The hospital seemed unusually crowded as she took her usual route to the elevators. She squeezed in as the doors closed a few inches from the tip of her nose. She wasn’t claustrophobic, but she was extremely uncomfortable packed into the elevator with people pressing up against her and breathing on her neck. She tried to focus on the image of her son’s face. Maybe when she walked into the room today he would be sitting up in bed and eating jello like nothing had happened. She shook the thought from her mind and prepared to see him lying down as usual with his eyes closed and an assortment of machines keeping him company.
She had hardly slept the night before. She had spent most of the night on the phone with her husband, arguing about the realities of her son’s condition. It was going on four months and he was trying to convince her to make a decision. She was furious at the sound of the doctors’ heartless objectivity coming from her husband’s mouth and she had subsequently retaliated with some thoughtlessly harsh words of her own.
“You’re supposed to support me through difficult times. Not offer me the same cruel reality that the rest of the world does. Aren’t you supposed to be a spiritual man? Since when do you agree with doctors? You’ve always had disagreements with my boy and now you’re all too happy to be rid of him. And to think, I married you entirely for his sake. He needed stability and a normal life, but that’s not what I needed. And yes, you took care of us, but you erased everything wonderful about me. And you took away every opportunity for him to… I’m just… You know what? I don’t need this. I don’t need you!” Click.
She had expected to feel terrible about the things she said to him after hanging up, but the feeling never came. An hour later, two hours later, three, she didn’t regret a single word. The thing she did regret, she realized, was throwing away who she was for some culturally imbued standard of stability, namely financial peace of mind. She had spent years telling herself that it had all been necessary in order to give her son a normal and comfortable life, but she wondered what she had really given him. He despised his stepfather, who had taken on a personal mission to reform her boy as he deemed necessary. Any time she protested, it was met with threats disguised as reminders about who provided for the family. She had sacrificed all of the things that made her a unique and inspiring person to become a 1950's home economics textbook version of a mother. She wondered if her son would have been better off with the intellectual and creative sustenance that she could’ve imparted as opposed to the guilt-loaded comforts that her overly pious husband had provided. It was too late to change any of it now.
She stepped off the elevator and started down the familiar hallway toward room 322. She smiled and waved to the nurses as she passed the floor station. They greeted her in their native tongue like they always did, bowing their heads deeply. She stopped suddenly with a surprised look on her face and stared at a young woman who had unexpectedly run out of her son’s hospital room in tears. She clutched a small piece of paper between two fingers as she covered her face with both hands and pressed her head against the opposite wall, walling uncontrollably. She was soon followed by a little girl that looked about three or four years old, clearly calling after her mother. The young woman wiped away a sleeveful of tears and reached down to scoop up the little girl. Two men in suits and long overcoats emerged from the room after the little girl and spoke briefly with the young woman. One of the men pulled out a business card and handed it to the young woman, who was still fighting back tears and sniffling. Then, they each offered a shallow bow and started down the hallway towards the elevators.
“Excuse me. Who are those people in my son’s room?” the woman asked one of the nurses at the floor station, pointing.
The woman stood up and leaned over the counter to look down the hall toward the room. When she saw the two men in suits approaching, she looked back and said a few words in her own language before remembering that they wouldn’t be understood. She struggled for minute making thinking sounds and then said, “po-ri-su.”
“Police?” she confirmed.
The nurse nodded and smiled. They weren’t the same police that had questioned her when she first arrived. She wanted to ask them if there had been any developments in her son’s case, but she knew the language barrier would make any exchange futile without an interpreter. The U.S. embassy said that they were taking her son’s case very seriously and they would keep working with the local police. They had assured her that they would contact her if they had any new information. She watched the two policemen walk past the nurse station and get into the elevator, a desperate look on her face.
“What about the woman and the little gi…” she cut herself off as she followed the line of sight down her own pointing finger to an empty hallway.
The nurse looked down the hallway toward where she was pointing and returned a confused look.
“Never mind. Okay. It’s okay.”
The nurse smiled and nodded, returning to her paperwork.
The woman walked down and hesitantly entered the room. She found the young woman sitting in a chair next to her son’s bed and dabbing at her eyes with the mascara-smudged sleeve of her shirt. The little girl was singing something quietly and looking out the window as she played with a stuffed bear dressed in a tiny San Francisco 49ers jersey. The young woman looked up and quickly tried to compose herself.
