When I was nine years old, I suffered from a kidney disease called nephritis. I skipped school and stayed in bed at home for a week as I felt sick and had a fever every day. It had gotten so worse that I vomited blood one night and passed out. My mother found it next morning and called in a neighbor who worked as a nurse. She urged my mother to take me to the local clinic which doctor in turn urged her to get me examined at the hospital. As a result, I was hospitalized for nephritis.
As it was when I lived in a small village of Kyoto, Japan, no one in my family knew what nephritis was. My mother rummaged out a supplement of a homemaking magazine that featured medical issues. It had charts of disease that showed a result according to symptoms by following the arrows to correspond applicable symptoms. I chose the arrows of my symptoms and ended up the result of ‘death’. No matter how many times and how many different patterns I tried, the bottom of the chart concluded with a word ‘death’. “Does it mean I’ll die of this disease in any case?” My mother and I asked the same question to each other and closed the booklet.
My hospitalized days in a shared room of six patients at the children’s ward began. As a nephritis patient, I didn’t have freedom of flushing the toilet. Urine had to be kept in a glass jar each time to be examined. Its amount and color told a condition of a patient. Other patients’ jars were put on the shelves along with mine. Compared to others’, mine was less and darker. I was afraid if my condition was so bad. Because I didn’t want to admit it and didn’t want doctors and nurses to find it either, I tried to cheat. Into a one-time jar, I urinated twice so that at least my amount seemed normal. It had escalated gradually and I urinated the whole day into one jar. Ironically, the abnormally large amount of urine drew an alarming attention of a nurse who thought my illness had taken an inexplicable turn for the worse. It worked directly opposite to what I had intended and I confessed my cheating helter-skelter.
My six-patient room wasn’t usually lonesome as we were kids and some of their parents were allowed to stay with them on the couches next to their beds. But some got permission to go home for the night provisionally, some got well and left the hospital, some got worse and moved to a single room, all of which coincided at the same time and the room was almost empty one night. A girl whose bed was on the opposite side of mine and I were only patients in the room. After the lights-out time, she asked in the darkness if I was still awake. As I answered yes, she started telling me a story that she made. I thought she felt lonely and couldn’t sleep because the room was too quiet that night with just two of us. Her story was about two rabbits. They seeded, watered and grew carrots at each section in the field. The night before the harvest, one of the two rabbits sneaked in the field and pulled out all the carrots from the other rabbit’s section. He ate them all and put leaves back on each hole to cover it. Next morning, two rabbits came up to the field and started to harvest their carrots on their each section. The other rabbit, who knew nothing about the night before, was excited to reap his carrots since he had been looking forward to this day for long. But every time he pulled out his carrot, there was nothing beyond the leaves. He was puzzled and sang, “Nothing but leaves my carrot gives!” While his friend rabbit was pulling out a ripe carrot one after another next to his section, he pulled out only leaves out of a hole repeatedly and sang each time, “Nothing but leaves my carrot gives!” I dozed off and woke up by the girl’s voice of “Hidemi, are you listening?” a few times during the story. Unfortunately, my patience didn’t last until the end. I had been completely asleep at that part of the story and didn’t get the ending. With hindsight, her story may not be her original but something she read or heard since it ‘s too good for a story that a small child makes. Either way, I still remember the story for some reason. When my song didn’t sell at all although I had spent many years to complete it, I heard “Nothing but leaves my carrot gives!” from somewhere.
One day, we had a new comer in the six-patient room. Although she was a junior high school student and wasn’t supposed to be in the children’s ward, she was sent here because the women’s ward was full. She was unhappy to be confined with kids and complained to her mother and the nurses. She looked a grown-up to me and I liked her instantly. I went to her bed to talk to her and tried to console her. I had been stuck to her bedside every day since. She often told me not to make her laugh because her wound from an appendix operation hurt. She laughed at my talks anyway. When she left the hospital, she gave me a gift. It was a small porcelain doll who was wearing a white bouffant skirt beneath which was a bell. On the skirt, there was a printed inscription saying, “I wish for your happiness.” I had put her on the shelves in my room long after I left the hospital, until I grew up and left home.
