Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Week One, Day 5: Same Song, Second Verse

It's amazing how history repeats itself in slight variations...

Wednesday morning arrived, and I dutifully got up, got myself together, gathered up my rather intimidating collection of necessities, and headed off once again for Kashima Rousai Hospital.

Our cat, Mint, had slept under my bed the night before and seemed irritated when I discovered her that morning. Apparently she'd thought herself well hidden, but as she shares my affliction of a perpetually sniffly nose, secrecy is pretty much impossible. The weird thing is that she'd never done that before. No, actually, what was really weird was that the day before had been the first anniversary of the death of my in-laws' cat, Mi, whom Mint resembles. Mint showed up on our doorstep (as Mi had shown up on the in-laws' doorstep 14 years before) about six months after Mi died and freaked everyone out. That's why she was named Mint. Anyway, for some bizarre reason, Mint spent most of the day camped in front of Mi's grave and was reluctant to leave. After leaving her hiding place under my bed and having her breakfast, she followed me out as I headed for Rousai and immediately went to Mi's grave again.

Yes, I know I've digressed, but I had to wonder if it was an omen or something.

Traffic was light, since it was well past the morning rush hour, and I made it there with skads (si*) of time to spare. That gave me some time to relax and read a bit more of Bill Wyman's Stone Alone before throwing myself into the system again. When it finally came close to H-hour, I scooped up my insurance folder and the envelopes containing the X-ray and CaT scan films from Koyama Memorial, tossed my briefcase into the back of my BLUE car, and went into the reception area.

One of the neat things about modern Japanese hospitals is that reception has been made so efficient and convenient. If it's a repeat visit, all you have to do is go up to a thing like an ATM machine and stick your card in the slot. You get checked in automatically, and you proceed directly to your appropriate department. No fuss, no mess, no long lines, and no airheaded, orange-haired snob talking to you patronizingly in incomprehensible, honorific-laced, polite language.

Naturally, my card didn't work. I stuck it in the slot and got nothing but an obnoxious-sounding, electronic bleep that was obviously designed to insult and embarrass you while at the same time advertising your dumb fool status to everyone in the wing.

Ducking behind a pillar, I examined my card closely and realized I had tried to use the one for Koyama Memorial by mistake. (I didn't even realize they'd made one, considering it was obviously a one-shot emergency visit!) Sighing, I began digging through the pile of amassed hospital cards and realized to my dismay that the one for Rousai wasn't there. When I'd come in before, my loyal, loving wife had taken care of all the technical stuff for me. Today she couldn't come, so I was on my own, but she'd told me she'd put all the stuff I needed together. Apparently her definition of "together" and mine are a bit different. At any rate, there I was, more than an hour from home, five minutes from my appointment, with no card and no appointment ticket.

The airheaded, orange-haired snob at the counter made me a new card, confirmed my appointment, checked me in, and informed me patronizingly in barely comprehensible, polite, honorific-laden language that there would be a surcharge for the replacement card. When I told her I had no idea where I was supposed to go (since my wife had made the appointment instead of me) she grabbed a map from a nearby pile and impatiently circled the urology department.

"Ah, urology," I said. "Not X-ray. Got it."

I started to walk away, but the receptionist thrust the paper in front of me and said, "No, please keep it." Then, with an air of polite "get out of my &#%$ face" finality, she quickly told me the way to the urology department. Mindful of the stares (and grins) behind me, I moved with decided haste.

Man, I love appointments! When I got to the urology department, I sat down for a grand total of two minutes before my name was called and I was sent off to the X-ray section for a CaT scan.

Rousai's CaT scanner was an older model than the one at Koyama Memorial. In other words, there was no cute, female, electronic voice telling me when to hold my breath. However, the machine was a lot larger, and the scan session took a lot less time to produce the same results.

I returned to urology, where I was made to sit for a grand total of five minutes before being called in. (I LOVE appointments!!!)

The urologist had the prints from Koyama Memorial and the ones from Rousai set up side by side for comparison. He pointed out the differences with nauseating clarity. Basically, it was something along the lines of, "This thing that looks like a misshapen golf ball was your lower-right kidney this morning. This thing over here that looks like a half-inflated beach ball was the same kidney last Saturday. In other words, that's why it hurt like an SOB. Any questions so far?"

