Ichiro told me our son would be better off living with his sister and her husband in America; I was too weak to argue with him. My mother said I had lost my mind to give up my child. Her judgment was cruel, but I knew she was right.
“You are like a monk for three days,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“You give up too easily. You carried your baby for nine months and took care of him for nearly three years, and after all that you give him away. Do you not love him, Noriko?”
“Of course, I love him, but what if Ichiro dies, then what? The doctors can’t tell us anything, and we have no money. I could be a widow with a toddler. I don’t have the courage to face such a fate.” Hearing how defeated I sounded shocked me. A year of trying to buoy my husband’s spirit was dragging me into a sandpit of sorrow and regret.
“The family will find a way to help you if it should come to that. In the meantime, you must stand up to Ichiro. You are not just an obedient Japanese wife who walks behind her husband staring at his ass. What has become of you? You used to be such a rebellious child. Now you are like a pillow with all the goose feathers pulled out.”
“Ichiro says I am selfish to want to hold on to Hisashi. He sneers and says, ‘What kind of life can we offer him?’ I have no answer.”
I cannot testify that this is exactly how the argument with my mother went, but I did not ask for help or turn to my brother or sister. I felt too ashamed of the situation Ichiro and I found we were in, even if it was no one’s fault.
And now here we were in a sparse room at the old Dai-Ichi Hotel in Tokyo, the rain falling against the window blurring the edges of the Shinsaibashi train station across the street. Hisashi was still asleep next to me, his body warm, his black bangs covering his forehead as he gently breathed in and out, in and out. When I touched his rosy cheeks and brushed a few strands of hair from his forehead, he opened his innocent eyes and greeted me with his beautiful smile.
Pressing his hand against his pajama pants, he looked at me. “Shee-shee, Mama. I have to go to the bathroom.”
“Can you wait a few minutes? Your daddy is just finishing his shower.”
“That’s my good boy.” I kissed his head and breathed in his sweet scent.
Ichiro opened the bathroom door, a cloud of steam behind him. Pulling his belt to the tightest notch, he looked as if he was wearing a larger man’s business suit. The medication was stealing his appetite. He complained that nothing but liquor had any flavor.
“So, our little man is up. We don’t have much time. The train to the airport will be leaving in less than an hour. I want to be at the terminal early so we get a seat. I don’t have the energy to stand for the entire trip.”
Taking the gold lighter he inherited from his father off the table, Ichiro spun the flint and took a deep drag on his cigarette.
“Should you be smoking, Ichiro?”
“What difference does it make? Please don’t annoy me with your questions. Smoking is one of the few things I enjoy.”
Hisashi pulled my hand, reminding me he needed to use the bathroom. I picked him up. “You are getting so heavy. All the weight your daddy is losing he must be giving to you.”
Ichiro ignored my comment. Turning on the radio, he flipped the dial to the classical music station. “Do you recognize this? Beethoven’s Ninth. His last and greatest symphony. No composer has written a Tenth—not Mahler, not Bruckner, not Schubert. They all died trying. Sad, isn’t it?” How easily Ichiro distracted himself from what we dreaded: this day, this hour, this moment.
Hisashi sat down on the toilet seat as I instructed him so he wouldn’t make droplets on the tile floor. I wiped the fog off the mirror, quickly brushed my teeth, and combed my hair. The fluorescent light exaggerated the faint scar on my forehead where a shard of glass hit me, marking me forever as a hibakusha—a survivor of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.
I opened Hisashi’s suitcase and took out the new outfit I bought at Takashimaya Department Store. Ichiro said I was wasting our money, but I wanted him to look his best for the trip to America. I had washed the shirt to soften the fabric and cut the label so it wouldn’t scratch his neck. These small gestures showed that I was a good mother. I helped him close the buttons of his shirt and then, holding up the short trousers, Hisashi stepped into them and pulled the suspenders over his shoulders. I thought, Keep going. Tell him what to do next.
