THE LONG TELEPHONE CALL IN LIEU OF A WAKE
“So how much do we get back from Golden?”
Before answering, Mitsuki, on the phone with her sister Natsuki, glanced once again at the numbers. On this late-fall night the window by the desk was closed, but instinctively she lowered her voice in reply. “Around seventeen million yen.”
“What?” said Natsuki. “You mean they keep a whole ten million even though she was there such a short time?”
“Looks like it.”
“Golden” was the private, exclusive nursing home where their mother had been living. Its full name was Golden Years, but everyone always called it Golden. The home had charged an initial deposit of 27 million yen, far more than their mother’s dwindling savings would have covered. Funds for the deposit and the high monthly fees had come from selling the land in Chitose Funabashi, the Tokyo suburb where the family home had been. Their mother had actually lived in Golden just four and a half months before coming down with pneumonia. They had kept her room throughout her three-and-a-half-month stay in the hospital, making a total of eight months.
Once she saw that her mother’s death was imminent, Mitsuki had taken to opening Golden’s pamphlet and studying the page with the refund scale. Residents forfeited one-third of the deposit on moving in and the rest on a monthly basis over a seven-year period. She checked her calculations repeatedly, punching in the numbers on a desktop calculator until she was sure.
“I spent all that money, thinking she’d live another ten years,” said Mitsuki. “What an idiot.”
Pleated French lace curtains embroidered with a delicate floral design, two and a half times the width of the window: that had been one folly. Their family was particular about beautiful things. Whatever mixed feelings about their mother Mitsuki and her sister may have had, they took pride in this inclination that was theirs by birth and upbringing. Mitsuki had poured herself with zeal into decorating her mother’s final home, a tiny room of just twenty square meters, and her sister had supported her in her every whim. Still, looking back, Mitsuki thought her zeal had bordered on the pathological.
Natsuki comforted her. “Yes, but back then we were positive she’d be there a long time.”
Based on the average lifespan of women in Japan, who enjoy greater longevity than women anywhere else in the world, their mother in her mid-eighties could have expected to live another eight years. Plus she came from a line of women who lived long, even for Japan.
“Besides, compared with how much she’s leaving us, you didn’t spend all that much.”
People whose parents are indigent must provide for them in old age out of their own pocket. Their mother had had enough laid by to provide for herself and also leave them each an inheritance which, although surely below the amount that would require them to pay inheritance tax, would still be a tidy sum.
In addition to the pamphlet showing the refund scale, on the desk in front of Mitsuki was a heap of items from the filing cabinet in a jumble of colors and shapes: savings passbooks, new and worn, decorated with stripes or gradations of different hues; bank seals of black lacquer or ivory, some round, some oval; documents from securities companies; a memo pad covered with scribbled figures; and various notes, sorted by denomination. On top of them all was an estimate from the funeral home.
“I wonder how much she left us altogether,” Natsuki said, as if to herself.
Natsuki’s relationship with their mother had been strained. At one point their mother had washed her hands of her elder daughter and ingratiated herself instead with Mitsuki, the previously neglected younger daughter, entrusting her with everything, including her finances. Natsuki was never good at managing money anyway and, while resenting their mother, had used this treatment as an excuse to sit back and do nothing. As a result, she had little grasp of the flow of their mother’s funds.
“Altogether, including the money due back from Golden, I figure it should come to about thirty-five million apiece.”
For Natsuki, who had married into wealth, this probably wasn’t a lot of money. As Mitsuki was about to mention this, her sister sighed and said with feeling, “That’s a lot of money.”
To keep her husband and daughter from overhearing the conversation, Natsuki was undoubtedly calling from the soundproof piano room where she liked to retreat with her two cats.
Earlier that evening, after leaving the body at the mortuary, Mitsuki, her sister, brother-in-law, and niece had all gone out for dinner at a nearby chain restaurant specializing in shabu-shabu hot pot; they had parted at around eleven. Even after returning home, Mitsuki had remained exhilarated, knowing that her mother was finally dead — and Natsuki must have felt the same way, for before going to bed she had called, wanting to talk to the one person she knew would fully share her excitement and listen to her with infinite understanding. The sisters each had had a very different relationship with their mother, so they felt liberated in different ways, but their excitement was identical — keen and palpable.
Mitsuki’s professor husband was on sabbatical and had been in Vietnam since the end of March, ostensibly to do research. Natsuki could therefore call late at night with the assurance that she would disturb no one. The phone had rung just as Mitsuki was in the midst of recalculating how much their mother had left them. “It’s hard to believe I’ve suddenly got so much money,” Na
tsuki said. “For the Shimazakis that might not be much, but for me it is.”
The Shimazakis were Natsuki’s in-laws; her husband, a cellist, was their second son. Yet even after decades of marriage, even after her falling-out with their mother, Natsuki remained at heart a Katsura. As did Mitsuki, for that matter. But a woman marrying into wealth was somehow under greater social obligation to become steeped in the ways of her new family. Despite this pressure, Natsuki had remained stubbornly herself.
