"Are you sitting down?"
- a fateful phone call from my father.
In the beginning of the year 2000, after the word had failed to fall apart from the y2k bug, my parents informed me that they had decided to sell the house. The reason they gave was that my
mother had been sick recently, and had decided that she was getting too old to tend the very large garden it had, a hobby she had been intensely interested in since we were kids. After my eldest
brother died of leukaemia, she suddenly found herself with a lot of free time now that she wasn't caring for him, and needed a hobby to fill that void. Our house was on a corner, and had a long
triangular garden, which she turned into a rose garden, with over a hundred different varieties of rose at one time. I spent many a summer cutting grass, digging flower beds and trimming the
hedge. Neighbours and passers-by would stop and ask who we hired to do it, as they wanted to hire the same person, and were uniformly surprised to find out it was all her own work. I was sad to
hear that it would be leaving our family's hands.
Meanwhile, I had started actively creating a website to show off my photography. Using a scanner at work, I would upload the photos from my home, using a Macintosh Classic that a friend had given me. Back in those days it was a 2400 bit per second modem link, so I sometimes fell asleep while the photos were uploading. I did pages mostly of the photo trips I had taken to Europe, and a few of Japan, such as in Yokohama, where I spent a day in the port area taking photos. During that shoot, I walked out onto a pier to take shots of the cruise liner "ASUKA", and was surprised to find when I tried to go back inland that the gate had been closed, and the only way to leave the pier was through the Immigration counter. Apparently I had inadvertently walked through an open gate onto the departure pier for the cruise, and they had closed the gate as they started preparing the pier for the departure of the ship. I explained to one of the immigration officials what had happened, and he told me to go down a flight of stairs. I did, and found myself behind a low barrier that had a "Do not Enter" sign facing the opposite direction. Since I wanted to exit, not enter, I ignored the sign, jumped over the fence and promptly left the building.
In the summer of that year, I went to Los Angeles on business, in what was the hottest week I have ever experienced. Unlike Japanese summers, the air was dry, and as we waited outside a restaurant one day, I seriously thought I would pass out. The reason we were there was for discussions with a company that prepared traffic information, because we wanted to integrate their receivers with our navigation system. During those discussions, it came to light that they had quoted mistakenly low prices for the receivers, but rather than correct their offer they just said "OK", and left the prices as they were. I was surprised at this, because it meant that either their original quote was correct, and they were planning to screw us with the new quote, or the original quote was wrong and they were about to take a substantial loss on the deal. It turned out to be the latter, as the company went bankrupt some months later, and we had to redesign our product packaging to remove their logo because we could no longer offer their service on our navigation system.
It was a Friday night in August that the phone call came. As soon as I picked up the phone, my father said "Are you sitting down?", and I could tell from his tone that something was wrong. I simply said "What?", and he replied "Mum has cancer". The rest of the phone call is a blur, as I was trying to come to terms with the enormity of that first statement. Most of it was my father trying to convince me, and himself, that things would be alright. Once it was over, I fell to my knees and wept. The thought of my mother enduring the pain of cancer enraged me. I had nothing to eat in the house, so I went as usual to Simple Simon for my dinner, but found that I could not face anyone and left quickly. Staying at home would only mean I would have nothing to do but be worried and depressed, so I tried to carry on with my normal routine, but had no enthusiasm for anything, and could barely talk to people. I had been invited to a party on the Saturday night, but sat through it like a zombie. I tried going to the sports club as usual on Sunday, but could not even concentrate enough to count repetitions. As I left, I met Shimano in the locker room, and he half jokingly asked me what was going on, since I wasn't my usual drinking self. I told him, straight out, that my mother had cancer, and it was a relief to get it off my chest. I had not told anyone until then because I thought it would only make other people worry about me, and that would do neither them nor myself any good. That was why I tried to maintain my usual pattern of activity. I think I was trying to convince myself that it was not as much of a problem as it was. If I had to admit to other people that it had me worried and scared, I would have had to admit it to myself too. Having opened up to Shimano let some of the pressure escape.
My mother had an operation the following week to remove the cancer and perform a colostomy. I rang her in the hospital the day after, and although they had said the operation was a success, she sounded appallingly weak, and I had to choke back tears as I talked to her. Luckily her recovery after that was swift, and I also returned to a normal routine. It turned out the sickness she had months earlier that prompted them to sell the house was actually the onset of the cancer, and she had been experiencing problems ever since.
The summer gradually returned to normal. I went to two weddings, one of which was my friend Maeda who had visited Ireland. Since the arch of its back is supposed to resemble the arched back of an old person, shrimp is often used as a celebratory food, and is practically a requirement at wedding banquets. At other weddings I went to, I would always leave my shrimp untouched, since I cannot stand the taste, but at Maeda's wedding he had the good grace to ask if I would prefer something else instead, and arranged a different entree for me. I was surprised by this thoughtfulness, since it is common in Japan for wedding banquets and the like to offer no choice in the food presented. It may be that the provider of the meal wishes to relieve the customer of the burden of choosing, or wishes to lighten their own burden by having to prepare only one dish, but people with allergies, vegetarians and others who like to choose what they eat, face something of a quandary in this regard.
