*nominated for the 2013 CBC Creative Non-Fiction Prize, this piece was published in Ricepaper Magazine (Winter 2013)
The doors lock behind me with a hard, electronic click. You need a four-digit code to enter or exit the ward; some of the people here like to wander. They push themselves from their beds and, hypnopompic, step out into the expanse of the hospital, in thrall to a memory, a dream.
I walk the short distance down the hallway and see my grandfather, asleep in bed. The leathery skin and black-blue veins of his hands peek out from under the blanket, the sharp contours of his small body barely visible. Each time I visit him he has shrunk a little. Now, he’s barely the size of a child.
When I was young, we lived with my grandparents in Toronto. My parents slept in a windowless room in the basement, hidden behind the washer and dryer. My brother and I shared a bunk-bed, tucked into the bedroom on the second floor. There was a time, living there, when my dreams crept into the waking world.
I remember stepping down the steep staircase and sitting on the small living room couch. My grandfather was in his usual spot, sunk into the loveseat watching a late-night replay of the day’s Maple Leafs’ game. I stayed for a few minutes, eyes looking blankly at the screen. The slash of sticks, the jagged pitch of blade against ice. Finally, he told me to go back to sleep. I climbed back up to bed.
But, I don’t remember it; I was sleepwalking. I remember my grandfather’s story, his memory of my dream.
Grandma sits by his bed. She worries at the food on the table, barely touched. The nurses say he isn’t eating. He opens his eyes slowly, and she motions at me. “Look,” she says quietly, “Yutaka has come to visit.”
My grandfather offers a vague, toothless smile. His eyes are watery, heavy with the weight of sleep. I sit down.
Hanging from the television stand above him is a lei of origami cranes – hundreds of carefully folded birds. Pink, green and blue paper wings extended, ready for flight.
“From friends in Japan?” I ask.
Yes, he nods absently. I expect to see pride or gratitude, maybe he’ll tell a story about the generous, concerned family who patiently folded the birds and shipped them across the ocean. But he is quiet.
“They are sending many prayers,” Grandma says.
In Hiroshima, within sight of the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, there are thousands of origami cranes. Protected from the elements in large glass cases, the bright paper birds circle the statue of Sadako Sasaki.
Sadako was two years old when The Bomb was dropped. She survived the blast, only to become sick years later. While in hospital, she began folding paper cranes. If you are able to fold a thousand cranes, the gods will grant your wishes.
Some say she finished her birds, others say she didn’t. In 1955, she died from leukemia. She was twelve years old.
I stood by the Ōta River and shook with tears. Across the narrow strip of water, the open dome of the Hall glowed pink in the setting sun. The dome is just a skeleton, the twisted metal girders left untouched since August 6, 1945. The broken walls of the building are now as they were then; memory in brick and steel.
He came to the hospital because he broke his hip. He stays because his mind is fading. He forgets to eat, to go to the bathroom. He forgets that his body doesn’t move as smoothly as it once did, his muscles indifferent to his mind’s commands. The nurse tells us that he fell again as he reached for a spoon at the lunch table.
“Are you okay?” I ask.
He looks at me with an upturned brow. “Yes. Why?”
The fall is forgotten. A minor mishap, inconsequential. But who are we, when that which we forget outweighs that which we remember? If we lose ourselves, who is there left to love?
Through the window, I notice a huge paddle-wheel steamboat hidden by the snow-covered trees. The hospital overlooks the reservoir, as does the local historical village. I imagine tourists packing its open cabin, New Orleans jazz pumped out through modern speakers. A spectre on the water, out of time.
“Grandpa, there’s a boat out there.” I want him to question it – ‘a boat, on the prairies?’ – to ask after it with interest, to respond with some measure of feeling.
He was born on Vancouver Island to Japanese immigrants. He was the baby of seven children; his father’s favourite son. I have seen photographs of him as a child, by the water. When he was fourteen, he left most of his family in Canada and took a ship to Japan with his father. The war began, and when he was seventeen he joined the navy. He served on the heavy cruiser Maya, until it was torpedoed by an American submarine months before Japan’s surrender.
He knows the sea.
He sinks into his pillow, and says nothing. He stares at the television and watches the snow fall in southern Ontario, a flood in Asia.