No, I don't think so. It's all crystal clear.

However, that wasn't the end of the discussion.

The stone was still there. Unfortunately, it was also in a very inconvenient place. It had indeed passed a lot further down the track, but now it was apparently lodged in a nice, secure, little pocket where it could be seen with a CaT scan easily but not very well with a regular X-ray. In other words, that evil, little stone thought it was hiding...just like my cat had that morning.

I guess I have my own psychic cat scanner. (Alright, enough of that...)

I was then told what needed to be done about it, and it all sounded very, very, very familiar. The doctor's recommendation was to continue my current tube-dilating medication for a couple more weeks to see if the little bastard would work its way out on its own. If that didn't work, step two would be to [too icky to talk about...especially since I've already been through it once]. If that turned out to be unworkable, I might face the prospect of surgery. Again.

I'll say this much, though. At least Rousai has kept the tests short, sweet, and to the point while explaining the reason for everything along the way. (At Kaiser, back in 1984, they just kept sending me to all these wicked ordeals without a word about it. I got the feeling they were just trying everything for the sheer sake of trying it.) There has also been a comforting lack of people staring at me like a laboratory rat in the process. At least this time there is a very definite stone showing up in the scans. That gives me hope, since they couldn't find anything at all at Kaiser until they cut me open...and then the problem turned out to be a very esoteric one. This time they know exactly what the problem is, and that simplifies things immensely. It's just getting to it that's the problem.

I guess I'll find out in a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, I've got to put up with this tight, pulling feeling and occasional needle-pricks of pain in my lower right side. Oh, well. Worse things happen in the world, like spontaneous human combustion or getting invited to gala dinners with bureaucrats.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Week One, Day 3: Waiting Made Simple

Sunday the 21st was a rare gem: a day of thinking and doing absolutely nothing. It was the first such day I’d had in ages. Since my wife had skipped out on her tennis club duties that day both to look after me and do both our shares of the Sunday housecleaning, I admit I did feel a bit guilty, but hey…I was following doctor’s orders. (Besides, I think my wife really enjoyed it, as evidenced by all those chests and drawers she wound up going through.)

Monday the 22nd was an altogether different animal. My wife and I both took the day off from work (though my regular work still hasn’t started yet) so she could take me to Kashima Rousai Hospital for the visit with The Specialist. (dark, ominous fanfare) We had no idea how long I’d be there, or whether I’d wind up staying there for a long, long time, so we didn’t bother making any fixed plans. I just left all unnecessary pocket payload behind, and we left the house at an early hour. We’d been told on the evening of the 20th that we couldn’t make an appointment (?!??), so we just had to try to get there quickly and beat the crowds.

As it turned out, we made excellent time. We’d actually left assuming that it would take about an hour and a half to get there with the object of arriving half an hour before the place opened. As it turned out, even with the morning rush hour and a 7-11 breakfast stop it only took us about an hour to get there. It was a full hour till opening.

Unfortunately, Kashima Rousai Hospital is well aware of its importance and its popularity, and its system reflects that. It was a full hour until the opening of treatment, but reception apparently started a long time before that. We had arrived an hour early, and we were able to check in immediately, but the place was already packed.

And I do mean PACKED.

I have been to a number of hospitals and clinics here in Japan. It is pretty much a given that they will be crowded, mainly with old people who get free treatment and have nothing better to do, anyway. Whenever I went to Asahi Central Hospital, which is considered the #1 hospital in the southern Ibaraki/northern Chiba region, it was quite crowded and busy, to be sure. However, it wasn’t packed solid.

The urology department of Kashima Rousai was most definitely packed solid, and the median age was probably 60. Part of the problem was that there was only one urologist on duty. (Asahi Central always had two or three specialists going in whatever department I went to there.) Another problem was that they had apparently overbooked appointments while at the same time trying to squeeze in walk-ins like me. (I would’ve made an appointment, but I was told I couldn’t if it was a first-time visit, and my brief stay in the emergency ward didn’t count.)

After a wait of nearly an hour, my name was called, but when I headed for the door, I was handed a folder of documents and told to go to an upstairs lab for a urine test. At least there was no wait for that. It was my third such test in as many days, but I didn’t mind. They can have as much of my urine as they like. Blood is a different story. I’m not sure how much blood they took out of me at Koyama Memorial and then Rousai on Saturday the 20th, but it was a lot. Now, on the 22nd, I was thankful they weren’t planning to take any more…so far.