“Here. Put your socks on.”
“Left leg. Now right leg. Done, Mama.”
I sang out: “Put your left leg in. Put your left leg out. Now do the hokey pokey and turn yourself around…”
Hisashi finished the song: “And that’s what it’s all about.” We listened together to the records my sister-in-law Mitsuko sent from America, and he knew the lyrics by heart even if we didn’t speak English.
Ichiro turned up the volume on the radio, signaling we were annoying him. “Do you hear it, Noriko? The final movement of the Ninth, the famous chorus? Wer ein holdes Weib errungen / Mische seinen Jubel ein!”
“What does that mean, Ichiro?”
“If I remember correctly, my professor said it means ‘whoever has found an obedient wife let him join our songs of praise!’ I couldn’t agree more.”
Laughing, he grabbed Hisashi and put him on his knee.
“Hold on tight.” Ichiro lifted our son up and down on his knee but stopped when he was struck by a coughing fit that lasted several seconds. Beads of sweat appeared on his forehead.
Unaware of his father’s distress, Hisashi took out an imaginary coin and tried to put it in his father’s pocket. “Here, Dada. Again, again.”
“That’s enough for now,” his father said. “You’ll ruin your expensive suit. Your mama wants you to look your very best for your new parents.”
Wide-eyed, Hisashi hit his father. “No! No! No!”
Ichiro pinned his son’s arms down by his sides as tears rolled down his chubby cheeks. “Calm down. It’s time for us to go. Put on your jacket and your shoes. I don’t want to hear another ‘no’ out of you.” Hisashi’s lower lip quivered. Inside I seethed with anger at Ichiro for speaking so harshly to Hisashi, but I held my tongue.
Ichiro opened his briefcase and held up the documents: “Passport, tickets, letter to stewardess…” The news interrupted the music. “Good morning, listeners. Today is February twenty-ninth, 1964. Leap Year. Don’t forget, ladies. You may ask your boyfriend to marry you if you dare.”
So next year there would be no February 29. I thought, Will I light a candle on February 28 or March 1 and say a prayer for my little boy, wishing that someday I will see him again, if not in this lifetime, then in the next?
I put a framed wedding photograph of Ichiro and me on top of Hisashi’s clothes so he would remember what we looked like, and I tucked a heart-shaped box made of paulownia wood between the layers in his suitcase. Inside the box was Hisashi’s umbilical cord that all good Japanese mothers save as a symbol of the connection between mother and child. After today, the flesh we had shared for the nine months of my pregnancy would no longer belong to me. It was to be passed on to Mitsuko, who awaited his arrival in America. Hisashi, her son at last. I closed his suitcase. The sound of the latches snapping shut echoed off the suffocating walls of the hotel room.
The late February air was damp and the cloudy sky promised more rain. Blackbirds swooped down on the branches of the trees that would be pregnant with cherry blossoms in a month, the city parks clogged with viewing parties organized by happy families and visiting tourists reveling in the beauty of the pink-petal snow. I tried pushing the thought out of my mind, but a voice kept repeating, Hisashi will not be here to see the cherry blossoms. You and Ichiro will be alone.
Ichiro and I clasped our son’s hands and lifted him over the mud puddles in the street to make sure that his new shoes did not get wet. “Higher, higher,” Hisashi shouted, as if we were playing a game. Ichiro stopped to catch his breath. He leaned over and rested his hands on his knees, taking shallow breaths to clear his lungs and bring the blood back into his head.
“Are you all right, Ichiro?”
“Just a little dizzy. Give me a moment, and I’ll be fine.”
Distracted, I didn’t realize Hisashi had escaped my grip. He jumped into a puddle, splashing his shoes with mud. Ichiro grabbed him by the arm, spun him around, and slapped him on the behind. “You naughty boy. Your mama is going to have to wash off your shoes when we get to the airport.”
