by Derek Otsuji
My grandfather was a man known to me more by his silences than his words. His presence – it did not matter whether he was at the heart of a busy family gathering or seated by himself in his favorite leather chair – seemed to take possession of solitude as if it were something he owned and always carried with him, like his pocketknife. More than just few and far between, his words were foreign, strange. Somewhere between his generation and mine the marrow of that language had dried, its words broken into syllables – crumbled fragments of sound whose meaning had been pulverized to a dust. Without words there was nothing but an occasional gesture or frown to carry messages between his generation and mine. I was raised American, a convert to McDonald’s and GI Joe; and he was trapped somewhere in a distant and forgotten country, seventy years and a half and half an ocean away. Though I could not speak a word to my grandfather in his own tongue, and though I seldom heard a word of it directly from his own lips, I knew of his language from old World War II movies. It was a rapid, machine-gun stuttering of infuriated nonsense, and I was happy to leave it far behind.
My grandfather never got the pronunciation of my name right. The middle “R” he always slurred into an “L” and he had a habit of kicking the final “K” out from the back of his throat like a cough. His clumsy, rough handling of my name grated on my ears, but I never dreamed of showing my displeasure. When he called, I responded promptly––always wary, always trying to read his expression or his gestures or determine the exact direction of his pointing. During these face-to-face encounters of ours, I was vaguely afraid of him. Not that there was anything about him to suggest meanness. But rather that everything about him was unyielding and impenetrable. His face was dark, his complexion wrinkled and leathery. It was hard to see directly into his eyes shielded behind the glare of his horn-rimmed glasses. He was extremely gaunt, which accented the sharpness of his high cheeckbones. His forehead was square and deeply furrowed. His one expression seemed almost plastered on his face, fixed and inscrutable as it was.
One summer, playing tag with my brothers, I fell and scraped my knee. My grandfather, who was working in his garden nearby, picked me up and carried me to the house. Held there in his arms, I stiffened and stopped crying. His hands were like tree bark. My face was so closed to his I could smell his breath, which was dense and sour, clouded by the lingering smell of sake; the peppered stubble of his chin scraped against my cheeks like iron filings. He carried me up the porch steps and yelled something to my grandma inside. I could hear her slippered feet scuttling across the wooden floor. When grandma opened the door my grandmother set me down before her and, without saying a word, promptly turned around and went back to his yard work. The moment he was gone my body, suddenly remembering its pain, began convulsing with uncontrollable sobs. With Grandfather gone and Grandma there looking at me with her soft eyes, patting and stroking my hair, it was safe to cry again. Choking on the sharp in-heavings of my own breath, I explained to Grandma as best I could what had happened as she cleaned and bandaged my wound.
For all the years that I knew him, my grandfather worked alongside my dad on a small farm which they had purchased together. They grew a variety of oriental vegetables––daikon, choi sum, mizuna––in addition to their main crop of Manoa lettuce for which they became famous among local produce markets. As a child, I loved going to the farm and helping in the small ways that I could. I pulled weeds, always careful to get the roots, and carried heads of lettuce harvested by my father and stacked them neatly in wooden crates placed at the end of each furrow. The heads of lettuce were like green wrinkled roses, large enough to be held with two hands. A milky substance oozed from their cut stems that dried clear and sticky on my skin. Best of all I liked driving the tractor. Seated on my father’s lap I would steer as he managed the gas and brakes.
Of course, when the work grew tedious I was always free to do other things like climb the fig tree and search for fruit, hunt for skinks among the dry fronds in the banana patch, or grab my insect net and chase after swallowtails and dragonflies. And no matter how long or hard I played, I could always search the field and find my grandfather working––driving the tractor plow, pushing a seeder across a furrow, turning the sprinkler system on or off, thinning out the rows of lettuce. Watching him from a distance working in his slow, methodical way, I was no longer afraid of him. Strangely, I felt safe with my grandfather there working in the fields. He was one of the fixed constants in life by which I oriented myself in the world. In those moments when there was nothing but open field and silence between us, I felt a profound sense of contentment in my grandfather––a feeling that in the rhythm of his work he was happy.
One summer, I was running about the farm chasing dragonflies when my grandfather called my name and summoned me with a quick wave of his hand. He was harvesting lettuce, seated on one of the miniature benchlike stools designed specifically for that kind of work. My grandfather made these small benches so they fit neatly between the furrows where they lettuce grew and allowed one to sit and not have to squat and crouch all day cutting lettuce. As I approached him, he pulled the miniature bench from under his seat and motioned for me to sit on it; then, in a gesture that surprised and pleased me, placed the knife he had been using to harvest the lettuce in my hand. I had never been permitted to handle these knives before and relished the weight of the blade in my palm, the feel of the grain of its wooden handle crusted with scabs of caked-on dirt. Guiding my hands with his own, he took me through the motions of cutting a head of lettuce from its stem. His movements were quick, deliberate, and sure. As we worked together I could feel the strength of his hands, firmly gripped around mine, and saw how the earth they worked embedded itself in thin crescents beneath his nails and ran in shallow rivulets through the creases in his skin. His hands guiding mine, we cut five or so heads of lettuce together until I caught the rhythm of the work. Then he let go and watched my hands work on their own. Satisfied, he stood up and, without a word, walked to another part of the field. I shielded my eyes to watch his figure recede and darken against the weary orange flare of the late afternoon sky, marveling at what had just passed between us, and, after a moment’s pause, continued in the rhythm of work he had set for me.