My wife and I returned to the urology department and resubmitted my papers, whereupon I was told to return to the fossilization chamber (i.e. waiting room) and wait my turn to see the doctor. Sighing, we did as we were told, but we found almost all the seats had been taken. I wasn’t in serious pain anymore, but I still had a lot of discomfort in my gut and lower back and didn’t really want to stand. My wife and I were just deciding that we’d probably have to split up when I suddenly heard a familiar-sounding, gaijin voice calling my name. It turned out to be an ex-pat friend of mine I hadn’t seen for quite some time. (Names are remaining unmentioned to protect the innocent bystanders.) Ironically, I’d been planning to call him, so our chance meeting was a fortuitous one…if not particularly pleasant considering our circumstances. Sensing correctly that we wanted to chat, a Japanese man sitting next to my friend immediately stood and beckoned me to take his place. While my wife sat in another seat nearby, I seated myself next to my friend, and we had a good chat until his name was called. It really helped to pass the time, which was a good thing. By the time I got called in to see the urologist it had been more than two hours since our arrival.

The urologist had my X-ray prints from Saturday night. He also had a nifty, little ultrasound scanner he used to check out old #1 and #2 (right-side kidneys). In the end, what he said wasn’t much different from what the doctor at Koyama Memorial had said, which I hope helps to improve the latter’s unfortunate reputation. However, the Rousai urologist did go to a lot more detail. He also pointed out some other things, both in my scans and my urine test, that most definitely bothered him. He went to great lengths to make sure I understood why.

“The ureter (i.e. the tube that connects the kidney(s) with the bladder) appears to be pinched off in a couple of places,” he said, “especially right between the two kidneys themselves. Those places are real danger spots for stones to appear.”

After that, he made me an appointment to come back on Wednesday the 24th for additional tests. (Oh, boy…) I was also given a prescription for a medicine that would dilate everything down there to try to encourage the stone to piss off (literally). (Double oh, boy…) I was then sent on my way.

The fee I wound up paying was remarkably low, especially compared with other hospitals I’ve visited. Then again, I guess it’s not such a surprise. I’ve heard that Kashima Rousai is partly subsidized, which makes sense. After all, the name “Rousai” literally means “work-related disaster”, and the hospital is located near the big Kashima (region, not city) industrial project. It’s the main hospital that all those factory workers go to. It also has special facilities and services for company-related health concerns. I guess it’s only natural that its fees are low, which goes even further to explain why the place is so damned crowded.

One ironic time-saver was the fact that, unlike most Japanese hospitals, Rousai Hospital doesn’t dispense much medicine itself. Instead, it gives you a whole list of pharmacies that it cooperates with, and they are located all over a radius of many tens of kilometers. The clerk at the cashier counter told us one closer to home would probably be cheaper, but the ones near the hospital would probably be faster and more reliable. I went for the latter option. That had to be the shortest wait for prescription medicine I’ve ever experienced in this country. Ah, the merits of decentralization…

Next we had to go over to Koyama Memorial Hospital to pick up the prints of the X-rays and CaT scan they took there so I could take them to Rousai on Wednesday. The urologist at Rousai wanted to get a good “before and after” comparison so as to better understand the situation. It was here that Koyama Memorial lived up to its reputation to some extent; the reception and clerical staff seemed to have little idea what they were doing. At the very least, the people in front had little or no idea who they were supposed to refer us to until they called around and asked. Once we were sent to the right room, however, service was efficient and rapid.

When the X-ray and CaT scan films were delivered, the doctor who had cared for me while I was there immediately hurried over to find out how I was doing. He wanted to hear everything the urologist at Rousai had said, and he closed by saying, “This is probably going to take time, and it should. You’re going to want them to check everything with great detail. Anything you miss now could trouble you later.”

He sounded almost apologetic when he said that. Considering the reputation of the hospital where he’s employed, his words are very ironic. But I’d say his heart is definitely in the right place, and that will make a difference. I wish him luck.

The next adventure will be on Wednesday morning...

