Obaachan in the Hospital

Aunt suffix Uncle suffix Mother Grandmother Grandfather

-obachan -ojichan Okaasan Obaachan Ojiichan

I was six years old and in Japan. It was such a hot and humid summer, as all summers in Japan are. You wouldn't want to touch arms against your sides, much less against someone else in a crowded taxi. My mother, my okaasan, being a proper woman immediately shot me down with her sharp eyes and quiet, formidable tone when I raised my arms to relieve myself of heat.

My mother, younger sister Mari, Nobuko-obachan and I were visiting the southern island of Japan, Kyushu. We went to Okaasan's hometown to visit her family in the small family home that Ojiichan had built on the plot of land he had worked so hard to buy in an island of little space.

Okaasan's older sister's family lived in that house, and next door lived another older sister and her family. Down the block and across the street lived yet another sister, the eldest of the family. My mother is the youngest of six, five sisters and a brother. My favorite aunt (Nobuko-obachan) lived in Anchorage, Alaska, my hometown. She is my favorite because I know her best.

Everything here was small, from the narrow, steep stairs I fell down from to the cube of house it was in to the family that inhabited it. Everyone but Mari and Cousin Nozomi were bigger than me, but compared to Dad and the land I came from everyone and everything here in the little house were small as cats were to a hulking bear.

Smells trigger memories, many things are connected and some cannot be named, but there is a familiarity. Mari and I insist that Japan has a smell different from America, a light sweet smell. When we receive a package from Japan and it is opened we exclaim, "It smells like Japan!" much to the humored, befuddlement of our mother.

A smell I would forever recognize includes the smell of a Japanese hospital.

We went to visit Obaachan in the hospital. I didn't know at the time why she was there, only that she was there and every couple weekends she would be brought home.

I know now that some time previous she had broken her hip and in her old age (she was forty when she gave birth to my mother) it wouldn't mend. She had become bedridden and I can't remember ever hearing her voice.

My uncle Junichi drove us, Nobuko-obachan, Kiyoko-obachan, Nozomi, and Takun (Junichi-ojichan and Kiyoko-obachan's son) in the van to the hospital. I remember the rolling hills of the roads near the hospital and us children would yell, "Roller coaster!" and Junichi-ojichan would humor us and speed down the hills.

The glass doors swished open and the curious warm smell of the hospital surrounded me. It was the smell of diluted cleaning fluid and rice porridge.

We removed our shoes near the entrance and put on clean slippers provided for us on a rack. That odd hospital smell followed us.

Obaachan shared the room with three other elderly women. Almost everything was a muted white except for the bedside tables.

She watched us.

Obaachan couldn't really speak by then, but her mind was clear, Mom had told my teenage self years later.

On one of our several visits I helped her drink tea. For drinks the hospital uses small, clear tea pot type instruments. They looked like they were taken from a child's tea set, though I've never seen ones that looked like these. I tried to carefully handle this small tea pot, Obaachan accepted the small spout and I tipped the tea into her mouth.

To my horror some of the pale amber liquid dribbled out of her mouth and I immediately withdrew the drink. The adults tried to reassure me as gentle hands wiped up Obaachan's chin, patted at her sleeping gown with a handkerchief.

I couldn't speak with all the apologies that clogged my throat.

I watched from the side of the metal framed bed, the side bars lowered. They talked, smiling, remembering, sharing news. As they talked one aunt emptied Obaachan's bedpan. It was nothing, it was normal, it was all part of the flow of interaction and at that time I had barely noticed it.

And now, as an adult, I look back and saw how much they had loved Obaachan, doing these things without looking for a nurse, without looked forced or under obligation. And should it not be so amazing?

Another day in Japan, another visit to the hospital. Okaasan bought plum gelatin from a vending machine in the hospital lobby.

"It's Obaachan's favorite," Okaasan answered when I asked why she bought it.

The same warm, moist, smell of diluted sanitation fluids and food surrounded us in the halls, the elevator, forgotten at the room's door.

My sister and I had made paper cards, mine with a big red spot in the middle like the flag of Japan. Carefully written in Japanese across the bottom, under my mother's supervision, a message to Obaachan to get better. So much they had humored us, we didn't know she wouldn't get better.

They were shown with proud smiles to Obaachan, "Look what they made for you!"

The papers were taped to the headboard.

Obaachan held my hand, I looking up at her on her hospital bed, her body propped up on the inclined bed.

And then we had to go, visiting time was over. How long had we been there? It felt so short. Not enough time, not ever enough time.

Obaachan looked at me, her wasted hand deceptively strong as it held onto mine, not letting go. But we had to go, we had to leave.

I tried to pull away, feeling all the more awful and guilty because she wouldn't let go and I didn't want to make her.

My hand slowly slid through soft, strong fingers, saying goodbye. She watched us leave, her eyes incomprehensible to me, a child.

Mom told me, a teenager, how she and her siblings found out after they had grown up that Obaachan preferred bread over rice. They had assumed that like all other typical Japanese of her generation she enjoyed rice the most.

She enjoyed sports, considered a tomboy in her day. She was good at playing a game similar to shuffle board.

In Obaachan being a good, traditional, Japanese wife, her own children didn't know her as anything other than being their mother. Quiet, reserved, shopping everyday for fresh groceries for dinner, serving others before herself.

A bleary, dark room surrounded me, the silhouette of my uncle in the doorway, backlit by the hall lights, telling us to wake up.

We're hustled to the car, my mother and my aunts crying. Nothing but dark shapes of greys and blacks.

Obaachan passed away in the night, (years later Mom tells me it was probably because she got to see us all together one last time) my sister and I cry because everyone is crying.

Lights had been dimmed for the night time in the halls of the hospital, but still harsh against my recently awakened and tear reddened eyes. We are outside the room, crying, Okaasan takes my sister and I in to say goodbye to Obaachan. She, laying in her bed still. The nurse beside her but a blur in my sights and memory.

She looked like she was sleeping. Her features slack, eyes closed.

We kissed her cooling, soft cheeks. She is forever sleeping in that bed, in that room in my memories.

At home there is a picture of Obaachan gently smiling, sitting beside the low table where I am, a gaping smile on a crawling baby.

Even in that picture she is watching me and I, now an adult able to hold conversations with my aunts, my mother, wished I could have spoken with her. But I guess she had spoken to me.