I think those hospital days have influenced me immensely. I had been constantly aware of death in those days. I got well after all but I had never felt death so close to me in my life. As it’s said that people don’t live life unless they understand death, that experience has driven me to think things based on the idea that I eventually die, and therefore to do what I want for my life. Even if my carrot gives nothing but leaves.
It seems that people look back and judge themselves when they are nearing their ends. Not long before his death, my grandfather suddenly told my parents that he wanted to go to the department store where he once worked vigorously but had to leave to succeed the family.
My parents thought his consciousness grew dim because they assumed that he meant shopping, which he was too frail to do. I know what he really meant. He realized that he should not have given up what he wanted to do for his life. On his deathbed, he pointed at my mother and said, “You’re next.” I wonder if she would end up like him. Surely she looks a strong candidate for that matter…
episode from An Old Tree in Kyoto / Hidemi Woods
Nephritis confined me in the hospital during the summer break when I was in the fourth grade living in Kyoto, Japan. Although I didn’t feel so sick, the doctor ordered me to be inactive all the time. Inside a six-bed pediatric ward and a hallway between the nurse station and the hospital kitchen was the allowed portion for me to move around. When I needed to go beyond it, a nurse put me in a wheelchair. Within a couple of days, I thought I would be bored to death, not from nephritis. I walked back and forth along my restricted stretch on the hallway many times a day, which also bored me quickly. One of my daily routines was to go take a tray meal of an unseasoned diet three times a day from the hospital kitchen on the furthest end of the allowed stretch. Next to the kitchen was a small recreation room that was carpeted and had a television. Watching TV was banned for some reason, and I used the room to blow bubbles. My mother brought me a bubble blower on one of her visits and I played with it out of the ward window. One day, I found out that bubbles remained for some time on the carpeted surface and that fascinated me. I blew as many bubbles as I could on the carpet in the recreation room and got me surrounded by glittering bubbles. I was obsessed with it as the room looked like a dreamland or heaven. That became my main pastime during my lockup and made the carpet so soggy and drenched that nobody could sit on it anymore.
One night in those hospital days, I woke up to the disturbing noise in the small hours. Doctors and nurses were hastily coming in and going out of my ward. They gathered around a girl whose bed was right across mine. She uttered in a faint voice, “It hurts, it hurts.” repeatedly. The curtains had been drawn around her bed and I had no idea what was going on, but at least I sensed something bad was happening to the girl. Next morning, I found her and her bed gone somewhere. I asked a nurse where she went, and she told me that the girl moved to a two-bed ward on the same floor. I understood that the number of beds in a ward corresponded with the patient’s condition. The fewer the beds were, the worse the condition was. A chart was made in my head. If a patient in a six-bed ward recovered, the one would be released from the hospital. But if a patient got worse, the one would be sent to a two-bed ward. And if a patient moved to a private room, the one would be close to death.
Out of boredom and curiosity, I decided to explore the further back of the pediatric floor. I sneaked into the banned area beyond my allowed stretch of the hallway. I turned the corner over the hospital kitchen for the first time. There was also a long hallway with wards on both sides, but it was a lot different from the one in front of my ward. Probably because it was far from the nurse station or the kitchen, this hallway was oddly quiet. It was completely empty with nobody walking and as still as a picture. Tense air filled the stretch like down the hallway in that hotel in ‘The Shining’. A room number and the name of the occupant were put up beside each ward door. I slowly walked along the two-bed wards and further down to the section with the private rooms. Although I was just walking down the hallway, a strange fear had gradually grown inside me that I was walking toward death, closer and closer. Then, a name tag on one private room caught my eyes and I froze on the spot. It was my name written on it. I gasped with surprise, confusion, and horror. I couldn’t grasp what it was. Had my private room been already prepared secretly? Was I being moved here soon? Had my condition turned so bad? I peered at the name tag with my heart thumping hard, and noticed one of the Chinese characters used for the name was different from mine while the pronunciation was the same. The patient had the same name as mine with one different Chinese character. Instead of relief though, I felt I saw what I shouldn’t have seen. I turned back hurriedly, almost running, feeling dreadfully scared of being chased by death. Back on my bed in my ward, I tried to figure out what it meant. Could it be a sign that my condition would worsen and I would die? Could it be a punishment for my exploration of the banned area? Could it be a warning that I would end up there unless I stayed inactive? Or would the person with the same name die in place of me? For a child, it was an uncomprehending, frightening, shocking experience.
