Painting and Story by Lehan Winifred Ramsay
On Thursday a message comes from Facebook that my friend Aoyagi san has died. I have a feeling of being mortified. Ten days ago I arrived here and instead of finding his hospital and visiting him as I had planned I went straight to my little house because it is quite far away and utilities had to be organized. I was planning for a second time to visit him and had to cancel that plan and that is the very day that he dies. I am at the hospital with a scratch on my eye trying to get some relief from the pain. While I am waiting a woman strikes up a conversation with me and when I tell her about my friend she says the funeral will likely be on the weekend.
But I am struggling to get what I need for my eye. What I need is a contact lens, and why I can’t get it is because it runs against common sense. Common sense for someone who is not an eye doctor or an eye patient is that contact lenses commonly cause infection and in case of infection they should be removed. But common sense for an abrasion on the cornea is to put in a contact lens, because the swelling causes the cornea to rub against the eyelid and the swelling gets worse. On Thursday I get some ointment because I have all the other medicines with me, I brought them with me, I have a chronic eye problem. On Friday with a swollen purple eye I go back again and sit for three hours and demand a contact lens, and against their better judgement they give me one.
Later on on the Friday I have had a painless sleep and am feeling euphoric and the message comes that the funeral is this evening, in two hours time. I’m sorry, I reply, I cannot go, and then I sit in my car and think: yes I can, I can drive there and be one hour late. So I do, I pack up the car with dog and futon and bags and drive into town and get to the funeral. It is in the house of his wife and people very formally dressed in black are spilling out into the street. There are a lot of people I know. Go into the house and pay your respects, they say. I have never actually been to a funeral in Japan, even in twenty-three years. And I am not dressed in formal clothes, in fact I am wearing prison stripes. So I feel a bit embarrassed. Takeshi is there, Takeshi was my student and then my assistant and then a teacher in my school and he is very smart and he has come with the correct funeral wear and two envelopes with a monetary offering; one for him and one for me.
There is a room filled with white; white curtains, white flowers, white glowing lamps and candles and photographs and incense and a terribly thin, terribly long white coffin. My friend Ayoagi san is dead in the coffin, he looks very pretty in there, quite healthy but so tiny. His coffin is so thin because he died of cancer and he had almost disappeared. I don’t know how long he knew he had cancer, but we all expected him to have it anyway because he smoked a lot and drank a lot and was gaunt and slow. He had a bar up town and a cafe down town.
I have one time spent some time with his son but not his daughter or his wife. I am in a queue and when it is my turn I kneel down on the ornate cushion and make a prayer and light some incense and pay my respects to Aoyagi san and when that is done I move off the cushion and kneel on the floor and pay my respects to his family and talk a bit about Aoyagi san. I am “the woman with the dog who lived in Aoyagi Cho”. Well we understand him, Aoyagi san’s wife says. But he – the son – how will he understand him? But there are more people waiting in line to pay their respects and I have probably spent too much time there.
Outside people are drinking a bit and eating a bit and feeling very sad, Aoyagi san was, I reckon, a pretty exceptional person. He sat in his bars encouraging people to do things, even just talk, and I think a lot of things got off the ground because of that. I know they did, because I saw them and even participated in a few of them.
Well my eye feels pretty okay even after I drink till three o’clock talking to Takeshi, who I haven’t had a chance to talk to for two and a half years, and it feels okay when I sleep in the back of the car with my dog down by the seaside and even when the old guys talking on the sea wall wake me up at six o’clock it feels good and even through the morning until I drive the two hours back to my small village it feels fine, I am giving it a lot of drops and the contact lens is still doing its job.
I am thinking about the son and I am wanting to tell him some story about his father so I paint a picture for him. But by Sunday my eye is hurting again. The hospital always takes out the contact lens after three days and three days is Monday so even though it is still hurting I take out the contact lens and then it hurts a lot.
By the evening it is quite unbearable and I know that the little hospital has an emergency service so I go up there at six o’clock and they send me down to the general section. There is a nurse and a doctor and the doctor is very very uncomfortable with the idea of putting a contact lens in my eye. He first spends a long time washing it, which involves squirting water into it for twenty minutes after pain-killing drops have been applied. I know that it is not lint but a cut and I am not very comfortable with twenty minutes of having water squirted into my eye and although we reach a compromise in which he allows the nurse to put the second contact lens in there, he says that there will be no more contact lenses. So I know that I have a very limited time to get myself to a proper eye hospital and that doing so would be a very, very good idea. So it is time to get in the car again and drive the two hours into town.
When I leave the little hospital it is seven o’clock and there is a white fox sitting in the driveway as if it is waiting for someone. Then it runs away.
So I pack up the car again, with futons and bags of things and my dog. And the painting I made for the son of Aoyagi san, which is not yet dry. And I drive into town and it is half-past-nine when I get there. It is late but he will be at school tomorrow and so I knock on the door and when he answers I sit in the entranceway with him and give him the painting and explain the things I have been thinking about. His mother comes home and finds us there and says that she wants to hear them too and another friend of Aoyagi san has just arrived from England and that I should stay so I go into the house.
Aoyagi san has been cremated, the coffin containing his body is gone and there is a box that contains some fragments of his bones. But according to the religious doctrine he is still here, his spirit is a little disorientated and he needs some time to get used to his new non-living status before he makes his way to a heaven. So the altar is still set up, all the curtains and flowers and photographs and incense and food offerings. In the end, I sleep there on a futon on the floor, it is very bright with the lamps and the candles, and we are aware that he may choose to visit and talk. But he doesn’t. Anyway it is very soothing, it is a chance to sit with him and reflect too on his new self, the non-alive Aoyagi san.
Anyway I have never met Aoyagi san’s wife before and I have a chance to spend time with her. I go to the eye clinic at six-thirty, it is just around the corner, it is in my old neighbourhood. I come back at eight o’clock when I have been signed in and the clinic will begin at eight-thirty and she makes me breakfast, and then I go to the clinic again. They say; it is okay, the abrasion in your eye is now only about two millimetres and it is healing up, it is just taking a little longer but there is no infection. You can wear that contact lens for another two or three days, the problem will probably be fixed by then and here is a letter for the little hospital in case you need another contact lens put in and here are two more contact lenses and everything is fine.
So I am relieved, my eye will be fine, I can go back to the village without fear and I have a day to do things in town. I go to see some of the people I knew and say hello and then at midday I have been invited to have lunch with Aoyagi san’s wife, we are talking about the things she can do with her life now, that is very good. I bring her a melon I have been given by my carpark landlord and we give it to Aoyagi san, an offering on his shrine, because, she says, he always liked expensive fruits. She gets a lot of telephone calls from people.
The next day will be the final day of Aoyagi san’s spiritual repose in the house and a priest will come and say prayers and conduct a ceremony. I think that it is a very good practice, this week of living with the spirit of the dead, because in that week you have a lot of time to be doing things with them and for them, something that is missing in a Christian ceremony, where after the funeral they are simply gone, there is a terrible void and no time to prepare for it. She asks me to stay for the afternoon while she is working and that is very nice. After that I go back to the village, I cannot stay for the ceremony. I will go back later in the week, I will take my tarot cards with me, because there is planning to be done for the living.