“Oh…your shirt’s just a mess. Here,” the woman said pulling a small package of tissues from her purse.
The young woman took them and tried to muster a smile in thanks. Her eyes were red and puffy and her cheeks streaked with dark-smudged tears, but her face made quite an impression. It was thin with prominent cheekbones and a strong jaw line. She bore some of the soft features typically associated with Asian femininity, but she had something more. Her face possessed a unique geometry that gave the impression of grace more than pure beauty.
The woman was suddenly aware that she was staring and she sat down abruptly on the opposite side of the bed, somewhat embarrassed.
“Do you know my son?” she asked in slow drawn out syllables.
The young woman responded with a blank look, then held up the tissues and nodded. “S-ank yu-.”
“No. I mean…” the woman stopped and thought for moment. “My son,” she said, pointing at the man in the hospital bed and then pantomiming rocking a baby in her arms. “You? Who…are…you?” she asked pointing across at the young woman.
The young woman nodded and placed a hand on her chest in a gesture, “Matsuda desu.”
“Nice to meet you.”
“Ma-za-?” Matsuda gestured toward the woman.
“Yes. I’m his mother.”
Another eruption of tears seemed to stream down the young woman’s face all at once. She turned to look at the little girl still playing on the windowsill and then back at the woman across from her with a desperate look in her eyes.
The woman tried again, gesturing with both hands at herself and the man in the hospital bed, “mother…son. Son…mother. And…you…”
The desperation in Matsuda's eyes grew more intense and her attention seemed to flutter around the room. The confusion was clearly not a result of the language barrier. Rather, she was genuinely uncertain of how to answer the question.
“It’s okay. It’s okay. Don’t worry about it,” the woman responded in a calming voice.
The little girl turned to run to her mother, but stopped suddenly when she noticed someone else was in the room. She stared at the woman with big familiar eyes. The woman was taken aback by the little girl’s face. She had the same thin face and sharp cheekbones as her mother, but her features were distinctly non-asian. Her eyes retained the faintly recognizable almond shape, but they were bigger and brighter. She hesitantly approached her mother’s side, keeping her eyes on the unfamiliar woman. The little girl tugged on Matsuda's sleeve and said something in a tiny voice.
Matsuda took the girl up in her arms as she stood. “To-i-re…” she said to the woman with a smile.
“Oh. By all means…it’s down the hall to the right,” the woman responded, pointing.
Matsuda carried her little girl out of the room in a hurry, her big boot heels echoing down the hallway. The woman turned her attention back to her son, taking his hand and kissing his forehead like she did every day.
“I had an argument with your step-father last night. He thinks that I need to make a decision about your condition and come back home. Can you believe that? He claims to be a spiritual man and he can’t even put his faith in his family. He says he’s been praying for you every day, but you and I both know it won’t help. I know you’re going to wake up and I know it will be when you decide to. You were always so stubborn. I just want you to know that I will be here when you decide to wake up. I’m not going anywhere.”
She took a breath and brushed the hair away from his eyes. “I said some pretty awful things to him right before I hung up, things I probably shouldn’t have said. Things that really made me wonder if having him in our lives was really a good thing for you or not. Things would’ve been much harder if it had been just the two of us. But, I think you would’ve turned out much differently. I suppose it’s pointless to bring it up now. Things are how they are and it’s too late to change anything now. All I know is that I’ve missed you. I know why you wanted to get away, but I’ve missed you so much. You have to come back now.”
She forced a long sigh and hazarded a smile, continuing “you’ll never believe it. I actually painted last night. It was the first time in…well, in a very long time. It felt wonderful. After I got off the phone, I was so upset, but the urge suddenly hit me and I had to paint. I went out to an art supply shop and nothing was written in English. That was a challenge. When I got home, I just let my hands take over. It was exhilarating. I haven’t felt that way in longer than I can remember. I thought that part of me had died a long time ago when … when your father left …” her voice trailed off as she finished, looking down at the floor. She sighed deeply, pulled a stack of crumpled letters from her bag, and set them on the bed. “I have something I have to tell you, a confession. I am so sorry that I never told you. And now you’re … you’re …” She dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief and hazarded an awkward chuckle. “What am I saying? You’re going to wake up. I know you are. Even so, I should have told you years ago that your father has been writing to every year on your birthday since you were five years old. I knowingly kept them from you. I guess I thought I was somehow protecting you, but now I see I just wanted to punish him. I blamed him for so much, especially for taking the part of me that painted, the part of me that felt and dreamed and hoped. He took it and I thought I died that day. I know now that it’s not something he took, it’s something I thought I had to kill in order to create a safe world for you. I realized too late that I did you more harm in depriving you of my world. I wish I could go back and do things differently, but I can’t. We still have time. We have time. We can change things. Starting now …” she spoke in a tone of finality as she picked up the top letter on the stack and tore open the seal. “I know you can hear me. We have time. I’m going to read them to you. You know, I never opened any of them. I was tempted many times, but I never did,” she fell silent as she dropped the envelop on the hospital room floor and reached down to pick it up.