A few weeks later, at the end of the summer break, the doctor decided my release from the hospital, possibly because of my shift to a more obedient, inactive patient. On the day of release, my mother brought me a pink summer dress into which I finally got rid of pajamas. The nurses told me about a hospital’s custom. A patient should visit a shrine on the rooftop of the hospital to thank for the release. I didn’t know there was a shrine in the hospital and felt strange. It didn’t make sense to me. At the center of medical science like a hospital, a place to count on unseen power existed. I wondered if the hospital conceded that everything here depended on God in the end. The hospital was big with many tall buildings, one of which had a shrine on the rooftop. It was far from my ward but now I walked throughout not in a wheelchair. Opening the door to the roof top, I went outside. The sunshine, the sky, the breeze, all of those things outside looked new to me. Numerous washed bandages that were hung from the rods to be dried outside were swayed by the gentle breeze like some sort of festive decorations. I plowed through the long pieces of white bandages and the small orange gateway to the shrine appeared on the back. From up there, I saw the building in which my ward was across the courtyard. I counted the floors and windows and spotted my ward. My ward mate’s mother was sitting by the window as usual. She had been staying at the hospital with her daughter because she was little and the hospital was too far from her home to visit, which made my hospital days as if living with her as well. I waved at her for a long time until she noticed me. Finally she waved me back. We waved at each other frantically for a while. Then I put my hands together to pray at the small shrine that was visited only by those who survived, thinking that it was God who decided life and death after all and what the hospital could do was limited compared to that.
That long summer in my childhood is unforgettable to me. And I can tell, it must have a great influence on my life thereafter.
I still linger on the dream I had, in which a monk told me that I had only 25 years more to live. I’ve given thought to life and death. I have plans for my future and a fairly good deal of hope, I guess. Suppose I work hard and achieve something, but the remaining time to enjoy it is so short. What’s the difference between now and then? Maybe life has nothing to do with achievement. Without realizing, I get influenced in a good way from someone, and I could influence someone as well. If I can encourage someone depressed through my music or whatever I do as I was encouraged, that’s more wonderful than superficial success. I think that’s life is all about. And above all, I’m not alone…
I had a nightmare last night that a room flooded and I drowned in the cold water. The sense of water was so real and I actually passed out in the dream when I gulped in too much water instead of air. I think the nightmare has something to do with my new custom. The communal spa in my apartment building has a sauna. While I love to take a sauna, I had never stepped in a cold plunge sitting next to it. Running water is pouring into the small bathtub and icy water is overflowing. I looked with wonder at some residents jump into the cold plunge after getting out of a sauna. One woman soaked herself in icy water completely from head to toe. I didn’t understand how they could do so without having a heart attack. I tested the water with the tip of my toe once, and almost screamed with its coldness. But as I regularly saw someone sink in the cold plunge, my curiosity had grown bigger. And three weeks ago, I finally summoned the courage to give it a try. I gingerly put my leg into it and found that the small bathtub was much deeper than I had thought. I lost my balance and my other leg splashed in. Although I was just out of a sauna and very hot, the extremely cold water froze my legs instantly. I tried to get out but the tub was too deep for my height. The fear that I could never get out of freezing water seized me and I began to panic. Swashing water clumsily, I struggled to climb out. I sincerely wished nobody was watching. Strangely enough, I couldn’t forget the sensation afterward and wanted to try again for some reason. Next time in the spa, I dipped my legs in the cold plunge again. Then, I tried to soak up to my chest. In a few days, I found myself submerge to my neck. Now, taking a cold plunge has become my custom. Every time though, a fear of having a heart attack crosses my mind. It seems I’m attracted with a narrow escape from death. I imagine I might be dead in a cold plunge someday…