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Week One, Day 1: Emergency Ward Meditations

Since my dear friend Don Snabulus is giving us a picturesque account of his adventures along the Pacific Crest Trail on his blogsite, I thought it might be nice to talk about my own trials and tribulations during this period. I’m sure Snabbie’s experiences were much9 more pleasant than mine (though, judging by some of his comments, I guess I’m not so sure…though he did get a much better view).

Saturday, August 20th started out as any typical work day, which was highly ironic for two reasons:

a. Summer vacation wasn’t over yet.
b. I don’t usually work on Saturdays.

This was no ordinary Saturday, however. This was taikennyugaku (literally “trial enrollment”) day at the academy. Basically, it gives students of other junior high schools that are thinking of entering our senior high a chance to experience a couple of sample classes. It also gives some of the local cram schools an opportunity to prove to some of their weaker students just what failures they really are by forcing them to sit through a class that is way beyond their capacity (i.e. “See what you’d be able to do if only you pulled that tiny, orange-haired excuse for a head out of your aft shaft and studied for a change?”).

As one of our school’s poster children, I’m asked to do this thing every year, even over my annual objections. I don’t really mind teaching the classes so much (most of the time). They can actually be rather fun. The problem is that, when you think about it, it’s false advertising; except for a couple of exclusive grade-12 seminars, I don’t teach senior high classes. It’s pretty sad to find out that kids have entered Seishin Gakuen Senior High looking forward to my communicative English classes only to find that they’re going to be getting nothing but five to six hours a week of boring exam English (i.e. sadly outdated grammar/translation) lessons. Almost every year I’m asked if I would mind teaching one communicative lesson a week to Room 5 (the class made up of students from other junior high schools), even if for only half a period. I always say yes, but it never happens. At least they make up new excuses.

Anyway, it seemed I was stuck doing the “trial enrollment” lessons again. It had already been an unusually busy summer, what with the trip to Australia followed immediately by the music club’s training camp followed immediately by the band contest followed soon afterward by a very demanding presentation about our new sister-school in Australia. Meanwhile, while all those were going on, I had papers to check, a very large PowerPoint presentation to work on, songs to write and record on commission, and music of my own to practice. I also had to take care of the kids since the wife was rarely if ever home and the in-laws were happily exploiting the fact that I was.

I took comfort in the fact that at least the “trial enrollment” lessons would be no-brainers. I could recycle my old teaching materials, go through the motions, and consider the false advertising safely delivered. Naturally, I was nonplussed to hear (at the last minute) that the lessons would be twice as long as usual and no longer divided by ability level. In other words, my old plans and materials were useless. I actually had to prepare, and I actually had to think. I was not amused.

I won’t go into much detail about the two lessons themselves. As it turned out, I had no trouble filling a double-length lesson slot. I actually had material to spare. Since the students were grouped by area this time, many of them knew each other, which actually made the classroom atmosphere a bit warmer than usual. I assumed my “Mr. Kevin” stage persona and had a ball with it.

Well, at least I had a ball with it until the pain appeared in my lower back halfway through the second lesson.

When you think about it, there’s little difference between a teacher and a stage performer (except that stage performers tend to get paid more). It’s kind of a general rule among any kind of performer that, while you’re onstage, you never show your audience any bad feelings, no matter how much it hurts. Hopefully neither the students nor the parents sitting in the back to observe figured out that my smile was really about seventy-five percent gnashing of teeth. Needless to say, when I came to a good stopping place in the lesson and realized I was actually a minute or two past quitting time, I hastily ended it and bolted back to the staff room.

At first I figured it was just a cramp. It was only natural considering the brutal schedule I’d been on over the previous few weeks. However, when I tried and failed to make myself comfortable in one of the sofas in the staff room, I noticed with alarm that the pain was most definitely on the right side of my lower back.

Old numbers one and two were acting up again.

You see, unlike most people, I actually have four kidneys. I have a normal pair and a smaller, extra pair. (No mutant jokes, please.) Twenty-one years ago the normal one (#1) and little one (#2) on the right side started interfering with each other, which hurt more than a little bit. (Understatement alert.) I wound up having to endure all kinds of extremely barbaric and humiliating forms of torture that the doctors called “tests”, often with college students observing and taking notes, followed by eleven hours of surgery, a week of recovery at the hospital, and another three weeks of feeling like a total invalid at home. No, it wasn’t fun. No, I wouldn’t like to go through it again.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t help noticing that the pain rapidly growing in my right side as I rolled and thrashed around on that sofa was of the same nature and in the same location as that ordeal twenty-one years ago. That definitely didn’t help matters.

