Since we came to Japan a year and a half ago, my wife Mika's aunt has increasingly helped us out by looking after Tyler when we've been busy. More than once she really saved our butts. We live in Tokyo and she lives in a suburb that is about two hours away by bus and train so we try not to call on her unless it is absolutely necessary, but lately it has been and she has been obliging. Not only is she generous to us with her time, but she has taken to sending Tyler gifts like expensive department store pajamas that usually only grandparents buy. Of course we try to reciprocate, but the relationship has gotten way out of balance.
Aiko's husband died a few years ago and she has no children. Still, she is very busy teaching embroidery to her many students, and the end of the year is a very busy time for her as the year of the monkey is almost upon us and she is receiving orders for monkey embroideries that people want to give as gifts.
Recently we had a crisis. Aiko had come to look after Tyler one Saturday night when my wife and I both had to work. We both assumed she'd be staying the night, but it turned out she needed to get back home because she had an early obligation the next day. By the time I realized there was a problem, I was in Chiba, too far away to get back quickly. She ended up not leaving until well after ten when my wife got home, which meant having to take a taxi, wait for a train, then another taxi, and not getting home until very late. She was clearly frustrated with us over this but she couldn't directly express her hurt at being taken for granted, or her frustration at being seriously inconvenienced, at a time when she was very busy as well. Nor had we any means of expressing gratitude for what she had done for us, or apologizing for our lack of coordination. My attempts at expressing thanks seemed even more awkward and inadequate than usual, and the episode seemed to confirm my suspicions that during our year and a half here we had actually grown apart instead of closer.
Then something happened. About that same time a close friend of Aiko's had given us a box of old noh playscripts that had been in her family, knowing my wife's interest in the subject. As a thank you Mika sent her tickets to a performance. Seeing an opportunity, I decided to go as well and to invite Aiko. So it was Aiko's friend, her friend's 40 year-old unmarried son, Aiko and me. I felt a strong pull to continue to be with them, so I invited them to a restaurant I knew afterwards. Although I really had no idea what to do or say, I somehow found myself talking about Aiko in front of her, as if she weren't there to her friend and his son, people I had hardly known more than a few hours. I said, "All we do is receive, but we never do anything for her." I talked about all the things she had done for us over the past year and a half, how much we have appreciated her help, and how little I felt we were able to acknowledge our gratitude to her.
I have known Aiko 10 years, and attended two memorial services for her husband with her, but for the first time I saw her cry, . . . I mean, openly sob. She didn't deny anything I said, the way she usually would. She just said she hopes she can do it again for us before we leave, even next week-end, just please let her know when we need her. By now I was talking through tears as well, and her friend just had this big warm smile. Why I chose that moment in front of those people, I am not sure, but for the first time in a long time I felt I could express my feelings from my heart in a way that was impossible even if I was alone with her. Not that I had not tried to say those things to Aiko in private. . . I had. But it was like my words didn't mean much, to Aiko or even to myself, until they came out in front of these people I hardly knew.