On the Way

red rosesMy mother died on a cool Monday night in October. It was no surprise, just the last moment in a slow surrender of her body to its 92 years and encroaching dementia. Having noticed the subtle signs of a body changing its earthly direction, the director at the nursing home called my father that morning, and he and my siblings kept vigil with her all day. But in the conceited fumbling the living do to calculate or control the dying, everyone figured she would linger through the night.  And so, the nurses counseled Dad to go to the lounge for a nap, assuring him they would alert him if it seemed she decided to go.

Which she did – about 5 minutes after he settled into his lounge chair.

I don’t know why she chose to leave us on that day as there was nothing special about it.  No anniversary or birthday, not even the end of a long week, when a person might be glad to lie down and sleep for awhile. Maybe it was her intention to slip away like that. An average day, another soul passing.

Regardless of the reason, Mom’s passing set in motion the plan she had laid out for the last ceremony she would attend, her funeral.

Like any good party planner – and she was a good party planner – Mom had locked down all the details of her final event, what she would wear, who among her children would do the readings, sing the songs, and, no, the wake was not to be held at the family home. She didn’t want all those people traipsing through the house she had furnished with such care over 50 years.  She even specified that she be buried with her first-communion rosary and prayer book. At some point, while she worked out her plans during her decreasing moments of lucidity, my siblings and I joked that we would pack a flask of her favorite cocktail – a Manhattan – into her casket so she could toast us once she got past the pearly gates.

As part of her plan, she had requested that her six grandsons bear her casket during the funeral. Her wish meant my 15-year-old son would need to be prepared for his role as pallbearer, an idea (and word) entirely new to him. As he’s a reticent child, I took extra care in explaining to him why his grandmother required his assistance at her funeral.

“Well, in a Catholic funeral, see, someone has to carry the casket into and out of the church. And so your grandma wanted you to be one of those people,” I said.

He looked at me, eyes wide, as if he had just been asked to leap untethered from an airplane.

Trying to normalize what to him, I imagined, seemed like a very strange task, I slipped into my teacher role to explain further.

“It’s primarily a symbolic role,” I said. “The funeral director will tell you what to do, and you’ll have your cousins to help. You probably won’t have to carry the casket very far because they put it on a cart to move it around. It’s just in an out of the funeral home and church. There’s not likely to be any real heavy lifting; your grandma weighed only 90 pounds when she died.”

As my son’s entire teenage wardrobe consisted of T-shirts, jeans and sneakers – passable attire for any event in the Pacific Northwest but not in the least bit acceptable for a solemn ceremony in the conservative Midwest – my husband and I patched together suitable clothing for him to wear — my white button-down Oxford shirt, a tie, belt and shoes from my husband’s collection, and a pair of black pants hastily purchased at the local Target store. I called my daughter, who was away at college, and arranged for her to meet us in my hometown for the funeral, a trip best accomplished by bus. Along with arranging the ticket, I instructed her to bring the navy blazer she had borrowed from me for her brother to wear. So, with borrowed clothes packed, the dog stowed at the kennel, and airline tickets in hand, we set off for the heartland.

Though Mom had died just before midnight on that Monday, the funeral was scheduled for the following Saturday to allow long-distance relatives (primarily us) to get there. My daughter arrived in town on the bus on Friday afternoon. The three of us flew in that evening, which meant we missed the traditional calling hours at the funeral home. I didn’t mind, as I couldn’t imagine standing around the funeral home for several hours while friends and relatives filed past the open coffin, talking in low voices about how good Mom looked.  Of course she looked good.  This was a woman who never missed an appointment with her hairdresser when she was alive (or after she’d died, for that matter.  Her favorite hairdresser did one last curl and spray for her final party.)

Although we didn’t get there in time for calling hours, we did arrive in enough time to get dinner before checking into the hotel.  My husband, ever the food hound, had already researched local restaurants on his cell phone, and directed us to an Italian restaurant tucked away on a side street in a neighborhood I’d never seen before, though I had lived in the area for 20 years. The restaurant resembled a 1920s speakeasy, with a buzzer to ring at the door to gain admittance and a long wooden bar behind which stood rows of glass bottles filled with varying levels of colored liquid.  Along the walls were framed photos of famous people like Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, but the overall mafia vibe was broken by the Willie Nelson songs playing loudly over the stereo system.

Hungry as we were, we ordered too much food – an appetizer and huge plates of pasta, along with salad, bread and beverages. While we waited for our order, I sought out the women’s restroom, which was down a flight of stairs lined with stonework. There were even more pictures along the way, the most noticeable of which was a larger-than-life painting of a man on the wall just inside the restroom door.  This man, painted to resemble Michelangelo’s David, was nude, except for a fig leaf placed in the customary spot. In the center of the fig leaf was a silver knob, much like you’d find on a cupboard in your kitchen.

There are moments in life when your brain registers what’s coming just slightly behind the motion of your hand.  I pulled the knob in the middle of the fig leaf, which lifted a small door to reveal the man’s penis painted in detail on the wall beneath. As if that scenario weren’t mortifying enough, the door was rigged to a siren that blared loud enough to be heard upstairs in the dining room. Jumping swiftly back and dropping the door, I quickly went about my task and returned to the table, trying not to look sheepish.

Between the salad and entrée, my daughter decided she needed to use the restroom. The three of us left at the table heard the siren, and shortly thereafter, she slunk back into her seat, face flushed to the hairline.

“Did you lift the handle?” I asked, eyebrows raised.

