“My daughter sent me this photo last week,” she says, showing me her phone. “She’s living in Europe now.”
I listen to the gentle rumble of the limited-express along night-time rails, and think vaguely of the two hours left before Shinjuku station. I think about sleep, and slumber, and hibernation.
“Yes, she seems to have settled in now. She still doesn’t call though. I wish she would. I mean, I’m her mother, I worry about her.”
“That town looks like something out of a fantasy novel,” I say.
The photo contains a collection pastel buildings, huddled together in a valley surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Mist in the background. If there were a dragon in there somewhere, it wouldn’t look out of place.
“It’s beautiful isn’t it? Have you been to Europe?”
I shake my head, shrug, and smile.
“I’d like to someday, though.”
“You should go. You really should.”
It’s funny to hear this from my bucho, my manager, when she knows our work eats away at holidays like corrosive acid.
I watch her swipe through a few more photos. Flowers. Pets. People. Strangers. She pauses at some longer than others, to let emotions and memories wash over her.
“Who’s that?” I ask, of a Japanese boy.
“That’s my grandson. There are two. This is the older one. He looks like his father.”
We flip through photographs, taking a walk down the pathway of her past. We start in the green fields and clear skies of just a few days ago, and progressively head towards abstract forests grown from the memories of weeks, months, and years past.
She remembers almost all the flowers, stones, and landmarks that litter the pathway — what the weather was like, what people argued about, how a particular food tasted, the reactions of her pets to candles and mirrors—but she stumbles occasionally, and gets lost. She sometimes deletes a photo if she can’t remember why she took it.
When she does this, I picture her like a gardener, pulling out weeds.
“My husband is so silly sometimes,” she says, showing me a picture of her two grandsons wearing dunce caps and an old man with long, thin candles taped to his head.
She tells me the photo was taken moments before his head caught on fire.
I can’t help it. I laugh at the worried smile, the beads of sweat, and the oblivious boys in their ridiculous hats.
And then I catch my reflection in the window as the train passes through a tunnel. I see the wear under my eyes and the white streaks in my hair. I think of my time in Japan and how little I’ve recorded. I picture family photos from the last six years, and realize I’m not in any of them.
I think of a sign I saw earlier during the day, a framed piece of calligraphy that said, “In solitude, be strong.” It was a motivational message to a graduating class, and yet for my reflection and me, the words echo with a hint of despair.
“This was when my mother and I went to a hot spring resort in Nikko,” she says. “That was only last November. She could still walk, she was so active. I can’t believe how much has changed.”
“And this is when we all went to dinner for teppanyaki. Well, everyone except my son. He seems to be off doing his own thing. I wish I knew what that was, sometimes. I barely hear from him.”
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“I mean, I’m sorry to hear that.”
“That’s okay. We see him every now and again. I just worry sometimes, you know?”
I make a mental note to email my mother.
“And this is when we all went to Tokyo Station, to see the unveiling of the renovations. My mother, she was so happy — she’s old enough to remember what it used to look like. The red bricks, the grandeur — it was like a trip back in time for her, seeing that.”
“I… I can’t even imagine what that must have felt like.”
“And these days, we’re lucky if she makes it to the toilet on time. She has to call on someone when she wants to stand up. We had to move all of her things to the first floor because the stairs are just impossible.”
I look again at the photo of them in front of the station. The smiles and the warmth.
Her mother is thin like my own grandmother, and hunched over in a way that brings with it a flashback — of afternoons with lemonade and cookies, leafing through books about the history of boxing and the wonders of natural phenomena. My grandmother hobbles out of the kitchen to see if I need anything, tells me she’s going to water the orchids.
It’s an odd feeling, to hijack someone’s memories and make them your own. I feel my brain fumble through the depths of my past, desperate to create links and append meaning to the images it’s being shown.
“I take her to the public bath when I can,” she says.
“There’s one near our house. It’s a hot spring, actually. It’s not fantastic, but it’s nicer than the bath at home. But these days, my mother’s so frail that when we get undressed, she can’t get into the water. She’s afraid of slipping on the stone. Missing a step. She doesn’t trust herself to hold the handrails. She’s too scared.”
“So I hold her,” she says. “She’s so light. I hold her, and we get in the bath together, and we sit there with her on my lap, and sometimes we talk, and other times we don’t.
“And it’s just so strange to me, that the roles have reversed like that. When I was a child she did everything, and now I’ve become her guardian. Maybe it would be a nuisance to some people, and sometimes it’s a nuisance for me, too. But I’m just so grateful for these moments. I’m so happy to know I can give something back.”
She smiles, and puts the phone in her bag.
“It’s probably not something you can understand just yet,” she says. “I don’t think it’s something I understand fully myself.”
But of all the places we’ve walked on this pathway of photos and memories, the cave we find ourselves in now is the place that resonates with me the most — where the echoes are different but the wavelengths are the same.
I’m back home. It’s late, and I’m watching TV. I feel the cushions of the sofa and the carpet beneath my feet. I hear the crackling of the heater. I walk to get a glass of water, and in my father’s bedroom I see a book half open on his chest, glasses dangling from his ears, and the bedside lamp lighting the age in his sleeping face.
I take the book and place it on the bedside drawer, and gently take the glasses from his face. He wakes up momentarily, shuffles slightly. He smiles sheepishly.
“Thanks,” he says.
“Get some sleep, dad.”
I turn off the lamp, and go back to the lounge room.
“Are you okay?” she asks.
I blink back to focus. Smile sheepishly, like a sleepy old man I know.
“I’m fine,” I say. “I guess I didn’t realize I was so tired.”
“It’s been a long, long day. Get some rest. And thank you.”
“For indulging me in my mundane family life,” she says. “Thank you.”
I smile, shake my head, and close my eyes.
I picture a family across the sea. I picture the shrinking old man who is my father, and the chitter-chatter of my mother over the phone. I picture a crazy girl shouting at bull terriers in a vegetable patch while her boyfriend makes music, and a buff little guy smoking weed, staring at the ceiling, and wondering what he’s going to do with his life.
And I miss each one of them, acutely. Painfully. Longingly.
We might all be entirely different people. We might all live entirely different lives. And yet, it seems, there is a certain shade of loneliness that will always feel the same, for all of us.