On my first day alone in Japan, I walked timidly through Yokohama’s narrow streets. There was a light mist, but the air was warm. I found the water eventually. And moored along the harbour – the Hikawa Maru. I climbed the gangplank and paid the 200 Yen. I walked through the narrow halls of the decommissioned passenger vessel, which had crossed the Pacific over two hundred times since 1929. Twenty-five thousand people had been aboard, including Charlie Chaplin during his ‘Round the World’ tour in 1932. I stared through circled windows at the bay, ran my hands along the polished wood railings on the deck. I took dozens of photographs, inspected the cabin beds, the side tables set with cups and saucers. In 1959, this boat carried my grandmother, mother and aunt on its final voyage to North America.
I walked through the empty ship, sat on the mid-deck and watched the rain fall on the water. I breathed in the salty air and tried to imagine weeks aboard, the roll of the ocean. What it felt to look in all directions and see only water, how the surface must have shimmered in the moonlight.
I returned to Canada, and showed my mother and grandmother the photographs. I wanted to watch their face as they recalled the experience, to hear the hush of their voice as they remembered the adventure that brought them to their new home. They furrowed their brows, stared intently at the yellowed walls of the cabins, the flowered curtains hanging over the small beds. They narrowed their eyes, searching for the memory, unable to bring it into focus.
I come into his room and, this time, he is out of bed. He is sitting with his back straight, alert.
“Hello,” he calls out, happy that we are here. A familiar spark in his voice, he is smiling.
We have brought him fresh sashimi. He pulls himself to the table and greedily dips the raw fish into soy sauce. He eats with a passion he hasn’t displayed for weeks.
I see the paddle-wheel boat through the window and ask him, “How did you feel when you left for Japan on the boat, Grandpa?”
“How did I feel?” He turns to me and he looks younger. His cheeks are full. His eyes are bright and shining. He laughs. “I was excited.”
We sit there in the locked hospital ward and he talks. For a few breathless hours I listen, and watch as the past breaks the surface.
I come back home to Toronto. I go to work. The snow in the park melts and the air begins to warm. On the weekends, I ride my bike aimlessly. I scan the shelves of familiar bookstores; sit in greasy diners, drinking cups of coffee. Sometimes I ride east across the bridge. Let the grade of the hill pull me towards the lake, and then cut east again on a familiar quiet street, shaded by giant maples.
My grandparents sold the house years ago, well before they moved to Calgary to be with my mom and dad. Sometimes the new owners leave the curtains open at the front of the house. I can see right through the large open room to the staircase, the walls of my grandparents’ living room and kitchen long-since removed. The stairs are probably made of new, sturdier wood. From the outside it could be the same home, but there is nothing inside that can corroborate my memories. No evidence of those truths.
I talk to him for the last time on Father’s day. I am sitting in a park, my bike leaning against the bench. I watch a skateboarder leap into the air as his board spins beneath him, his satisfied shrug when he lands the trick smoothly. I listen to my mom calling my grandfather and then the fumble of his hands as she passes him the phone.
I wish him a Happy Fathers’ Day, and he thanks me. I ask him how he’s doing.
“Oh, fine, fine,” he answers quickly. He has something he needs to tell me. “I told your Dad and arranged everything.”
“Yes, I told your Dad to take $300 from my account and be sure to give it to you, to pay you back.”
I hold my breath, wondering what jumbled memory he has grasped onto. Try to think of any time when I was in a position to loan my grandfather money, or when he would have asked. I can’t think of such a time, but thank him anyway. Knowing my father won’t take his money, won’t help him repay a debt he doesn’t owe.
“You’re welcome, Yutaka,” he says.
And he’s gone.
My brother calls three weeks later. Grandpa has died. A heart attack. It was quick. He no longer hurts. In the last week he had fallen and injured his shoulder; when he was in pain it was even harder for his mind to piece together the fragments. I didn’t know.
“You got to see him when he was well,” my mother says. “Keep that memory.”
I try to picture him, the sunken cheeks and the chipmunk smile when he forgot to put in his dentures. Already, it is hard to see him clearly. I find a photo of him in the hospital; I try to will that moment into the present, or myself to the past. To a moment where he is alive and happy and entirely himself. I stare until the curve of his cheek and the circles of his soft eyes begin to blur. Before he fades completely, when I can still see the line of his smile, I close my eyes and dream.