A Heart of Stone
As a child I was afraid of the dark. Whenever I heard some strange noise in the night or imagined a shadow to be something it wasn't, the rapid beating of my heart startled my whole body. Then came a swift intake of breath held so long and so stubbornly I thought it would be my last, my head filled with the quick litany of HailMaryfullofgracetbeLordiswitbtbeeandpleasebewitbme. Only under the covers of my bed did I feel protected from the outside world. Now that I'm a sixty- two -year- old woman, my fears have become more defined than those nebulous creatures that creaked and sighed in the night. Now I know that daylight holds the real monsters, and that prayers aren't always answered.
These thoughts flicker through my mind as I lie in bed and wait for my daughter, Hana, to call from her room. Glancing at the clock, I see that it's just seven-thirty. The rich morning light of early spring streams through a gap in the curtains. I hear a chorus of birds as I pull back the curtain to see a glorious day, the hills behind the house aglow. It's been a cold, wet winter and I welcome the thought of a sunny California morning, one of those clear, crisp days that holds such a stunning light you can almost reach out and touch the sky. It's a small hope but the kind I dare to allow myself nowadays-simple, obtainable things like a strong, hot cup of coffee, a movie that ends happily, the beautiful hair-raising crescendo of a Puccini aria.
Half an hour from now, around eight, Hana's thin voice will cry out to me, "Mother! You up?" Sometimes I'm afraid I won't be awake to hear her call or, even worse, that there will be no call. So I've developed this habit of listening all the time, my head cocked slightly to one side like that RCA dog, in a perpetual state of waiting.
Twenty-five years ago, Hana's slow growth combined with her increasing fatigue brought us to the University of California San Francisco Medical Center. Until then I thought she was simply a late bloomer who would catch up with other kids her age over a summer spurt. After her checkup, Hana's doctor called us into his office. He was medium height and had thick, dark eyebrows that made him look stern and serious. There was nothing wrong that he could detect during her checkup, but he wanted to run some tests to check her pituitary and thyroid glands for other probable causes affecting Hana's growth. "Just to be safe," he said, in a direct, careful manner. Then he mentioned a patient he'd also seen with Werner's syndrome, which he explained was an aging disease, characterized by short stature. He clicked his pen and looked up from the file on his desk, his gaze moving from Max to me. "We'll also need to get both your family histories," he said, his voice softening. "Right now, Hana's still too young to be diagnosed with Werner's, but it's best to be aware of all the possibilities."
It was the first time I'd ever heard of Werner's syndrome, and all I could think of was how could any of this be happening to my child? And why on earth would anyone want his name attached to a disease? "Who is this Werner?" I asked. I remember my husband, Max, sat beside me, stunned. Thirteen -year- old Hana sat outside in the pale green waiting room, healthy in every way so far, except that she was still the size of a nine-year-old. Even now I can feel the shock of the doctor's words slowly numbing my entire body, as if that meeting were happening all over again.
In the early seventies, Werner's syndrome was largely unknown even to doctors. It wasn't so extensively documented as it is now, though its scientific explanation might as well be in a foreign language. All I've ever needed to understand is this-Hana carries a gene that is producing an abnormal enzyme that moves throughout her body like a guided missile, gradually damaging good cells and causing her to age prematurely, two to three times faster than normal. And t hough overt signs of aging wouldn't appear until her early twenties, we were suddenly shocked into the realization that her life had taken an unexpected turn.
But, unlike me, Hana isn't afraid of anything. She strikes out at each day with such joy, as if waking up alive every morning is the biggest surprise of all. For her, fear is not an option. She takes life as it comes, and if the years come faster than they should, she grabs at them, too.
I close my eyes, just to rest, then awake with a sudden jerk, startled out of a dream of Max that sadly slips away. The clock reads almost nine- thirty. I've fallen back to sleep and don't know if Hana has called. The house is completely quiet, except for the thumping of my heart as I hurry downstairs to her room. Please, I think to myself, let Hana be all right. Please don't let her have wet her bed again. But she's lying perfectly still in her adjustable bed, the kind that rises and lowers at the push of a button, her feet elevated, gazing up at the ceiling. The small room, next to Max's study, has a closed, slightly medicinal smell to it.
"Two hundred forty-two, two hundred forty-three ... I've been counting stars," she says between breaths, her upward gaze unwavering.