Also that summer, I had another "first". I came home from work one evening to find a rather large cockroach meandering around my living room. As I turned on the light in the evening dusk, he was in the open, about 40cm from the window, halfway between the window and an iron I had left standing in the middle of the floor. I went back to the kitchen to find something with which to kill it, and by the time I returned it had disappeared. I presumed it was hiding inside the iron, in the space where the power cord would be wound when stored, and proceeded to spray inside the iron furiously. Since the only spray I could find at short notice was an air freshener, I did not know if it would have any effect, but I went once again to the kitchen to see if I could find anything more lethal to cockroaches, and by the time I had returned again, the cockroach had made it half way back towards the window in an apparent attempt to escape to the outside world, but had come to a halt, presumably somewhat dishevelled after a serious intake of air freshener. I flicked the body out onto the balcony, and flushed it down the drain with a bucket of water, relieved at my first victory over the intrusive insects that have won a particularly despised place in the hearts of residents of Japan. In the ten years I had lived in that apartment, I had only once seen roaches inside the place, and those had come up through the sink after I had left some unwashed dishes in there for several days one summer. I can only presume the height of my apartment (5th floor), and the almost total lack of garbage (since I ate out most of the time) made it a low priority destination for those little predators.
The same could not be said for my friend Kevin, who lived three floors below me. One summer his next door neighbour left some garbage out on their balcony for several days in the heat of summer, and the rot spread to some bags of garbage Kevin had put out, causing one bag to leak. One day when I was down there with him, he asked me to hold the door open while he carried two bags out, so that he would not have to put them down, and thus dirty his floor, when he opened the door handle. I duly stood in his entranceway and opened the door as he walked briskly past me. Just as he did so, I noticed something black on his forearm. In the fraction of a second it took my brain to figure out this black object was a cockroach and formulate the sentence "Kevin, there is a cockroach on your arm!", Kevin had already noticed it and started to throw the bags ahead of himself out the door. As soon as he was outside he started stamping on anything and everything in sight, and I reckoned that the best thing I could do was to protect the apartment from any possible re-infiltration, so I closed the door and held it shut until the commotion outside had settled down. I opened the door slightly and saw Kevin standing there, sweating and panting, with garbage strewn in all directions around him. Apparently it had been an ugly battle, but Kevin had won.
There is a Hungarian mathematician called Peter Frankl living in Japan, who also performs as a juggler. He was invited to our factory to make a speech, and in the course of this he referred to foreigners living in Japan who didn't bother to learn to speak Japanese as "ningen no kuzu", which basically means "scum". I thought this was a little strong worded, but I basically agree. (Frankl is fluent in several languages, having lived in several countries during his interesting life, and thus presumably has higher standards regarding the learning of languages than I.) I would, however, consider who spent any serious period of time in a country without taking the effort to learn the language to be at worst, lazy, and at best, a tourist. I really could not imagine living in Japan for a long period of time without learning the language, as it would be impossible to know how much of what you say and hear is correct, which is something I would find immensely frustrating, if not intolerable. He was also asked during this talk about the connection between mathematics, his profession, and juggling, his hobby. He admitted to knowing of no real connection, but I was tempted to point out that any juggler must be at least familiar with the numerical sequence of "one, two, one, two,,,".
My parents went ahead with their house sale, getting a phenomenal price for the property, and buying a smaller house with the proceeds. I got to see the new house when I went home that Christmas, and it struck me as a place built for a young family. All the door knobs were low down, the bath was very shallow, and the bedrooms, apart from the main bedroom, were very small. They had assigned one bedroom as "my room", even though I would rarely if ever be there, and it was small enough to make a Japanese business hotel look spacious. It was a weird feeling to be in a house I did not know and have to call it home. I also felt on this trip that my parents were arguing a lot more than they usually did, (which was very little). This may have been as a result of the stress caused by the move and by my mother's illness, or it may have just been how they had become now that my father had retired and was around the house a lot more every day. Whatever it was, it compounded with the unfamiliar surroundings to give me the worst case of homesickness I have ever had. It didn't seem like home, I felt no attachment to the place, and was actually uncomfortable there and keen to get back to Japan. I think that this Christmas visit was the first time I really thought of Japan as my real home, and that Ireland was a place I would just visit occasionally. I felt a little like Oisin, the Irish hero who returned from the mythical land of Lir, where no one grows old, to his home after three hundred years, only to find his friends and family all gone. There was no malice or bitterness in this realisation, nor was there any joy or sadness. It just seemed to me that more of my life was now in Japan than was in Ireland.
While on the topic of moving house, it was around this time that a young married couple moved into the apartment next to mine, breaking the several year long isolation I had enjoyed from my neighbours. At one point, my top-floor, end-of-row apartment was surrounded to the side and below by two empty rooms in every direction, meaning I had never to worry about loud music, loud sex or loud footsteps. This isolation, or should I say insulation, had come to an end. This did not mean however that I actually met or spoke to my neighbours very often, as both they and I were rarely there. In all the time I lived in that apartment block, I only really interacted with two couples, both of whom operated shops in the first floor of the building.
On a lighter note, another event that happened that year marked a milestone in my acceptance in Japan. There is a little brothel beside one of the main hotels in Kawagoe, and as is standard for such places there was always a middle aged pimp standing outside, trying to attract customers. Usually when I or any other foreigner would pass by, he would halt his spiel and wait silently, watching us pass. On a couple of nights I had noticed that he was looking at me differently as I passed, and finally one night he said in a low voice as I walked in front of him "Do you understand Japanese?" When I said I did his response was to thrust his hips forward while grabbing an imaginary ass and say, "you can get it for ten thousand yen!" I managed to stifle my laughter until I was out of sight. Two days later marked the eleventh anniversary of my arrival in Japan. In some perverse way, I felt I had finally been accepted!
If you dropped in by accident, the story starts here;
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