Friday, 7 March 2008

Drinking With Miyuki

Miyuki’s name meant ‘beautiful snow,’ but her complexion was sallow and pock-marked and she had a scrunched-up face like a Pekingese dog’s.

She had the body of a ten-year-old boy, but the voice of a truck driver. "Do you like to drink?" she asked me the first time we met. I told her that I didn’t much like alcohol, but I liked getting drunk. She studied me for a moment then nodded. "You and me’ll get on fine, then."

She loved drinking, and whisky was her favorite. Drinking with her could be scary: she didn't seem to know when to quit. She was also one of the funniest drunks I've ever met: she’d get wasted in some hole-in-the-wall bar, then want to fight any men who came on to us. It was hilarious to see a woman barely 4' 11" leap off her barstool, fists up, and tackle some drunk who'd made a pass. Nobody ever made a pass at Miyuki: no matter how drunk a man was, he wouldn't have dared. I'd have two drinks and be plastered; our other friends might have a few beers and be tipsy; Miyuki would soak up the bar and still be on her feet. After a night out drinking, we'd serenade our taxi driver all the way home with a multilingual version of ‘I’ve Been Working on the Railway.’

Miyuki told me once that she had grown up in a very strict, traditional, unloving home, the only girl out of five children. At the age of sixteen she’d done something unthinkable for a modern Japanese girl: she’d left home for good. For a year, she slept rough in parks and temple grounds, surviving by doing odd jobs like weeding, window-cleaning, and car-washing. Looking for a place to bed down one night, she met the local Catholic priest, who happened to be a wonderful man. The Church had taken her in and Miyuki had never forgotten their kindness. She converted to Catholicism and was the most devout, hard-working Catholic I have ever known.

Amazingly enough, Miyuki was married to a pleasant, conventional-looking man and they had a ten-year-old son, Kohei. Miyuki, her husband and Kohei were baseball fanatics. They would play softball together in the park, taking their respective turns at batting, pitching, and catching. If you saw them from even a short distance, it was hard to tell who was who. They were all roughly the same size, and they all dressed identically in jeans, tee shirts and baseball caps. Miyuki once bragged that she did her clothes shopping in the boys’ section -- that she was able to buy all their clothes in the same place.

Then she got ill. At first, no one would admit that it was anything serious. Some sort of virus, they maintained; she’d soon be fine. But months later Miyuki was still in the hospital. I finally got up the courage to ask our mutual friends, Shizue and Keiko, what was wrong with her. They didn't really want to talk about it. It was some form of hepatitis, non-communicable, they said. Miyuki’s fondness for whisky, beer and sake had done her liver no favors, and the prognosis wasn’t good.

We all went to see Miyuki in the hospital. She looked awful: scrawnier and sallower than usual. She was worried about Kohei and her husband, but Shizue and Keiko assured her they would look out for them.

"When I beat this thing," Miyuki boasted, "we’ll all go to Kyoto and do a round of the temples and shrines."

"What will you do if you’re still on the drip?" Keiko asked, raising one eyebrow.

Miyuki grabbed the pole her drip was hanging from and gave it a good shake. "I’ll take it with me!" she cried. "Won’t I be a sight, dragging this sucker up and down the stairs at the station!?"

Miyuki died eight months after entering the hospital. Miyuki’s friends rallied round her husband and son and took their turns looking after Kohei with the other Church ladies. On the rare occasions I spoke with Shizue, Kohei seemed to be doing well. I inherited a box of his outgrown baby clothes shortly after my youngest daughter was born and, when I thought of him at all, assumed that he was growing up happy and well cared for.

Six years after Miyuki had died, I met Shizue and asked after Kohei and Miyuki’s husband. My friend’s face fell.

Two years earlier, Kohei’s father had dropped dead of a heart attack. He was barely 40 years old at the time. After his father’s death, Kohei had suffered from severe depression. Nothing anyone said or did seemed to make it any better. All of his mother’s friends rallied around, once again. Counselling sessions were scheduled, visits were carefully arranged, but Kohei seemed to sink even further into depression.

