Spring came, I turned fifteen, and right after that, my left lung collapsed. It was the third day after I left Tokyo to come to Yomiyama and leech off my grandparents on my mom’s side. I was supposed to start at a middle school here the day after that, despite the fact that it was a little late in the term to be transferring somewhere—and just my luck, it happened the night before. April 20, 1998. Monday, which was supposed to be my first day at a new school—a day for me to make a fresh start—turned out to be the first day of my second-ever hospitalization. My first experience had been six months earlier. Just like last time, I’m back because my left lung collapsed. “They told me you’ll be hospitalized a week, maybe ten days.” My grandmother, Tamie, arrived at the hospital early that morning. When she gave me the news—and I was already feeling isolated in the bed of the hospital room to which I’d only just been admitted—I fought back a pain in my chest and a suffocating feeling that seemed unlikely to ever subside. “The doctor said there’s most likely no need for surgery, but they’re going to start a drainage treatment. I believe it was this afternoon.” “Oh…okay.” A few hours earlier, when the ambulance brought me in, the suffocating pain in my chest had felt much fiercer. After resting for a bit, I felt as if it was starting to get better. But to be honest, it was still pretty bad. The X-ray image of one of my lungs—shriveled up in a weird twist—flashed through my mind, not that I wanted it to. “I feel just terrible for you…so soon after you came here!” “Oh, uh…I’m sorry, Grandma.” “Now really, there’s nothing for you to feel bad about. You can’t help being ill.” My grandmother looked into my face and smiled, and the wrinkles around her eyes deepened twice as much. She had turned sixty-three this year, but she still seemed sprightly and was very kind to her grandson. This, even though we had almost never spoken alone together or been so close to one another. “Um…what about Reiko? She wasn’t late to work, was she?” “She’s just fine. She stays focused, that girl. She went home and then left at the same time she always does.” “Could you tell Reiko that, um, I’m sorry for all the trouble…?” Late the night before, out of nowhere, I was struck by familiar symptoms. There was a disturbing gurgling sensation coming from inside my chest, and that unique, splitting pain, and then the tightness. The moment I realized It’s happening again? I’d run with the SOS, half-panicked, to Reiko, who had still been awake in the living room.
There were eleven years between my mother, who had died, and this younger sister of hers—which makes her my aunt. As soon as I told her what was happening, she called an ambulance. And she even went with me to the hospital. Thank you, Reiko. I owe you so much I wanted to proclaim my gratitude in my loudest voice, but in my condition, I was in too much pain to even think about doing that. Not to mention that I had trouble talking to her face-to-face…I dunno, I just get really nervous. “I brought you a change of clothes. If there’s anything else you need, you let me know.” “…Thank you.” I thanked my grandmother in a rasping voice as she set a large paper bag down beside the bed. The pain seemed to increase when I shifted inattentively, so I lifted my chin slightly toward her and kept my head on the pillow. “Grandma, um…what about my dad?” “I haven’t told him yet. Do you suppose Yosuke is in India by now? I’m not sure how to reach him. I’ll ask Reiko tonight.” “That’s okay; I’ll get in touch with him. If you just bring me the cell phone I left in my room…” “Oh-ho, is that so?” My dad’s name is Yosuke Sakakibara. He works for some famous university in Tokyo doing research for cultural anthropology or socioecology or something like that. He became a professor in his early forties, so he must be a pretty exceptional researcher. Still, I can’t help harboring some pretty strong doubts about how exceptional he is as a father. Anyway, he doesn’t live at home anymore. He casts off his only son and leaves the house empty while he flies around Japan and to other countries, doing I don’t even know what—fieldwork, I guess. Thanks to that, ever since elementary school, I’ve had this weird confidence that my ability to keep house, at least, is better than any of my fellow students’. Like my grandmother said, my dad had gone to India the previous week for work. The job had come up with practically no notice during spring vacation. He would be staying there and devoting himself to surveys and research activities for almost a year. Those are the basic circumstances that led me to being taken into my grandparents’ home in Yomiyama with hardly any warning. “Koichi, are you and your father getting along?” my grandmother asked. “Sure, I guess,” I replied. Even if I thought it was tough having him for a father, it’s not as if I hated him. “Still, Yosuke is such a dutiful man!” She sounded as if she was speaking mostly to herself. “All this time has passed since Ritsuko died, and yet he still hasn’t