“Ichiro, go easy on him. He’s just trying to hold our attention. We can’t expect him to always be an obedient child. Especially today…”
Ichiro wiped his mouth with his handkerchief and tucked it back into his breast pocket. “I shouldn’t be so harsh, but this is as difficult for me as it is for you—even if I don’t express it.”
We found a seat in the front car. The doors closed and the train pulled out of the station, picking up speed as it headed toward Tokyo’s Haneda International Airport. Hisashi sat on my lap next to the window and called out the names of the passing images: bicycle, dog, car, wagon. His vocabulary was expanding rapidly, and he was speaking in complete sentences, the result of all the books his father read to him. He was smart like Ichiro, but he was also a very emotional and sensitive child—which he had inherited from me. It occurred to me that our son was like a cup filled with tea poured at the same time from two cracked kettles. After what we were about to do, neither of us deserved him.
Ichiro scanned the Help Wanted section of yesterday’s Osaka Shimbun he brought from home. He meticulously circled ads: “salesclerk needed in menswear department at Daimuru Osaka Shinsaibashi,” “bookkeeper position at Nippon Steel.” After hesitating a moment, he marked “chauffeur, HELLO Limousine Service.” I knew he considered the job beneath him, but the pay would probably be good during the Olympics. He folded the paper and put it back in his briefcase. The rocking of the train made him sleepy, and he struggled to stay awake. I watched his eyes begin to flutter behind his glasses, which he had recently taken to wearing regularly as his eyesight worsened and his cheekbones became more prominent as he continued to lose weight. There were days I didn’t recognize my husband.
Hisashi pulled his cap off and hid his face. “Where are you, Dada?”
“Right next to you,” his father answered, lifting his head and seeming to struggle to keep his eyes open. “Where did you think I was?” He then tickled his son’s stomach, and Hisashi squirmed in my lap.
“Let’s keep him quiet so that he doesn’t get overheated,” I said, and I unbuttoned his maroon jacket and gave him a glass bottle filled with water. He sucked on the worn rubber nipple until there was nothing left in the bottle but air. The voice over the loudspeaker announced, “Next stop, Haneda International Airport. All passengers must disembark. Please check around your seats to make sure you have all your belongings.”
Ichiro picked Hisashi up off my lap, and I carried his suitcase and my husband’s briefcase. A long flight of stairs leading to the main terminal loomed in front of us. Ichiro’s steps slowed until, as we approached the stairs, he turned. “Take him. I can’t carry him any longer.” I clutched Hisashi’s warm body against mine as I climbed the stairs. I could feel his heart beating just as it had when he was inside me, or did I imagine it? I kissed his neck and sang softly into his ear the words to “You Are My Sunshine.”
When I reached the last line, I choked back tears. Hisashi kissed my cheek, which was wet with tears I could no longer stifle.
Ichiro ignored us and walked directly up to the agent at the Northwest Airlines counter, handing him Hisashi’s one-way ticket from Tokyo to San Francisco. The clock overhead read nine. The black second hand juddered like a rusty music box, marking the minutes until Hisashi’s departure. I wanted to turn back time to the day that Hisashi was born, to the day I held my perfect baby in my arms for the first time and promised to never let him go.
The agent looked through the documents. “I see everything is in order, Mr. Uchida. Since your son is traveling alone, we have assigned a stewardess—Miss Yume, I believe—to take care of him during the flight. There is one stop in Hawaii, but he can stay on the airplane with the other passengers who are also continuing on to San Francisco. Does he have any luggage?”
Ichiro answered, “Only this small suitcase. I measured it, and it will fit neatly under his seat.”
The agent stamped Hisashi’s passport and handed Ichiro a boarding pass. “Mr. and Mrs. Uchida, I’m afraid that you can’t go onto the airplane with your son. When it is time to board, the stewardess will escort him to his seat.”
I said, “No. It’s not right. We want to be with him until the very last minute.”
“I’m sorry. These are the rules. Only ticketed passengers can go onto the plane, Mrs. Uchida.