One day when he was particularly depressed, he disappeared. This had happened often before, so no one was terribly worried at first. And he was almost a man: eighteen years old. After days had passed, however, his mothers’ friends began to worry and the police were called. A search was conducted and his photograph was distributed to police departments all over Japan, but the days turned into weeks, then months, then years.

No trace of Kohei was ever found, and to this day he is still missing. The money in his bank account was never touched. There was a point when his mothers’ friends began to pray that he had been kidnapped and that someone would call asking for ransom. Or that he’d made friends with the wrong kind of people and they were trying to dupe him out of his money -- even that would have been a relief. But no calls ever came.

When I remember Miyuki, I don’t see her as the sallow woman in a hospital bed tethered to a drip. I see her dressed in her jeans, tee-shirt and baseball cap, one point of a triangle, facing her boy and her man. She is swinging her bat, roaring at her husband to just pitch that damn ball again – with or without a spin – to pitch it just one more time – and by God, she’ll hit it, she’ll send it sailing over his head and wipe that smile off his foolish face. Perhaps, in the pocket of her jeans, she has a small flask of her favorite whiskey.

I hope she does.


Carole said...

Everyone has a story, a life, a place in the world. You have a unique way of highlighting events that make readers want to know all the people you do. Another great post.

Gorilla Bananas said...

How tragic for an only child to be orphaned. And his father got a heart attack at such a young age in a country with a low rates of heart disease. As Twenty Major once said: "Life's a c*nt".

ChristineEldin said...

Your gift for writing truly shines in stories like this. It's so sad and beautiful.
What a tragic family. Makes me yearn for the days of extended families, where there is so much more support in times like that.

Carolie said...

Beautiful writing, tragic story. Guess I needed to cry my eyes sure broke the dam for me!

Thank you, Mary.

Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- Thank you. Miyuki was such a funny, quirky, wonderful woman. I think she'd like everyone knowing her story. I could almost feel her hanging over my shoulder saying "Tell them about the time the Pope came to Nagasaki! Tell them about the guy I almost beat up in Beppu!"

GB -- Life really gave poor Kohei a good, swift kick in the teeth. His father looked the picture of health; he exercised a lot and had no bad habits that any of us knew about. And Twenty Major ought to cut it down to one a day or he's going the right way for a heart attack himself (oops -- sorry -- I'm never far from a soap box).

Chris -- Thank you.

The sad thing about this story is that both Miyuki and her husband had cut off ties with their families. They had the Church, though, which was a tremendous support. (They were both church ladies, believe it or not, and did the flowers, ironing for the priests, etc. It really cracked me up knowing that Miyuki sometimes did this with a hangover, wearing her jeans and baseball cap).

Carolie -- I'm sorry to have made you cry! For what it is worth, as I wrote this, I alternately cried and laughed myself. Miyuki was such a character and I really could not do her justice. Kohei had a tough time of it, but Miyuki lived a good, full life -- that is one comfort.

Charlie said...

Wonderful writing as usual, Mary, but this seems to be the week for tragic stories.

Last Saturday morning, Rhonda's son Ben's best friend died of a massive heart attack. Kaleb was a boy full of life—and he was only sixteen. (See Rhonda's Ruminations blog.)

All of which leads me to ask the age-old question: Why do such bad things happen to such good people? There is, I'm afraid, no answer.

Ello said...

Such a sad story. Poor kid. Losing one parent is so hard, losing both young is devastating. I thought this was a nice tribute to your friend, Mary.

Kara said...

that's heartbreaking. i can't even think of anything else to say.

Mary Witzl said...

Charlie -- Poor kid! I know that this happens from time to time, but it just feels so wrong. I have a 16-year-old myself, and whenever I consider that my kid, however obnoxious, is as mortal as I am, I feel scared. I can barely imagine what that boy's parents are going through.

Ello -- Thank you. I feel like a real meanie, though, writing about something so somber. I will have to make up for this by writing something very frivolous and light-hearted in my next posting.

Kara -- I feel like I've made everyone sad with this story. I'll be back to posting silly stuff very soon, honest!

Merry Monteleone said...