“What’ll you two use the money for?” she asked.
Natsuki uttered the words “you two” with complete innocence. She meant Mitsuki and her husband, Tetsuo, but the words gave Mitsuki momentary pause. In her reply, she ignored the “two” of “you two” and spoke only about herself.
“Not sure. First off, I want to get my strength back. Go for all the acupuncture and massages I want, soak in a hot spring. If I can, I’d like to quit teaching, too.”
“That sounds good. Tetsuo will be happy too, won’t he? Now he can afford the high-rise condo in the city center he’s always wanted.”
Tetsuo had never even been told her mother was in the hospital, but this her sister did not know. Instead of responding, she asked a question of her own. “What about you, what’ll you use the money for?” Natsuki and her husband, Yuji, owned a spacious apartment of more than 150 square meters in an exclusive old residential area in central Tokyo. Not only were they not saddled with a mortgage, his parents had built them a villa by the family summerhouse on the coast, next to one for his sister and her husband.
“I’m not sure either. I’ve always felt . . . small, you know? I’ve never earned more than a pittance. It’s such a relief to think that finally I’ll have some money of my own. I could trade my Yamaha in for a Steinway. Hey, with thirty-five million I could even buy myself a little condo and get a divorce!” After this bit of flippancy, she went on seriously, “You know what the best part is? Getting free of her while I’m still in my fifties. All those years, I struggled to put the idea out of my mind, tried not to think of anything so lucky.”
“Watching her, all I could think was that I didn’t want to live to be so old. Life lost its appeal in a way.”
“I know what you mean.”
Burdened by their mother’s constant needs and wants, Mitsuki had felt the joy of life wither and fade. And then one summer night just when her menstrual cycle was becoming irregular, she had sat for hours with her bare back exposed to air-conditioning. Before she knew it she’d developed a syndrome known colloquially as “air-conditioningitis.” Her nervous system was affected, and she developed what the doctor called “autonomic dysfunction,” a kind of neuropathy that dragged on and on.
To top it all off, their mother had fallen and fractured her shoulder and hip just before New Year’s, a catastrophe that aggravated the sisters’ own ailments. Natsuki, though strong since childhood,
now had a chronic and worsening eye condition, and Mitsuki, weak since childhood, suffered increasingly from her nerves. Then too, although her sister didn’t know it, she had her husband to fret about.
As they continued to chat, Mitsuki thought of their mother’s body lying in the mortuary — in a freezer, to be precise — turning steadily to ice from the outside in. Eventually the internal organs would freeze, every last one. Even the eyes, which had stayed wide open, staring, until a nurse had gently closed them, would freeze solid. What of her white hair, full and wiry to the last? What would become of it?
Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Today, mother died. The opening line of the first novel she had ever read in French, long ago.
By rights, this should have been the night of the wake. A night when, according to Buddhist tradition or still more ancient custom in Japan, newly bereaved family members would stay up all night, keeping candles lit and incense burning as they bade the departed farewell. Now that so many people died in the hospital, how many families took the body home to hold a proper wake anymore? Customs were fluid, changing year by year. What others might do she had no idea, nor did she — or her sister, she felt sure — much care. She felt no guilt about leaving their mother’s body unattended in the mortuary freezer while chatting on the phone about how to spend their inheritance. She even felt no guilt about not feeling guilty. And she had no intention of revisiting the funeral home till two days later, when the body would be put into its coffin.
“Anyway, tomorrow we’ve got to get some rest.”
Mitsuki hung up the telephone and switched off her computer. She wasn’t going to tell Tetsuo that her mother was gone. The time difference between Japan and Vietnam was two hours. Right now, he might be setting out nightcaps and snacks for two. He felt at ease in the kitchen, and she had always liked watching him putter there. Now he was showing that homebody side of himself to some young woman. He didn’t deserve to be told about her mother’s death. She prepared for bed as usual and slid under the covers. Light from the lamp on her nightstand fell on a French novel, the one she had started reading at her mother’s bedside during those last few days, while waiting for her to die. She switched the light off.
Even in the dark, tears did not come. Her excitement was mingled only with fatigue from having sat all day with her dying mother. It occurred to her that long ago when her grandmother died — back when Mitsuki was a child — her mother, too, had not wept.
Only decades later did her mother show a trace of emotion. One afternoon as they walked along the beach at Atami, the setting for a famous scene in an old serial novel of tragic love, her mother had laughed derisively. Referring to the novel’s hero and heroine, she’d said, “There never was any Kan’ichi in your grandmother’s life. How silly . . . her thinking she was O-Miya!” Her voice quavered as she fought back tears, perhaps at a sudden memory.
Mitsuki had walked on in silence, fearing her mother might turn maudlin.
Her mother had struggled to keep pace, jabbing her cane into the sand.