Friday, December 20, 2013

Travel and Fear -- my latest column for Paper Sky magazine


At the start of July, I called my sister in New York from Tokyo.  She was driving north in a rented car with her new puppy to visit our father, who was alone for the weekend in Boston while our mother took a brief vacation tour of Northeastern Canada. 

Our father had undergone open heart surgery in the spring of 2012.  At the end of 2012, he had reconstructive surgery on one of his knees.  Earlier this year, a doctor removed a cataract from his right eye via surgery.

Surgery equals risk, but he seemed okay until June, when he was hospitalized for two weeks with a bacterial infection.  He continued antibiotic treatments at home.  He seemed okay again.

But I called my sister at the start of July because I couldn’t call my father – or, rather, I called him, alone at home, and no one answered.  She called, too.  Nothing.  Even our parents’ answering machine was absent.  The disembodied digital voice was disengaged.

My sister called the police, the police broke into the house and found our father slumped on a sofa.  He was mumbling incoherently.  It was a hot day, but he hadn’t turned on the air conditioner.  He had a fever of 41 degrees C/106 F.

He was rushed to a nearby hospital where my sister found him that evening.  In gentle language, the nurse told my sister that he had nearly died.

I flew to Boston on the earliest flight I could find out of Tokyo.  There were connecting flights en route, making it both inconvenient and expensive.  It was travel as an act of desperation—not business, not discovery, not even practical.

On the plane I felt numb, unfocused.  The book I was trying to read, on the history of South Africa, was repetitious – until I realized I’d been reading the same page over and again.  None of the usual distractions were diverting.  Who cares about on-demand movies, reheated sautéed sirloin or slippers?  Please fly fast and don’t crash, not this time, please.

In the 21st Century, if you have the resources, you can indeed fly halfway around the world on “a moment’s notice,” as they say.  The experience is as banal as your face in the mirror after a personal slight or a tiff with your lover or a professional failure: Everything looks the same, but nothing feels right.

Faster than my mind could travel or anticipate, I was sitting across from my father in a bland hospital room in Boston, searching for him through his gauzy blue eyes and straining to understand his speech.  He was attached to machines.  I could tell he was glad to see me, but enfeebled as we both were, he by a near-stroke, me by arrested emotions and jet lag, we were waving to one another from separate shores.

Life narrows, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote.  I spent most of this past summer in small spaces: my parents’ home in Massachusetts, their first-floor guest room, the driver’s seat of their car, my father’s series of hospital chambers.  I traversed half the globe to get to them, and then I barely moved.

The rest of my life slipped into peripheral zones I am still struggling to reclaim.  Projects, plans and relationships in Tokyo were suspended. I escaped the hospital routines for brief excursions to New York, where I still have a home.  But close as it was geographically, the city felt unnaturally detached, its streets a blur around me, as if I’d stepped into a play whose cast and script had changed and in which I no longer had a part.  

By August, preparations for a long-planned book and lecture tour with my dear friends Motoyuki Shibata and Ted Goossen of Monkey Business, the international Japanese literary magazine, became urgent.  We’d been invited to San Francisco, Toronto and New York, and we had obtained the funding to go, but I had been unable to execute the planning from the small, circumscribed spaces into which I’d been thrust.

One day as the sun rose in Boston I forced myself to pick up the phone and refocus on my life.  My father’s condition had stabilized, and I needed movement.  Dates were selected and confirmed.  In September, Shibata, Masatsugu Ono and Yoko Hayasuke landed in San Francisco; Goosen arrived from Toronto, I from New York. We traveled to four cities in less than two weeks to talk about life and language and literature. It was travel like I used to know—into open spaces, away from fear.

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