remarried. And he does so much to help us, too, at the least little word from us.” Ritsuko is my mom’s name. Fifteen years ago—the year I was born—she passed away at the young age of twenty-six. My father, Yosuke, was ten years older than her. From what I’d heard, my dad first saw my mom while he was working as a lecturer at his school, and she was one of his students. He won her over almost as soon as they met. “You work fast,” one of his old friends said when visiting our house one time, teasing my dad relentlessly. The guy seemed drunk. It was hard to conceive that my dad had lived without any women in his life ever since my mom died. I admit I’m speaking as his son, but he’s a talented researcher, and even though he’s fifty-one years old, he’s a youthful man with a sweet personality who’s pretty handsome. He’s got a pretty good position in society and makes decent money, and since he’s single on top of all that, I can’t believe he’s not more popular. Was he fulfilling an obligation to his deceased wife? Or being considerate of my feelings? Whatever it was, it had been long enough. I wanted him to get married again sometime and stop pushing the work of managing his household off on his son. That probably accounted for half of my feelings on the subject. A “collapsed lung” is, in fact, a condition called “spontaneous pneumothorax.” More correctly referred to as “primary spontaneous pneumothorax.” It’s common among young men who have a tall, thin body type. The cause is pretty much unknown, but it’s said that in more than a few cases, fatigue or stress can be a trigger in combination with a person’s basic physique. Just like it sounds, “collapsed” means that part of the lung ruptures and air leaks into the pleural cavity. The balance of pressure gets messed up, and the lung withers up like a balloon with a hole in it. It’s associated with chest pain and difficulty breathing. This illness, the mere thought of which is terrifying—it was six months ago, in October of last year, when I first experienced it. At first, a weird pain started in my chest, and it felt as though if I moved, I would immediately lose my breath. I thought if I just waited it out it would get better, but after a couple days, I still hadn’t improved. In fact, it was getting worse and worse, so I told my dad about it and we went to the hospital. As soon as they took an X-ray, it became clear that my left lung had undergone a pneumothorax and was in an intermediate state of collapse. I was hospitalized the same day. The lead physician decided to give me a treatment called “pleural drainage.” I was given a local anesthetic; then they cut my chest open with a scalpel and inserted a thin tube called a trocar catheter into my pleural cavity. The treatment continued for a full week while my collapsed lung reinflated to its original shape and the hole sealed up, and then I was released without further incident. At the time, the physician used the words “full recovery,” but in the same breath he told us, “The chance of recurrence is fifty percent.” Back then, I tried not to think too deeply about how much of a risk that was. About all I did was acknowledge that, okay, I might get like that again someday. But I never thought I would face this miserable fate so quickly and with such bad timing… To be honest, I was pretty depressed. After my grandmother went home, first thing that afternoon I was called to a treatment room in the internal medicine department, where they began the pleural drainage, just like six months before. Luckily the lead physician wasn’t terrible. The pain had been incredible when they shoved the tube into me six months ago, but this time it wasn’t bad at all. Just like last time, if the air escaped through the tube and my lung reinflated and the hole closed up, I’d be set for a welcome release. However, they told me that when the condition has recurred once already like this, the risk of another relapse is even higher. If it kept happening, they would have to consider surgery. Hearing that made me even more depressed. My grandmother came again that evening and brought me my cell phone. But I would tell my dad what was going on in the morning. That’s what I decided. It wasn’t as if rushing to tell him would change anything. My condition wasn’t life-threatening, and there was no need to worry him by letting him hear how feeble my voice was. The respirator beside my bed emitted a soft huffing, the sound of the air it sucked out of my chest being expelled through water inside the machine. I remembered the generic warning label that said “may interfere with medical devices” and turned my cell phone off. Then, feeling annoyed by the familiar pain and tightness, I looked out the window of my room. I was in the municipal hospital’s inpatient ward, an old five-story building. My room was on the fourth floor. I could see hazy points of white illumination below the darkening sky. They were city lights from the tiny mountain town where Ritsuko, the mother I knew only from photographs, had been born and raised. Yomiyama.
