Friday, July 06, 2012

'Who's here'--latest travel column for Paper Sky

The digital audio file is 18 minutes and 11 seconds long. My parents are talking to a surgeon in Boston about my father’s upcoming heart surgery. The surgeon is frank, his voice high-pitched but firm. He uses words like “death,” “failure,” and “serious stuff.” My parents splutter a bit at first, tentatively asking questions that amount to one unspoken plea: Is there any way out of this?

Four percent chance of death with surgery, is the answer. Much higher without it.

My father’s aortic aneurysm was discovered two years ago, when he passed out on a sofa after breakfast. He was rushed to the hospital, had an MRI and CAT scan, and was back home after a week. His aorta had swelled, but not yet to critical levels.

The critical came this year, when his aneurysm grew from 5.3 inches to 5.6. “It’s the line in the sand,” said the surgeon through my laptop speakers. “We’ve just crossed it.”

I liked how he said the word ‘we,’ though I didn’t yet trust him. I didn’t trust anyone with my father’s body, his life.

The audio file arrived courtesy of my younger sister, who had purchased a digital recorder and had it sent to our parents via Amazon prior to the appointment so that the two of us, she in New York and I in Tokyo, could keep tabs on the stranger who would cut our father open. We both listened to it in our respective cities and conferred via telephone. One night, one of us (probably me) went watery with emotion. We have been blessed by a father who sacrificed so much to raise us, and now he might die in a sterile room encased in brick.

Everyone deals with this, my close friends said. Your parents die. You can’t prepare.

But you do try, however numbly, to wrestle the unacceptable into a reality.

There are calls, emails, taps on the shoulder we all dread. For me, my mother’s email announcing my father’s appointment for surgery this spring slid into that queasy domain. Boston’s Mass General is a big hospital in the US and one of the most famous in the world. Appointments are made arbitrarily, helicopters airlift accident victims in urgent need. The near-dead are sometimes quelled and revived amid skewed schedules.

My mother’s email was last-minute, but reasonable compared to what the hospital manages on a daily basis. Still, I had only five days to book a flight from Tokyo to Boston, and no idea when I could, should or would be able book a return.

The email arrived late on a Saturday night in Tokyo; I began phoning airlines on Sunday morning. By Friday, I was back in the tunnel of trans-Pacific travel, typing empty words onto my tablet screens, rising to piss, stretch and stare at the wall, and pondering my arrival in Boston—not for a talk, book-signing or holiday, but to see if my father might survive.

The English word, ‘travel,’ conjures romantic notions—journey, pilgrimage, leisure and escape. But traveling from Tokyo to Boston and back when you don’t want to, didn’t plan to do so, and are not being paid for the duress, is as flat and rough as sandpaper. It looks plain, and it hurts.

I have flown from Tokyo to the US so many times that the experience has become a shade less than mundane. Boarding a bus offers more possibilities. My unconscious rituals of behavior—vitamin-rich drinks I choose at specific intervals en route, sleep postures and stretch schedules—would bore even a seasoned tourist.

But this time, I strayed. I couldn’t focus on work, reading, movies, TV shows, flight attendants or even a friend who serendipitously greeted me near the toilets. I heard but couldn’t listen to what he said. I wasn’t thinking about my father, really, or the arrival at Logan in Boston, or the following weeks of anxiety and vulnerability. I wasn’t thinking at all, and so when I saw Alaska expand in deep whites below the wing porthole, I felt a sense of comfort. Snow. Ah. I was raised in it.

A connecting flight was inevitable in my last-minute itinerary. My flight out of Detroit was delayed by two hours. A pilot from the same airline sat next to me and regaled me with critiques of his own employer. He asked me why I was making the trip.

“My father is dying,” I said.

“Aren’t we all.”

My weeks in Boston this spring were as troubling as I knew they would be, but I still can’t find a way I could have prepared for them. Dad didn’t die; he’s recovering as I write now, and I caught my return flight to Tokyo, only to fly back to NYC for work a couple of weeks later.

Blessed. I was in Kyoto last week; I will be in New York next week, and in China thereafter for work. My father is alive, limping along, and his sagging face cupped in my hands is a luxury now.

Still, the worries remain, the odd anxieties over being so close and so far at once, and the utter finality of enormous death. I did what I had to do, and no one has chastised me. Flying around the world on a dime once sounded cool, didn’t it? Our sense of travel evolves as we do, and its evolution is shaped by our needs, values and fears. I think I’m most afraid of learning what many in Japan learned last year—that an entire population can be destroyed in one instant, and that one of them might be among your beloved.


The digital recording of my parents querying their surgeon is a kind of found poetry to me now, a simple litany of what will happen, what must happen, and what might occur.

On a plane, I am always in between, though I know I'll land somewhere and be here, in Tokyo, in New York, in Los Angeles, London or Boston. What matters now is this: Who is here with me?

1 comment:

shrinecastle said...

I'm with you, Roland! Yes, our parents are supposed to die, but knowing that doesn't make it any easier as we draw nearer to that fate, especially when we must WATCH the deterioration process. You and your family are in my thoughts.