I look up at the gold stars Max hand-painted on the ceiling when we moved Hana downstairs five years ago. I'd caught him standing on an old paint-splattered ladder in the middle of the room, and asked him what he was doing.
He looked down, pushed up his glasses, and said matter-offactly, "I'm painting stars, Cate."
"For Hana." He smiled, then looked back up and continued painting.
Hana was the child we used to wish for on so many stars dotting the nighttime skies over Falcon Beach. The way their light illuminated the dark ocean made us believe that wish might come true. I couldn't help feeling selfish then, for I knew my wishes had already come true. When I met Max Murayama, suddenly all the fears that I'd harbored became something else, something to fight against. Max was worth fighting for. And so was our love, and our marriage back in 1959. An Italian American woman and a Japanese American man, we were the first interracial couple ever to live in the small Northern California town of Daring.
Falcon Beach, a forty- five-minute drive from Daring down the winding coastline, was our refuge, where we sat in Max's beloved Thunderbird and watched the sunset. We'd usually leave right after he taught his last history class of the week at Brandon College on Friday afternoons. But it wasn't until twilight, when the beach was in shadows and nearly deserted, that we'd carefully make our way down the path to the long stretch of rocky sand. Max loved the ocean. "My ancestors must have been fishermen," he said, star- ing mesmerized at the endless, darkening sea. "It feels like home here."
I laughed, knowing that his ancestors were anything but sea- farers. Max's parents and grandparents had been horticulturists, growing and selling carnations and chrysanthemums in Southern California. Their feet were firmly planted on the ground, though Max's heart and mind rose and fell with the ocean.
We walked freely down the beach hand in hand, touching each other in the comfortable, intimate way of married couples. Under the veil of darkness, surrounded by the cool, salty air and with Max's arm firmly around my waist, I felt all the ease and security I'd prayed to feet in the daylight. In our new hometown of Daring, for the first year of our marriage, we strolled down streets lined with struggling lawns and Victorian and bungalow- style houses. I remember the sweet, pine-scented air and the tow- ering redwood trees, which stood dark against the pale horizon. Like a couple of strangers , we walked two feet apart, offering a quick smile and nod to everyone we passed. Pretty soon I became known as the nice young woman with the foreign husband. And Max was labeled a variety of nationalities from Chinese to Indian by our well-meaning but ignorant neighbors. They were still sus- picious of his being Japanese, and of the war he'd been too young to have anything to do with.
Then three years later came Hana, the beautiful child who was a fine blend of the two of us, filling the gap between us when we walked down the street, holding us both by the hand and tying us all together. She'd been the miracle after my two miscarriages. They were a boy and a girl, it grieved me to think, because even though Max would never admit it, I know he might have liked a son to carry on his family name.
"Sometimes you're more Japanese than I am," he teased.
It's true; sometimes I am more Japanese than Max was, or at least just as much so. I hold things in, the good and bad memories that still soothe and sting after so many years. I've stored them away, in those small compartments in the back of my mind like in one of those Japanese secret boxes. But lately, the past seems to be unlocked and creeping slowly forward.
Even three years gone, Max still seems to be alive in every room of the house, as if he's hovering over us, making sure we're safe-the brightest star of all.
Hana suddenly stops counting and smiles my way. She looks like a small and fragile bird in her big bed, wisps of thin, gray hair spread across her pillow. "All's well," she says happily, a ring of triumph in her squeaky voice. "I thought you might want to sleep in for a change."
I'm relieved beyond words to know that she hasn't wet her bed again. It's been just over a week since the first accident, and each morning since, I've entered her room filled with anxiety and a knot of panic at the base of my throat at the thought of her body losing control again. The nightstand next to her bed is lit- tered with books, her glasses, her beloved recorder, rubbing al- cohol, a bottle of aspirin for headaches, antacids, a family photo in a silver frame.
"I certainly did that." I smile. "Ready to get up?"
She nods and holds out her thin, pale, almost translucent arms to wrap around my neck so I can help her up. Hana's ankles have swollen again, and the arterial ulcers have worsened, making it hard for her to get about by herself. Every day I change the bandages and check for any sign of melanoma, dark spots on her feet and legs that may be cancerous and are so common among Werner's patients. As I pull her up, the lightness of her body surprises me once more, wrapping against mine in a perfect fit, just like the little girl I used to carry sleeping from the car. But now it's a different story. Now she clings to me not as a child but as a thirtyeight-year-old woman who is dying of old age. We are growing old together, Hana and 1, even though lately it seems as if she's leaving me behind.