I understood that for my Grandfather the richness of the soil was his lifeblood and as long as his hands were connected with the earth, vigor flowed through his veins. Work wasn’t a means to make a living, it was part of living––the essential part that could, over the course of years, transform the tedium of the daily struggle for subsistence into the raw life-substance of meaning. Watching him, I could sense it: rising to work in the fields wasn’t a task imposed upon him by necessity, but a natural cycle of life. He had no need to measure his day in hours and minutes, to anticipate the coming of the weekend, or count down the years to the leisure of a retirement. He simply rose at dawn, broke for lunch at high noon, and retired at sunset. And the mere sight of morning light breaking over the field, the satisfaction of watching the labor of his hands bring forth crops from the dark earth, was sufficient to renew his strength day by day. He could imagine no other life. He had no taste for refined pleasures, no sensibility for spiritual mystery. Truth was to plant a seed, to grip his hands around a hoe, to eat a fresh mango from the tree. Truth was a warm bowl of miso soup in the morning, a hot bath in the evening, freshly steamed rice and okazu, a bottle of sake, and a song remembered from the old country sung deep into the night.
The September following that summer, I entered the third grade at a private school. Homework and after-school activities took me away from the fields where my grandfather worked, and my hands grew more accustomed to the grip of a pencil than a harvesting knife. In December of that year, my grandfather was hospitalized. Because of my age, hospital policy prevented me from seeing him in person, so I just sat in the waiting room with my two brothers, chilled by the air-conditioner. After what seemed like hours, my younger brother started whining, saying he wanted to go home. I was just about to lose patience with him when my parents walked into the waiting room. My uncle and aunt were with them and they talked in low whispers. They were saying something about the doctor and how he couldn’t understand why my grandfather had not come in earlier. Surely there were signs. Hadn’t he complained of any pain?
I remember seeing my grandfather on his first day home after a long stay at the hospital. His short cropped hair was grayer than I remembered it, and there were shadows in the hollows of his cheeks. My father ushered me to the side of his bed. My grandfather turned his eyes to me. He wasn’t wearing his glasses, and for the first time I saw the soft warmth of his deep brown eyes. Without saying a word he took up my hand in his and squeezed it gently. His strength was gone, but there was still a firmness in his grip. As he looked at me, I could see his eyes brimming with intent. There was a brief wordless pause between us. Then, his eyes turned from me, his grip loosened and his hand slipped slowly from mine. My father took me by the shoulders, turned me about, and nudged me gently to the door. I looked back over my shoulder once and saw my grandfather waving to me weakly, scarcely able to lift his head from his pillow. Three days later, my grandfather passed away.
There is a word in my grandfather’s language which I have only come to understand years after his death––gaman. Translated roughly it means to endure uncomplainingly. Perhaps I will never understand the spirit of that word, since I have come to believe the insistence on silence as a symbol of strength to be an unhealthy and outdated cultural myth. What reason could there be behind my grandfather’s refusal to tell anyone of his pain until the cancer had spread too far to be treated? Stubborn male pride––that archetypal idea of manhood, fierce and insistent in its reticence and solitude? Or was it something not nearly so heroic, but rather a childish shame that drove my grandfather to hide his pain the way I once hid a garment I had accidentally soiled? Suffering turns us all into children, turns the body against itself until we realize that we are no longer in possession or control of the body we thought was ours. And once the body is no longer ours, is it a wonder that the tenuous claim of words on ourselves, our world, and our loved ones should suddenly be dissolved? Perhaps it was a sense of fate that condemned my grandfather to a silence that deepened as his illness progressed, a realization that in his suffering he was alone and that all comforts must ultimately fail him. In this sense there could be nothing more heroic or brave or manly about his silence. And yet in those moments when he struggled most fiercely against the inexorable confession of pain, there was something tender about him, as that silence, like a feminine presence, seemed to embrace and envelope even as it threatened to overwhelm and consume. Perhaps this is the spirit of the word gaman, that in our words is a heart of silence that threatens to overwhelm all our utterances at the very moment they are spoken. I am left wrestling against my own faceless angel, that enigma of my grandfather, knowing that in the silence between us there are things that pass deeper than words, and knowing that in a word’s absence there are things irretrievably lost.