When the pain became unbearable, I went to the dispensary and found it dark and locked. Apparently there was no nurse on duty even though we had about a hundred guest students plus their parents there at the time. I went to the office and borrowed the dispensary key (arousing the concern of the entire office and administrative staff, who were having a conference there at the time) so I could go in and lie down for a while. Less than ten minutes later, when the pain became excruciating, I phoned Mr. Ogawa and asked if he could take me to the nearest emergency hospital.

As I slowly boarded Mr. Ogawa’s van, gritting my teeth, he asked me which hospital I wanted to go to, Koyama Memorial, or Kashima Rousai. I thought he had to be joking. Koyama Memorial was about a three minute drive away. Going to Kashima Rousai, which is actually a considerable distance away from Kashima City, would take at least an hour. I asked him to take me to Koyama Memorial.

Herr Maestro Ogawa furrowed his brows. “Are you sure?”

My voice was more like a guttural wail as I replied, “Whatever! Koyama’s closer!”

Mr. Ogawa shook his head and put his van in gear to comply with my request.

I can understand his concern. Koyama Memorial Hospital is brand, spanking new. It is a relocation and upgrade of the old Koyama Hospital, which was located in a hard-to-find area near the beach. It was constructed near Kashima Soccer Stadium just in time to be in service when the latter was a venue for the 2002 FIFA World Cup Soccer Tournament. It is a very high-tech facility with cutting-edge equipment, and its main function is emergency care.

Unfortunately, it also has a hideous reputation. There are lots of horror stories about it, mainly involving patients brought there who were hustled through, given slip-shod treatment, and hustled back out again to find that they actually had far more serious problems than the doctors had said. In our own music club’s case, we had a student slip on a stairway while carrying a tympani and seriously twist her ankle, and when they brought her to Koyama Memorial she wound up waiting an hour before the doctor took a quick look at her, said, “Come back next week and we’ll X-ray it,” and sent her on her way. That was in 2002, just before the World Cup. Needless to say, Mr. Ogawa firmly believed the hour trip to Rousai was a better option. However, I was in too much agony to give a damn.

We arrived at the emergency wing at Koyama Memorial, where I had to wait behind two ambulance arrivals and what appeared to have been three participants in a local judo tournament that had apparently gotten injured in quick succession. It was more than half an hour of pure hell before the nurse finally called my name.

To their credit, though, they did not hustle me through. On the contrary, the staff there was attentive, thorough, and professional. The doctor they called in was particularly concerned with my case, and he told the nurses to keep an extra careful eye on me. They did. In fact, they wouldn’t let me out of their sight even despite the various visitors I had (including a couple members of the Seishin staff followed by my wife and kids). They wouldn’t let me move until I told them I didn’t feel a lick of pain anymore, and then they wheeled me over to give me all kinds of X-rays and CaT scans (which, considering all the automation and little, feminine electronic voices politely telling me when to breathe or not, was actually kind of fun).

The prognosis? One or both of the kidneys on my right side had coughed up a stone.

When everything was done, the doctor told me in a very apologetic voice that, as an emergency care facility geared mainly to injuries and pregnancies, they didn’t have the right gear or specialists to give me the proper care I needed. They could ease the pain, but I would have to go to Kashima Rousai for full treatment. Unfortunately, since it was Saturday, Rousai would also be in “strictly emergency” mode. That left me with two options. I could go home and deal with the pain via prescription painkillers until Monday, or I could proceed immediately to Rousai’s emergency room and get their advice. Somehow, going home sounded more attractive, so I got the painkillers and got in my wife’s car for the ride home.

I made it about halfway there before the pain suddenly came back almost in full force again. Needless to say, we dropped off the kids and headed for Rousai immediately.

Unfortunately, Kashima Rousai’s prestigious position as the most comprehensive and reputable hospital in the area (second only to Asahi Central, another hour away) means that it is also the most popular. That also means it’s the most crowded. In Rousai’s emergency wing I had to wait in line ahead of four ambulance arrivals and a whole bunch of people, most of whom were elderly and few if any of whom looked like they were truly in an emergency situation. My wife had told the receptionist that I had been referred there by another hospital which had already given me painkillers. That had probably been a mistake. The nurse on deck asked me if I was in a lot of pain, and when I told her that it had eased off a bit (another mistake), I was made to wait. Finally, maybe even thankfully, the pain started to kick in a bit again, and I continued being frankly honest, so they hustled me right in…more than an hour after my arrival.

