed.”
“I’m feeling okay, actually.”
“You’re going home tomorrow.”
Yuki said nothing. She was going home to die.
Miho returned in a few minutes with a small paper cup containing two pills.
“Thank you, Miho. I’ll miss you.”
Miho bowed. “I’ll miss you too.” She stood smiling, seeming to not want to leave. “You will get better, Mrs. Waldren. You’ll see.” Then after a minute, “I’ll get your tea.”
Yuki nodded and smiled herself, watching Miho back out of the room. Miho was the only Japanese woman working at Fircrest, and they’d instantly bonded. Although Miho was not assigned to Yuki, she always checked on her in the evening. They both knew evening was the most vulnerable time of day.
She didn’t want to contradict Miho with what doctor Wyalet had said after surgery, now three weeks past.
“I’m going to be blunt, Yuki, I’m not going to sugar coat it. Pancreatic cancer is almost always fatal. You could have six months, or maybe only two. It could even be sooner. Toward the end things will be rough, but we’ll put you in hospice so the pain will be controlled.” He stood over her tapping his clipboard. He is a kind man, thought Yuki, despite his demeanor. He must hate telling people this. “Put your affairs in order. And of course, if you’re inclined, pray for a miracle.”
Miho returned with tea.
“Too hot,” she said laughing, setting it on the bedside table, Yuki already starting to drift.
Miho bowed again. “Bye, Mrs. Waldron.”
Yuki opened her eyes and spoke very softly. “Goodbye Miho. And thank you.”
The heavy metal door clicked shut. Yuki lay back and closed her eyes again. She took several deep breaths, then grimacing sat up, and swung her legs over the side of the bed. It was Miho’s gift to her. She would drink the tea, even though it was too hot.