“Are there no exceptions? Hisashi is only two and a half. What if he is afraid?”
The agent crossed out something he had written on a pad of paper in front of him as if he was trying to get rid of me. Pausing a moment, he said in a low voice, “You should have thought of that before, Mrs. Uchida.” Turning to my husband, he asked, “Who will be meeting your son in San Francisco?”
“My sister Mitsuko Mishima and her husband, Harry. They paid for my son’s ticket and made all his travel arrangements.”
The agent filled out a form and handed it to Ichiro. “Give this to the stewardess. She will make sure your son is turned over only to his aunt and uncle. Northwest Airlines is responsible for his safety, and we want to be sure he is placed in the proper hands upon his arrival.”
A line was forming behind us and the agent looked impatient. “If you have no other questions, you can wait in the lounge area. There will be an announcement when the airplane is ready to board.” He leaned over the counter. “Have a good trip to San Francisco, Master Hisashi.”
The three of us found a place to sit. I retrieved a hard candy from my purse and handed it to Hisashi. The syrup dribbled down his chin. I was afraid that he’d mess his new shirt. “Why don’t we go to the bathroom one more time? I can wash your face and clean off your shoes, my angel.”
Hisashi mumbled to himself as he followed me. “What are you saying, Hisashi?” I asked, waiting for him to catch up and take my hand.
“San Francisco, Mama. San Francisco.”
“Yes, that is where you are going.”
He hesitated for a moment and then asked, “You and Dada are going too, Mama?”
“I don’t think so, but there are lots of surprises waiting for you.” I forced myself to smile. “Now be a brave boy and do just what your papa and I tell you. Will you do that for me?”
I had tried to prepare my son for what lay ahead, but how could I really explain that Ichiro and I would no longer be part of our son’s life?
In the ladies’ room, I washed the sticky syrup off Hisashi’s face. Then I leaned down and scraped the mud off his shoes. Hisashi wrapped his arms around my neck. “Carry me, Mama.”
I lifted my son and held him close. I wanted to run away with him, to get back on the train and take him to Hokkaido, to Kyushu, anywhere, never to be seen or heard from again. But I had no money, and I had made a promise to Ichiro to give our son away. “For a better life.” The words sounded hollow now that the moment had finally arrived. How was I going to live without him?
Ichiro stood at the gate holding Hisashi’s suitcase. He was speaking with a stewardess. He waved me into the line. “This is Miss Yume. She will take good care of you, Hisashi.”
Trying to remain calm, I said, “Miss Yume, please be sure that Hisashi eats all his meals. When he says ‘shee-shee,’ that’s his way of saying he needs to go to the bathroom. In case he starts to cry, I put a photograph of my husband and me in his suitcase. Perhaps if you show it to him, it will calm him down.”
“Don’t worry, Mrs. Uchida. We will do everything to make your son feel cared for. It is not often we have a toddler traveling alone. I don’t mean to hurry you, but perhaps we should get on board so I can settle him into his seat ahead of the other passengers.”
Ichiro crouched to our son’s eye level. “You go first. Mama and Papa will come later. We will be on the very next airplane.” Handing him his red wooden truck, he said, “Don’t forget your zoom-zoom.” Then he hugged his son for the last time.
I kissed Hisashi hard, as if my lips were burning a permanent scar into his cheek. Miss Yume took Hisashi’s hand. “Wave goodbye to your mama and papa.” He did as he was told, then followed Miss Yume down the ramp. At the last moment he turned around. I could see his cheeks were glistening with tears, but he didn’t call out. He pulled his cap down over his eyes and, like a brave soldier, kept walking.
Ichiro and I stood at the window until the airplane taxied down the runway, lifted off, and was devoured by rain clouds. Burying my face in Ichiro’s neck, I asked, “Why did you say we will be on the next airplane when that is a terrible lie?”