Beautiful writing, as always, and a wonderful tribute to your friend, Miyuki.

This reminded me of an old saying, "When the tree dies, the branches go with it." Like many old sayings, it has multiple meanings, for those who take the time to really ponder it.

Most often you'd hear the older ladies, whose husbands had passed, say this - it was a way of complaining about all the people their husbands had helped and paid attention to who forgot about them and their children after their husbands passed... most often they were talking about inlaws, who cut ties because their blood relation was gone, and it's hard not to be hurt when someone would claim to love a person but not their family... it was a way of whining about the people who would take from the person but not be there for their family...

There's usually one person in a family or group of friends who is the tree, the glue, the one who holds it all together. Sometimes the strongest person is not the one you'd think, often they're the ones who ask for the least recognition.

To me, that phrase will always be an admonishment, you have to be your own tree, your own person, and that's what I want to teach my kids so that hopefully, when I'm gone, they'll flourish with their own roots rather than withering without mine.

Always great to stop in here, Mary, you always make me think. I'll add Miyuki's family to my prayers... I'm sure she'd like that, that you have people on other continents remembering her.

The Anti-Wife said...

What a wonderful tribute. I hope your friend, her husband and son are reunited somewhere in the universe.

Kappa no He said...

So sad. In college my husband was in a band. After graduation, the singer and guitarist ended up getting married and after many years of trying finally had a little boy. A few months ago we got a phone call from the wife asking if we'd seen her husband. Now, I've never met them personally -- only shared their life via nengajou -- and my husband hasn't seen either of them since his uni days. But she was calling everyone she knew because he had disappeared. Not a trace.

Kim Ayres said...

You have such a superb way of capturing the essence, the heart and emotion of a story. Even a sad tale is always a treat from you Mary

debra said...

A beautifully written story, Mary. Wherever Kohei is, I hope he is safe.

Mary Witzl said...

Merry -- You are right: almost all the parents I know hope that their kids could, if necessary, survive without them. I was lucky in that when my mother died, I already had established my own tree, so to speak. Kohei lost his parents at the worst possible time, when he was a teenager and still had no tree. I think it is almost easier to lose your parents when you are very young than when you are an adolescent.

Miyuki was the sort of person who was always lighting candles for others and remembering them in her prayers. She loved meeting people from other countries, but was a little shy about the fact that she could not speak English. I know that she would love being remembered in your prayers.

Anti-wife -- Thank you for those kind words.

Kappa -- Let me know if he ever shows up. I wonder if the family are thinking that he might be in North Korea?

Our daughter went to nursery school with a little boy whose grandfather, at age 79, vanished without a trace. His family posted signs all over our town, but he was never found. He was a WWII veteran and an introspective, moody man. I have often wondered just what sort of life he led and what happened to him.

Kim -- Thank you. I hesitated about posting this; I wrote it some time ago and it is pretty depressing. But Miyuki's life was a triumph, for all that it ended sadly, and I wanted to write about her.

Debra -- I would like to think that he is safe, too. I haven't written to the friends who knew Miyuki for some time, and I doubt that we will ever find out what happened.

Danette Haworth said...

I agree with Chris; this story is sad and beautiful. You are an excellent storyteller. Very effective writing.

Sam, Problemchildbride said...

What a tragic family. That was very moving and exquisitely told. You are a really gorgeous writer, you know that?

-eve- said...

Sad. Sometimes there isn't much we can humanly do except pray; especially since all the friends did rally around Kohei, so it isn't a case of him being abandoned and penniless. Wonderful writing, Mary.

Mary Witzl said...

Danette -- Oh, if only the people who read this blog were agents and editors! Still, the good opinions of other fine writers mean a lot to me, and I am very grateful for them.

Sam -- No wonder I have a blog, when I can get comments like these from people. Thank you so much.

Eve -- Miyuki's friends and the other ladies from her church tried to keep Kohei happy and occupied. They hoped that they would be able to counteract the tragedy of his parents' loss, but in the end, this proved impossible. You are right: they all rallied around him, and his lot could have been worse, but depression can be a formidable obstacle, and it was for him.