As she rose to her seat, her attention was unexpectedly seized by a small folded piece of paper sitting atop a small loop of braided pink and white cords on the chair where Matsuda had been sitting. It was the paper she had seen her holding out in the hallway. She looked toward the open doorway to see if the young woman and the little girl were coming back, but it was empty and quiet. She knew that it would be wrong to look at it, but if it was something related to her son’s case, she had to know. Why would the police have given it to this young woman and not to her? She stood up slowly and quietly walked over to the empty chair, picking up the paper and the small loop underneath. The cords were part of bracelet that looked handmade. She held it close to her face as she inspected it. The cords were more knotted than properly braided and held four off-white cube-shaped beads with English letters on them, “M, I, S, A.” Next she unfolded the paper and read it to herself.
Just then, Matsuda walked back into the room with the little girl in tow. The woman instinctually moved to hide the piece of paper, but stopped herself, realizing she had already been caught in the act. She held it out for the young woman to take along with the bracelet.
“I’m so sorry. It was none of my business, but I thought it might be related to the accident and…I’m sorry.”
The young woman took the items and said something in a reassuring voice. She handed the bracelet to the little girl who immediately began to fidget with it, thumbing the beads between her fingertips and twisting the cords around her hands.
“Are you…Kao…Ko-ri…Kaori?” the woman questioned, struggling with the pronunciation.
The young woman nodded, “Hai. Matsuda Kaori desu.”
“Where did you get this? Where was this?”
Kaori pointed at the man in the hospital bed and said, “po-ke-tto.”
“In his pocket?” she looked over at her son. “What does it mean? ‘I’m here.’ Why did he write that? Who are you?”
Kaori called the little girl over and picked her up. At eye level, the woman was fascinated with the little girl’s face all over again. The same strange familiarity emerged from her big eyes.
“Gurando-ma-za-,” Kaori said, pointing at the woman.
“Grandmother? No. No, I don’t have any grandchildren. This is my only son and he never…” she looked over at her son and nearly choked when she saw the similarities with the little girl’s features.
“Gurando-ma-za,” Kaori said again, patting the head of the little girl and looking directly at the woman. “Misa,” she patted the girl’s head again as she spoke what was obviously the little girl’s name.
The woman exchanged quick glances between the girl and her son and suddenly felt dizzy. She stumbled back and planted herself in Kaori’s chair, breathing rapidly. She gripped the back of the chair as she tried to catch her breath and calm down. The little girl was fussing to be put down and Kaori set her down on the floor and went to the woman’s side.
“Daijōbu? Daijōbu?” Kaori asked repeatedly, a look of concern on her face.
She looked at Kaori’s left hand, which was resting on her leg. Kaori quickly followed the woman’s line of sight and immediately understood. The woman placed her left hand, which bore a wedding band, on top of Kaori’s hand. They looked up in unison and Kaori shook her head as their eyes met. The woman released a long sigh.
“Why wouldn’t he tell me? Why didn’t you tell me, Matthew?” she said, taking his hand and bringing it to her forehead. “You have to wake up. You have to come back now.”
Her eyes filled with tears as she dropped his hand and clutched Kaori’s head to her chest in a hug. Kaori froze and didn’t know how to return the gesture. Slowly and hesitantly, she wrapped her arms around the woman’s waist. A small voice called out from behind her and the woman released Kaori. Misa was standing just behind Kaori wearing a confused expression. Kaori pulled her around to face the woman and made an introduction in Japanese. Misa immediately retreated to her mother’s shoulder and buried her face away, hiding from the unfamiliar woman.
“Sarah,” the woman said with tears in her eyes, gently brushing Misa’s hair with her fingers. “My name is Sarah.”
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