Rousai’s treatment that night seemed a lot simpler and even more old fashioned than that of Koyama Memorial, but the pain vanished in a shot and never returned. The quick X-ray they gave me seemed to show that the stone had moved quite a bit lower in the track and was on the verge of being passed through. Still, the (female) doctor said that there were some things she saw in the X-ray that she didn’t like. She told me I needed to see the specialist on Monday. I was given the option of remaining there at the hospital so they could keep me under observation, but I declined. I had already had my fill of hospitals for one day.

Besides, I knew that I was just getting started…

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Thank You...And Forgive Me.

I knew this day would come, but it doesn't make it any easier.

On this hot and muggy day at the tail end of July I'm sitting in my BLUE car dressed in a black suit and black tie because I'm on my way to a funeral. The other four seats are occupied by Seishin students, all current or former members of the music club, because we are going to say farewell to one of our own. In these "Land of the Rising Sun" stories over the past few years I have repeatedly mentioned the fact that we had two flute players with terminal illnesses, one with a bad heart and the other with cancer. Well, one of the two, the one with cancer, has finally succumbed. She was 18.

Ironically, Natsumi was the younger of the two, and her illness appeared much, much later. However, it felled her much, much quicker, too. As I mentioned a little more than a year ago, Natsumi made her final appearance with the music club at what would have been her last concert before "retirement". In accordance with her wishes, we put a flute in her almost-useless hands and put her wheelchair in her position in the band for the final performance. (Yuko, the former flautist with the bad heart, was the one that pushed her wheelchair. It was a sight guaranteed to shatter the most solid of defense mechanisms.) She also went through her graduation ceremony at the a hospital stretcher. (That pretty much demolished what few defense mechanisms were left.) She wanted to stay with us till the end, and that is exactly what she did. Now it's our turn to pay our respects.

The students in my car are laughing and carrying on as if we were going to a picnic. This is actually the second time I've had to attend the funeral of a student, the first being a girl in my international seminar at Kamisu High School who was suddenly felled by a brain tumor. That was in 1991. I remember that the students were laughing and joking around about it back then, too, and it really bothered me. Now I'm seeing the same behavior among "higher-level" students about a girl that was a close friend to all of them. I guess it's a form of denial. They're too young to deal with darkness. I suppose I can understand.

The funeral is taking place at Natsumi's family home. It's actually a very new house, specially constructed to accommodate her needs, such as plenty of room for wheelchair access. The place is huge and clearly very expensive. I'm not sure which impresses me more, the sheer grandeur of the house itself or the obvious labor of love it represents. The signs of that labor are very clearly etched into the wearied faces of Natsumi's parents. They have had to endure hell for the past few years, and now they are performing one final, agonizing duty. My own parents had to deal with the loss of a child, but at the time I was too young and blown away by it all to appreciate just what that really meant. Now that I have my own children, I can look at this great labor of love and fully sympathize with the words of Theoden, King of Rohan: "No parent should have to bury his own child."

There's quite a crowd at the house, which seems hardly large enough to accommodate everyone despite its size. There are relatives, teachers, classmates, and friends going back to her preschool days. And, of course, there are members of the Seishin music club. Lots of members of the music club. Interestingly, it's a Christian funeral, the first I've ever seen in Japan. The pastor was the principal of Natsumi's kindergarten and also her Sunday school teacher in her childhood. Not surprisingly, very few of the people there have had any experience with a Christian ceremony of any kind, let alone a funeral, and they seem lost. The whole idea of singing hymns is totally alien to them (and the fact that the pastor's sense of pitch is sadly lacking doesn't really help, either). In the end, it's probably very fortunate that we have Mr. Ogawa and Mrs. Miyazawa, Seishin's vocal music teacher, there to lend their singing talents. I sing along as best I can, but trying to read the Japanese lyrics at the same pace as the tune is NOT easy...