I can easily admit that while I'm past the age of caring what people think about me, I do care how Hana feels when people stop and stare, or shake their heads when they don't think we're watching. "How are you feeling, dear?" and "You're looking well" are the most common comments from all the neighbors, who are increasingly awkward and uncomfortable around us. I suppose I can't blame them. In the past ten years, Hana has aged at an astonishing rate. She has the appearance of an eighty-year-old woman, although her mind remains young and vital. Lately, it's been hard to get her to leave the house, except for our daily walks at a nearby park, and even that can be a struggle. Her hair has thinned and turned completely white, and her face has taken on the sharp, birdlike features typical of the disease. But Hana has Max's eyes, and no matter how fast she ages, her dark, piercing gaze is so filled with life it still breaks my heart to look into them.
Am I too heavy?" she asks me now. I manage a smile, thinking how I wish she were, how I wish it were Hana's strong, healthy arms supporting me. "No," I whisper into her ear. "Not at all."
She hugs my neck tighter. She hasn't always been so quiescent. Her life since the diagnosis has had its share of rebellious moments. She just accepts her fate better now, and as her body weakens her mind and heart grow and strengthen. I keep hoping for the same balance for myself. Sometimes I actually think I've found it, only to lose it again just before sleep or in the early hours of the morning. But it seems the more her heart opens up, the more mine hardens. By the time Hana leaves me, I'll have a heart of stone that refuses to break.
In The Quiet
Something woke me before dawn this morning-a tree branch scratching against the window, the sharp hoot of an owl, the whistling of the wind- but as I lay listening, there was only the creak of beams and rafters, then silence. My eyes adjusted to the darkness, the shadows slowly taking familiar shape. The brownshingledd house of my childhood holds everything in the darkness, each memory retained in cracks and crevices. For the past five years, I've slept downstairs in a small room next to my father's study, so I can get around the living and dining rooms, bathroom, and kitchen with ease whenever the ulcers on my feet and legs act up. Upstairs is my mother, Cate's room, my old room, a bathroom, and another guest room. And above that is the attic, reached by a pull-down ladder at the end of the hall. It's the large, comfortable house I've lived in since I was four years old.
I pulled the blankets up around me, and a long-buried memory from childhood surfaced: my pale pink, one-eyed stuffed dog that barked when his nose was squeezed. I went to sleep with him every night for years until he disappeared into the bottom of a drawer or the back of a closet. It was so simple then. I remembered how his short, sharp bark always reminded me I wasn't alone and there was nothing to be afraid of.
In the quiet I could feel my heart beating, the pulse and flow of blood that struggles precariously through my hardening arter- ies, like water unable to flow through the stem of a flower. Some- times I feel a dull pain moving through my body, the muscles and organs scrambling over which will break down first. It's hard to believe that my body has become so fragile. God isn't supposed to make such mistakes. Sometimes, I can almost feel myself grow- ing old, my body turning against me. And just when I'm ready to give up and wish for a way out of this cursed body, I feel a sudden surge of anger that wells up inside me, challenging me to a fight- a knock- down - drag- out fight to the finish.
Cate overslept this morning and I could see the fear in her eyes when she rushed downstairs to my room, barefoot and without a robe, praying I hadn't wet the bed again. In the white light of morning she seemed to appear out of nowhere as I counted the stars on my ceiling, passing time. And just then, in the telling light, I could also see how she had aged in the past few years caring for me-the strands of gray in her hair, the dark pouches below her eyes, the deepening furrow across her forehead that comes from worry. In her sheer blue nightgown, my mother's tall, slender silhouette appears thinner, yet not in a fragile sort of way but toned and even slightly athletic. I can't help but think she looks even more beautiful as she approaches her twilight years.
Cate leans over to stroke my forehead, and I smile. It has become a habit for her to subtly check to see if I have a fever- a light pat on the cheek, a quick hug, the casual brushing away of a strand of hair from my forehead. I look into her tired eyes and wonder if she ever imagines another life. One without fears of fevers or waking up late. The freedom to go and do as she pleases. Small prizes. A just reward after all these years. But I know that wishing on all the stars in the sky won't change anything. And if I can see so much about her in one early morning glance, what does my mother see when she looks at me?
"Ready to get up?" she asks.
I reach out, fold myself around her tightly as if I'm being rescued, pressing my face into the sweet, soap-smelling side of her neck.