How many times have I visited this town now?
The thought cut across my consciousness idly. There were only a very few instances that I remembered. I don’t recall much from when I was little. Maybe three or four times in elementary school. Was this the first time since starting middle school?…Or maybe not. I was pondering that maybe not when my mind ground to an abrupt halt. A deep noise was building out of nowhere: vmmmm. It hung over me, felt as though it was crushing me…
Unconsciously, I let out a small sigh he anesthetic must have worn off. The incision below my armpit, where the tube had been inserted, was throbbing, mingling with the ever-present chest pain. 3 My grandmother came to see me every day after that. The hospital was pretty far from home, I thought, but she would laugh lightly and tell me it wasn’t much trouble since she drove herself. Here was a grandmother you could count on. Although—stuff at home was probably getting neglected at least a little bit, and she must have been worried about my grandfather, Ryohei, who’d been getting a little senile lately…I felt terrible regardless. Thank you, Grandma—I couldn’t help expressing my deep gratitude in my heart. The effects of the pleural drainage were going according to schedule, and on my third day in the hospital, the pain had pretty much subsided, too. The problem that arose then was sheer boredom. I still couldn’t even walk around on my own. For one thing, my body remained linked to a machine via a tube. Additionally, I had an IV drip twice a day. It was pretty tough even getting to the bathroom, and of course, I hadn’t been able to shower for a couple of days. My room was a small one-person deal that included a little coin-operated TV, but even if I turned it on, they only air boring shows in the middle of the day. Should I give up and watch anyway, or read one of the books that my grandmother brought for me, or listen to music…? This was how I passed the time that no one would have called relaxing: in idleness. On my sixth day in the hospital—April 25—a Saturday afternoon, Reiko came to my room. “I’m so sorry I haven’t been able to come see you, Koichi.” She told me apologetically that she got home from work late during the week no matter how hard she tried, but of course, I understood that perfectly well. If I complained about it, I’d have been the one who needed to apologize. With as much cheerfulness as I could manage, I told her about my condition and how I was recovering. About the lead physician’s prediction, which I’d received that morning, that if everything went well I’d be discharged early next week, and at the latest definitely sometime that month… “Then you should be able to go to school after Golden Week, huh?” Reiko turned her eyes to the window. I was sitting up in my bed, so my gaze naturally followed hers. “This hospital is built on a hill near a mountain called Yumigaoka. At the eastern edge of town…well, look. What you see over there is a bunch of mountains to the west. There’s also a place called Asamidai over there.” “What weird names.” “Yumigaoka, because you can get a gorgeous view of the setting sun, and Asami, because you get a gorgeous view of the sunrise. I guess that’s where the names come from.” “But the name of the town is Yomiyama, right?” “There’s a mountain that’s actually called Yomiyama north of here. The town is in a basin, but the entire thing consists of gentle hills running south to north.” I didn’t have a complete grasp of the fundamental geography of the town yet. Maybe Reiko had noticed, which had prompted her simplistic tour. Maybe she thought, seeing the view out the window, that this presented the perfect opportunity. “Do you see that over there?” Reiko raised her right hand and pointed. “That green bit running all the way north to south. That’s the Yomiyama River that runs through the middle of town. On the other side of it, do you see? That’s the field at school. Can you make it out?” “Oh…uh…” I lifted the top half of my body off the bed and squinted in the direction Reiko was pointing. “Oh, that wide, white spot?
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