Unfortunately, the pastor uses the opportunity for some rather obnoxious proselytizing. Actually, "propaganda" is probably a bit more accurate, but I won't elaborate. The scripture readings are familiar to me, but hearing them in Japanese definitely gives them a whole new essence. Then the pastor invites people to come up and say some words on Natsumi's behalf. That's when things really get interesting.

A whole platoon of former and current Seishin flute players, every one that served during the time Natsumi was with us, comes up to the portable pulpit in a line. One by one, they say what they've come to say, choking back the tears. Yuko is among them, and, though she looks refreshingly healthy, the look in her eyes and the sound of her voice show just how hard it is for her to come to grips with the situation. Her own words and actions back when she was a member of the band showed us in no uncertain terms that she never expected to survive till graduation, let alone live to be speaking at the funeral of a younger fellow. I really have to wonder what she's feeling now.

After that, different members of the music club put on musical performances, all of which are almost totally impromptu, but no one is in any shape to play well. The recorder ensemble is hideously out of tune. The first string ensemble gives it their best, but their concentration is off and so is their rhythm. The third performance, a lovely rendition of "Itsumo, Nandodemo" from the movie Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (English title Spirited Away) played by solo flute and violin accompanied by a shepherd's harp and string ensemble, is by far the best and most moving, but the flute player chokes up and breaks in the middle. I think everyone understands.

After that, the former classmates and friends of Natsumi perform an interesting little ceremony of their own in the courtyard. Apparently Natsumi's father had a dream about her right after she was born in which she was sailing up into the sky tied to a white balloon. In addition, Natsumi herself, when she realized the end was inevitable, had a personal message written up and sealed to be opened only after she passed on. That message read simply:

Arigatou. Gomen ne.

Thank you. Forgive me.

In honor of that, the former classmates and friends have all prepared white balloons to which they have tied letters expressing their thanks to Natsumi. With a great shout of, "Arigatou, Natsumi," they all toss their balloons up and watch them sail away on the near-perpetual winds of Itako City. All the tears are gone now, and everyone is smiling. It's only appropriate. After all, even when Natsumi's arms and legs had become totally useless, she never stopped smiling. Even when she was carried from the auditorium in a stretcher, diploma in her limp hand, her smile was firmly in place. How fitting that those closest to her should send her soul off with a smile.

My attempt to sneak out at this juncture is shot down in flames. Food has been prepared, and consumption is mandatory. Still, the mood in that house has clearly changed. I think we've all found closure, and we're all feeling better knowing that Natsumi has probably gone on to a much better place, smiling all the way.

Looking for a seat away from the crowds (since I'm not feeling particularly social), I grab one in the courtyard and then realize that the person sitting a few feet away is Yuko. Once again, I find myself feeling extremely awkward, and I contemplate a swift relocation. It's too late. I've been noticed.

Seeing me, she turns that fetching, sparkly-eyed smile of hers in my direction and says, "Sensei, long time no see! How are you?"

I take a deep breath, gather my wits, and reply, "Fine. Everything's fine. How are you?"

Perhaps my tone of voice in phrasing that last, innocent question was a bit too serious. Maybe I just hit an understandably sensitive spot. As I said before, Yuko's feelings right now can only be guessed at. Her smile fades only a fraction of a centimeter, but her eyes look almost horrified. "I'm fine, sensei," she says a bit abruptly. "Really, I am. I'm totally fine. Totally, totally fine." Then she stands, bows awkwardly, and hurries out of the courtyard, leaving me worrying whether I've said something wrong. Even so, she definitely does look fine, far better than she did in her school days. The heart condition that threatened to terminate her life while still in her early teens still hasn't conquered her. I should be thankful for that.

After that, a recent graduate of Seishin and former music club member, apparently concerned at my being alone, invites me to join her group. I do so, but the other members of that group, other recent graduates who weren't musicians, ignore me and seem non-plussed at my efforts to make conversation, so I promptly excuse myself. It's a good thing, too. Some of the music club kids are ready to leave the party, and I'm only too happy to be a BLUE taxi.

As I drive home, I can still see some of those white balloons. A few have caught in the high-tension power lines (oops...), but most are still riding the winds out over the Kanto Plain. carrying their messages of thanks to a departed but still-loved friend.

You're welcome, Natsumi. No apologies necessary.

Flautists at the 2004 Regular Concert. Natsumi is in the wheelchair. Yuko is on the right. Posted by Picasa