We sat around my Mother-in-law’s apartment, the six of us: Laura’s sisters Rachel and Hannah, their husbands Derek and Dan, Laura and me. Dan is stationed at Yokota Air Base, and somewhere in the conversation, somebody said something to the effect that we should all meet up with them in Tokyo. Somebody else said it would be a great idea. I nodded, but it wasn’t anything I’d really ever considered. Laura stared blankly.
A month or two passed, and I figured, the initial groundswell of support for the plan would wane, but it did not. Passports were received. Talk of plane tickets and the like. Agendas and such. Laura stared blankly.
It was going to be a fourteen hour trip on a plane from Newark to Narita, non-stop. The best I could boast was JFK to Atlanta. Laura had done Atlanta to Los Angeles, a sprint compared to our upcoming marathon, and she hates to fly. All that time in the air. We both stared blankly.
Nothing against Japan, of course. It was distant in our minds, something so unreachable that it was unthinkable, so we had never thought about it. Instead, we thought about other places we wanted to go, places that didn’t require passports or plane tickets or even agendas, for that matter. Japan loomed, like a trip to the proctologist.
The date was set for April, in the hopes of seeing some cherry blossoms, because if you’re going to go that far, you might as well go the whole way. We dutifully got our passports, and when they arrived, the idea of Japan didn’t seem quite so bad. As we looked at them, we thought, heck, at the very least we could go see Niagara Falls from the Canadian side. If this falls through…
We thought it a lot. If this falls through.
And we also thought, but maybe we’ll make memories that will last our whole lives.
We bought the plane tickets, and when the confirmation email came through, the idea of Japan softened a bit more. Fourteen hours on a plane, sure, but there would be plenty to do once we got there, like seeing cherry blossoms. And Mount Fuji.
And this guy, the Great Buddha. That was what was drawing Rachel and Laura in. They had seen it many times in Around the World in Eighty Days, and the thought of seeing it in person was sustaining Laura.
As the inevitability of this trip set in, we had come to grips with it. We bought backpacks and raincoats and new luggage, we arranged for a car to pick us up, we got somebody to watch the cat while we were gone. Hannah and Dan made their annual pilgrimage back to Pennsylvania, and we went through all the things that we were going to see and do. We were going to the zoo to see the Pandas, we were going to the Tsukiji Fish Market and eat sushi…
And during this time, Rachel noticed there was an abnormality with one of her breasts. An indentation, she said, something that didn’t belong. We all thought cancer right away, but also, is that one of the symptoms? Lumps, yes, but not indentations. She scheduled an appointment with her doctor just in case.
Caught it at an early stage. But breast cancer.
After much time of wrestling and coming to terms with this-is-what-this-is, we mentally scratched one trip to Japan off our list. We knew more about cancer than we did about Japan, and we knew this was going to be treatments, surgeries, a never-ending string of doctor visits. The trip to Tokyo suddenly became a distant memory, one of those things we meant to do, but never did.
Laura and I went up to Lewisburg to support Rachel for the appointment with the doctor where everything would be laid out. Fortunately, her doctor is a family friend. There was cause for optimism. He cited a 95% survival rate. But of course, chemo and surgery were all part of the treatment plan.
When the meeting was just about over, Rachel asked him, “We planned this trip to Japan…it’s three weeks away…do you think we can still go?”
“Oh, yes,” the doctor said. The cancer was moving slow. It hadn’t spread. Three weeks away? As long as she started the treatments as soon as she got back, he couldn’t see a reason why not.
We were kind of surprised she asked. We were even more surprised that he said yes.
“So,” I said to Laura when we had a moment to ourselves, “Japan, then.”
“Yeah,” said Laura.
It rained a lot the day we left, so we were glad that we had hired a car to pick us up. Driving to Newark is never a picnic, and doing it in the rain is the antithesis of fun. We arrived terrifically early to stay ahead of traffic and weather delays. The four of us checked our bags and ended up in a line for security which pretty much stretched its way back to Allentown. Eventually they let us through, so we could have plenty of time to wait before they let us on the plane.
On the plane. We set it up so that three of us would be sitting in the second row and one of us would be in the first row. Laura chose to sit up front for the leg room, while I sat with Rachel and Derek. Waiting again. Painfully waiting. Something-going-on-that-we-should-know-about waiting.
“This is your captain speaking…”
“It seems that we caught a nail in the landing gear, so when we tried to taxi out…”
“It should only be an hour, though…”
Our 10:55 flight left at about 12:30. I settled in with “Doctor Strange” for what promised to be the first of many movies. A couple of American businessmen seated behind me got up and decided to talk to each other in the aisle right above me, which didn’t rise to the level of annoyance of, say, a crying baby, but close. The attendants came through with the cart, forcing the businessmen to duck back into their seats for cover, and fed us some Teriyaki chicken, which tasted reasonably good although it seemed like pandering.
I had moved on to my second movie by now, and I had decided to kick it old school by watching the Paul Newman movie “Hud”. I went to the bathroom because I felt the old familiar strains of something that wanted out of my digestive system quickly, and I was surprised to discover that apparently, that was a false alarm. I sat back down in my seat, still feeling it. Then a wave came over me, that one where everything starts to swim around.
“Are you all right?” Rachel asked me.
I said no. I was sure of that. Then I remember trying to wake up. And I was hearing multiple voices. And I was seeing multiple faces, Laura in the foreground.
I was out for about thirty seconds. I truly missed all the excitement, but from what I gather this is what happened after I passed out:
- Rachel called for a doctor. She got Laura’s attention in the front seat.
- One of the businessmen behind me tried to take my pulse. Which all good businessmen are trained to do. “I don’t feel a pulse,” he declared. “He’s not breathing.”
- Rachel screamed for a doctor.
- Laura was out of her seat in an instant and checking on me. She realizes I’ve only fainted because we’ve been married for fifteen years.
- Rachel stood on her seat, holding a boombox over her head, and the tape playing in the boombox is an anguished plea for doctoral support.
- Doctors arrive from far and wide. Some of them were not on the plane when we took off.
- The Cubs won the World Series. That didn’t happen while I was out, it just bears repeating.
In the end, we’re not sure what caused this episode, but I ended up in the back of the plane, heaving out everything I had eaten that day and the bishop of a chess set I swallowed when I was 6.
“If he’s sick,” one of the flight attendants said, “they may not let him in to the country. He might have to go into quarantine.”
“We may have to divert the plane if he’s really sick,” said another. After all this planning, all this journey leading up, to only end up in Seattle? No, sir. At this point, I needed Japan. I was not going to be denied. And I would have told them that, but that bishop was still stuck in my throat at the time.
There was a cardiologist among the doctors who were tending to me. “He’s fine,” he said.
And although I was weak from all that heaving, I knew that’s all it was. Another of the doctors, who was an endocrinologist, was very kind to me, and let me have her seat in first class so I could lie down. For three hours, in my suddenly upgraded seat, I slept on and off and felt the nausea pass.
When I felt strong enough, I gingerly came back to my seat. There was only an hour until we would be in Japan, and say what you will about losing consciousness and puking your guts out on a long plane ride, but it does pass the time.
It was afternoon of the next day when we touched down. I was strangely steady as we went through another decently long but decidedly more organized line at customs. Hannah and Dan were waiting for us when we got out, and our quest had finally ended. Outside we could see the cherry blossoms in full bloom. We would see the pandas at the zoo. We would see the Great Buddha. We would eat beef that makes you weep for the plight of the American cow.
We made memories that will last our whole lives.