I, Toshiko Magami, do not wish to extend my life by being hooked to machines. Still, please do everything possible to kill physical pain.
I read Toshiko’s will, written in calligraphy, on display along with other mementos in the hall of the funeral parlor. Then, I headed into the room where her coffin lay in front of the altar adorned with various flowers in pink, yellow, violet, and white. I peered into the coffin through the little glass window over her face. Her hair was softly pulled back, her bangs covering part of her forehead; her shoulders in a mustard-colored kimono peeked out of a white cloth. As my mother’s best friend since high school, Toshiko had helped me into my kimono on Coming of Age Day when I was twenty. In my mid-twenties, she had flown to the United States with my parents for my university graduation, smuggling marinated mackerel sushi from a prestigious restaurant, which I gobbled down like a starving child. I couldn’t remember her aging. Now she lay in her coffin looking exactly the same as she had for decades, her hair dyed in pitch black, wearing the neat makeup her sister had put on.
I ambled back to the hall. I knew none of the other mourners. When my mother arrived with my father and sister, she introduced me to Toshiko’s brother and sisters. One sister was a biology professor who’d taught in Canada, and the other was mentally fragile and lived with their elderly mother. The brother was my mother’s high school sweetheart.
My mother’s ex-boyfriend had tanned skin and spoke with a broad Shizuoka accent. When my mother introduced me, he beamed and made a profound bow in the manner of a successful businessman. He was totally different from my father, who belonged to a species of engineers unaccustomed to making themselves affable around strangers. This was the man who’d written Mom a bunch of letters while he worked away from their hometown at the foot of Mt. Fuji. After she married my father, my mother stowed the letters in her drawer. The envelopes were scattered across the inside of the chest, she said, and it wasn’t until she found them neatly bundled up with a string one day that she learned her husband had discovered them.
The wake began when a young Buddhist priest arrived to chant a sutra. After nearly half an hour of silent prayer, offered with burning incense, we headed to the parlor’s thickly carpeted dining hall for dinner. My family took seats at one of the cloth-covered tables, and my father whispered to me and my sister: “You see the man with glasses over there? He’s your mom’s ex-boyfriend.”
My sister and I exchanged glances, and I whispered back, “We know. Jealous?”
“No,” he said, “I’m just saying.”
When all the courses of the dinner were served in the dining space, it was almost eight at night. We got onto the parlor’s microbus to head for the beachside hotel rooms that Toshiko’s husband had booked for all of us at his expense. While we waited in line to check in in the hotel lobby, my father murmured to me: “I think your mom’s old boyfriend is self-conscious in front of me.”
“You’re the one that’s self-conscious,” I said.
He shrugged and said nothing. I remembered the look on Toshiko’s brother’s face when I happened to glance at over my shoulder in the microbus. The wrinkled face, looking out the window and dimly illuminated by street lights, had a stern look that contrasted with the way he’d appeared at the parlor. He didn’t join the conversation, staring out the window like a statue in a museum.
Next morning, we had breakfast at the hotel’s restaurant, viewing the rat-colored Pacific Ocean churning in an unusual winter rainstorm. All my family members ate Western food—toast, eggs, ham or bacon, and fruit with coffee—while Toshiko’s siblings and their families at the next table had rice, broiled fish, miso soup, and other typical Japanese dishes. My siblings and I’d seldom had Japanese food for breakfast in our childhood, because our father preferred toast and coffee.
I asked my mother a question that had never occurred to me before: “Did you have toast and coffee for breakfast before you got married?”
“No, never,” my mother said. “Your grandma always prepared rice and miso soup for me.”
“You could have ordered Japanese breakfast, then.”
“Oh,” she said, rolling a piece of ham with her fork. “That didn’t occur to me.”
If Mom had married Toshiko’s brother as his family had hoped, I thought, she would have cooked and eaten rice and fish from morning till night, Mt. Fuji overlooking her as she walked through the small town. But she’d claimed she couldn’t have endured everybody-knows-everybody life in the rural town after high school. While we waited for fruit, she reached over to the front of my father’s jacket and brushed away bits of lint.
A waiter poured another cup of coffee for each of us, saying that it was too bad we missed the spectacular view of the Pacific from our table because of the rainstorm. My father said that he’d often seen flying fish near the beach years before when he’d come to this area with his friends, a long-time cool spot for young people. The beaches had been more pristine then, and waves were great for surfing, he said.
He seemed more talkative than usual. It occurred to me that he might be telling the waiter about his past so that his wife’s ex-boyfriend would hear him.
“Dad,” I said, “you’re only babbling about how old you are.”
“No, no,” the waiter said diplomatically. “What he just told me is very valuable.”
The rest of the day went as a typical funeral would go, including the moment of nailing the lid of the coffin with a stone, the pounding sound ripping the living away from the dead. The cremation was followed by the ritual in a bare space called a bone-picking room, where a crematorium employee laid Toshiko’s bones, tinted with pale pink, all over a stainless board. Using long chopsticks, he reverentially picked up part of her skull, and then part of her spine. Then, holding our own chopsticks, we formed two lines, pairing with another mourner to pick up a single bone and place it in an urn. We watched the employee gather the remaining bones into a stainless dust pan, empty them into the urn, and press the top of the pile to crush the pieces into shards and close the lid.
Back in the parlor, at the last meal together, my parents and one of Toshiko’s sisters engaged in conversation. Toshiko had had regular checkups since she’d previously overcome lung cancer. She had recuperated by the time my mother contracted breast cancer a few years back. My mother survived the disease, and only three months before Toshiko died from another lung cancer that had metastasized to her liver, I heard Mom talking with her on the cellphone about their next get-together. I know that her best friend’s unexpected passing scared my mother as much as it saddened her.
Did Toshiko’s brother know that my mother was under cancer treatment? He probably did.
People began to leave the tables and say goodbye to their relatives. I exchanged farewells with Toshiko’s nieces, whom I’d met for the first time in almost thirty years, and would probably never meet again. Toshiko’s brother and my mother made formal bows to each other, polite smiles frozen on their faces. Before they parted, he placed his hand on her upper arm—an uncommonly intimate gesture in Japanese culture—his fingers splayed like a starfish on her black jacket. Ah yes, I thought. They’d said goodbye once, years earlier, when they’d lived like life would last forever. Today’s farewell was the real goodbye.
Kaori Fujimoto is a freelance translator in Tokyo, Japan. She was a fellow of the 2012 Paris American Academy Creative Writing Workshop. Her essays have appeared on the Brevity blog, in Cleaver Magazine and South Loop Review, and another is forthcoming in Talking Writing.