Five Years

Near the end of a French movie, L’Homme de Sa Vie, there’s a scene where a man visits his dying father in the hospital in Paris. He has not seen his father in over twenty years because his father threw him out of the house when he discovered his teenage son was gay. When the son enters the hospital room after embracing his mother, all we see is his face as he circles the bed and all we hear is the sound of labored breaths, his father’s. About forty-five seconds pass as you watch the son breathing in sync with his father, his expressions transforming rapidly from horror to compassion to grief, the breaths’ slow progressions mimicking the reckoning of lost time. Then you see the room from above, the bird’s eye view: the son lying in the fetal position next to his motionless father. I began to cry as I watched this on my laptop, and when I looked up, I noticed that it was one-fifteen in the morning on March 6th, which would be 3:15pm in Tokyo, which was about the time my father died five years ago. I’d selected this movie fairly arbitrarily, mostly based on the reviews and the praise of its cinematography (also because it was free to stream with my Amazon Prime membership). There was very little mentioned about its gay subject matter and nothing explicit about the end, so the ending was a total surprise and, it turns out, pure coincidence.

Five years ago, my father had been in a coma for over nine months. I’d flown to Tokyo to see him in the nursing home several times and on this trip, my brother and I had agreed that his “vegetative state” was pointless and undignified. Papa, we were certain, would not have wanted to “go on” for so long. This was around the time of the Schiavo case, when a family’s private anguish over euthanasia became a political debate, the intersection of God, power of attorney, and the economics of the healthcare system. When does life stop being a life? Like a fetus, a person in a vegetative state can’t communicate anything. There may be brainwaves, but unlikely any type of cognition. My father, indeed, by this time had been reduced to a breathing corpse. Early on, occasionally I experienced slight hints of squeezebacks when I gripped his hand, but now there were none, and though his eyes were open, they stared motionless into space. Still, I played music for him, Beethoven and Bach usually. The morning of March 6th, I’d played a Woody Allen CD, a monologue which I thought the real Akio Takeuchi would appreciate, a piece called Down South about the KKK. Then I put on Samuel Barber’s Adagio, which to me is a work about longing and loss. It was my last visit; later that day I’d board a flight back to New York, which likely meant that the next time I’d see him would be at his funeral. This trip had been for about ten days, with each day including a two-hour visit where I mostly played music for him and tried to tell him what was happening in my life, an exercise which seemed about as pointless as talking to a fish. On the last day, however, I forced myself to say a lot more, how I felt about him, that though I had a lot of conflicted feelings, I still loved him and was very sad that I would never hear his stories anymore. As it neared time to leave, I gripped his cold, limp hand and said goodbye several times, as if rehearsing for some grand finale. I pressed my head on the pillow next to him and kissed his cheek and told him I loved him and when I looked up from the bed, I noticed a video camera pointed at our faces, a video camera which was likely providing a live feed to the nurses’ station. Then I said my final goodbye and squeezed his hand very firmly and when I was loosening my grip on his hand, I noticed his eyes roll away and a tear slip out of one of them. Shocked at the possibility that he’d heard and understood me, I lingered awkwardly for a few minutes. Then I left.

It was noonish, the sky which had been mostly sunny, was now mostly overcast. In ninety minutes I was on a bus to Narita, a light rain falling on the windows as Tokyo receded in the grey gloom. When I presented myself at the airline counter to get my boarding pass, the agent handed me a note: Call your brother. A few minutes later, at a green public phone, I learned that my father had died while I was on the bus.

There are two sets of photographs in this posting. The ones above this text I took while walking to the nursing home to visit my father; the ones below were taken after I’d said goodbye and was returning to the train station. I feel the first set expresses a kind of hope, while the second set seems resigned to death. Finally, in black and white, as befits Buddhist funeral custom, are two shots from the wake which began the moment I saw my father again, at the funeral home a few hours later.

While the grief has long ended, the sense of loss continues. Papa, my father, was certainly the first and most important man of my life.


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