“I thought telling him we would be coming soon would make it easier for him to leave us. I didn’t want him fussing and whining in front of all the other passengers.” Shrugging his shoulders in defeat, he said, “Even if we had enough money to buy tickets, the US Immigration people would send me right back to Japan like a piece of battered luggage stamped CAUTION, TUBERCULOSIS INSIDE.”
I felt a sharp pain in my chest as if my heart were cracking open like a clay urn firing in a noborigama kiln. I turned away from Ichiro. I wanted to ask him, “How could you do this to me? To Hisashi?” But I knew I had only myself to blame for agreeing to his demand.
The night manager of the Dai-Ichi Hotel looked up from his reservation ledger as Ichiro and I walked through the empty lobby. “Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. Uchida. Would you like some tea and rice balls sent up to your room?” Before Ichiro could answer, he continued, “And if I might inquire, where is your son? Such an enchanting child. So happy.”
Ichiro answered, “He’s on his way to visit relatives in America. We are expecting a call from San Francisco to let us know that he has arrived safely. Please connect the call to our room no matter what time it comes in. And have our bill ready for us. We are returning to Osaka tomorrow morning.”
“With pleasure, sir. I wish both of you a good evening.”
Halfway up the stairs, Ichiro turned around. “On second thought, send a bottle of hot sake to our room. This weather is giving me a chill.”
I opened the door to our room and felt along the wall for the overhead light switch. The maid had stored our futons and comforters in the closet. I slid the wardrobe door open and unrolled the bedding, leaving Hisashi’s comforter on the shelf. Ichiro turned on the radio to the news station: “Takamatsu Construction Group reported the addition of one thousand full- and part-time workers to meet the deadlines for the 1964 Summer Olympic Games in Japan.”
I thought, If there is so much demand, maybe there will be a job for Ichiro.
As if reading my thoughts, he said, “With the economy so brisk, I might have better luck now.”
There was a gentle knock on the door. A waitress entered with a bottle of sake on a lacquered tray and placed it on a low table in the center of the room. Bowing as she retreated, she closed the door behind her.
Turning my back to Ichiro, I unbuttoned my blouse and stepped out of my skirt while he quickly undressed. Sitting on a cushion, I watched Ichiro fill two porcelain cups with sake. His hand was shaking. Offering me a cup, he drained his cup in a single gulp. I took a few sips, then slid under the comforter. Ichiro turned off the light and lay down beside me. He kissed me gently, and then with more force. He caressed my breasts. I smelled the familiar scent of his cologne mixed with hints of sake and tobacco. Even in such pain, our sadness threatening to overwhelm us, the power of our physical attraction to one another was overwhelming. Like two survivors on a life raft, we clung to one another, riding each wave of desire as if it might be the fatal one that would wash us overboard and into a roiling sea. Our passion was all that we had left to keep us from drowning in our unspoken sorrow.
Just before dawn, the telephone rang. The night manager said, “As you instructed, sir, I am putting your call through from America.”
I could hear Mitsuko’s voice through the receiver. “I’m holding Hisashi in my arms. He is such a precious child—so smart and lively. The minute I put him down, he escapes and Harry has to chase after him.”
Ichiro asked, “Is he smiling?”
“Yes. The stewardess says that he was a good passenger, running through the airplane and saying hello to everyone during the flight.”
Ichiro said, “Promise me, Mitsuko, that you will take good care of him. You must give him a good life—the kind of life Noriko and I cannot afford. From now on he is your son, not ours.”
I tried to grab the telephone, but Ichiro pushed my hand away. “Let me say hello to Hisashi. I need to hear his voice, and I want to tell him I love him, that he is my sunshine.”
“Hearing your voice will only confuse him. My sister will let us know how he is doing in a few days. Then maybe, when he is settled, I’ll allow you to speak to him.”
I left Ichiro still talking with his sister and went into the bathroom. Turning on the shower, I let the steam engulf me and the heat scorch my skin. Sliding to the tile floor, I wailed like a mother in mourning for her dead son.