She nodded rapidly, head tucked between her shoulders, eyes looking alarmed.

We laughed then, and dug into our pasta, which had finally arrived.

The next morning at the hotel, we all got dressed in our formal clothes. I stood watching as my husband helped my son tie his unfamiliar tie by reaching over his shoulders from behind while both looked into the mirror. I smiled at the contortions of my husband’s face, tongue tip angled toward the corner of his mouth, while he thought through how to tie a tie that wasn’t around his own neck. Then, we drove to the funeral home for the last viewing and the subsequent caravan to the church.  My husband and children sat in the row at the back of the room where the casket was, and I went to the front row to sit beside my dad. More friends and relatives, including cousins I’d not seen in 30 years, filed into the room and took seats while John Denver’s song “Rocky Mountain High” played in the outer room.

Dad was holding up pretty well for his 91 years and the effort of receiving everyone who had come to the previous night’s calling hours.  Around the room were displayed flower arrangements, a cherub carved from stone, and a collection of photos of my mother at various events – my parents’ wedding, cocktail parties, and a formal dinner at which my mother wore a slinky green dress, dangling crystal earrings, and a bouffant hairdo that made her look like a movie star.

While we waited for the signal from the funeral director to begin the last prayer, Dad pointed to the enormous spray of blood-red roses blanketing the closed lower half of the casket. They are stunning and highlight the polished cherry wood of the casket itself. Then Dad tolds me the story of the first bouquet of roses he bought Mom for Valentine’s Day after they were married. They didn’t have much money then and Dad couldn’t afford to buy a whole dozen, so he brought home six red roses, set them in a vase on the sideboard, and leaned a mirror against the wall behind them to make the bouquet seem larger.

I laughed at his description and asked, “Did she notice?”

He chuckled. “Yep.”

After many years of similar bouquets, given on similar occasions, she eventually told him to stop bringing her flowers as they would just die and she’d like something that stayed around awhile. Most likely she meant something shiny.

A few moments later, the funeral director ushered the priest into the room and we all stood for the final prayer before the casket was closed. When the priest finished, each of us filed past Mom, lying still on her white satin lining in her refined black knit dress. As I bent to kiss her goodbye, I noticed that along with her prayer book and rosary was tucked a recipe card. My sister had not forgotten about the flask, but decided it would be better to include the instructions for making a Manhattan instead, to be sure God got it right when Mom arrived.

Climbing into the car in the parking lot, my husband, daughter and I found ourselves third in line after the hearse, behind my father’s and brother’s cars.  My son had stayed behind to carry out his task as pallbearer.

As we waited for others to get into their cars, the funeral director worked his way down the line, planting a small black flag on a magnetic base on the hood of each car. He told us to keep our headlights on.

And that’s when the questions began —  not from my son or daughter, as I was expecting, but from my husband,  and I realized I had wasted the time preparing my son so carefully; he seemed to be carrying out his role without concern.

To understand the origin of his questions, you need to know that my husband was born in Japan and so he was not familiar with the Catholic rituals surrounding life (and death) events.  As a scientist, he is also of a curious mind (which I mean in both senses of the word). When it comes to the final ceremony in his home country, it’s all about swift cremation and enshrinement in an urn in a closely packed cemetery on a hillside. There is little pageantry, and the deceased is tucked away within a couple of days.  He had never attended an American-style funeral.

“What’s the flag for?” he asked.

“That’s just to mark that we’re part of the procession,” I answered.

“Why do we have to keep the headlights on?”

“I dunno. It’s just tradition, a way to mark the solemnity of the event.”

“What happens now?” he asked as Alan joined us in the car, the casket having been loaded into the hearse.

“Well,” I began, “First we go to the church for the funeral, which should last about an hour.  After that, we go out to the cemetery for a brief ceremony, and then we’ll go back to the school beside the church for lunch.”

And that’s what happened next  – the slow procession of cars behind the hearse through the side streets of town to church. Alan and his cousins carried out their role as pallbearers. During the funeral Mass, the priest recited the necessary prayers and sprinkled the casket with holy water. Dad entered Mom’s name into the final record (though he had to start over because he began at first to sign his own name). My second sister and I read our assigned passages, and my first sister sang the designated final hymn.

In the car on the way to the cemetery, my husband’s questions began again.

“What’s that police car doing up front?” he asked, nodding at the cruiser preceding the line of cars moving slowly away from the church.

“It’s customary for the police to lead the procession to the cemetery,” I answered.

“Why are those cars pulling over on the other side of the road?”

“Well, that’s a traditional sign of respect – the living acknowledging the passing of the dead.  It’s kind of a nice honor.“

“How come we get to run the red lights?”

“Why can’t we drive faster?”

Once again my brain was slow on the uptake, and I found myself – ever the teacher – shifting from the inkling of irritation over explaining the obvious to studiously answering his questions. Moving from annoyed wife to erudite instructor, I realized that, yes, this was actually my mother’s funeral we were talking about, and my irritation melted into amusement.

When the procession arrived at the cemetery, the police car turned off and the rest of us followed the hearse to park randomly around the gravel paths separating the rows of headstones.  We got out of the car and took seats graveside, waiting for the priest to arrive. The watery blue sky reminded us that fall had arrived and we could hear the slight wind rustling the dead corn stalks in the field behind the cemetery.  Maybe this was the reason Mom left in October – to avoid having to face another frigid Midwestern winter.

The casket had been set on its frame over the grave, and the area around the grave, including the chairs we were sitting in, was sheltered by an awning erected on poles.

My husband, scrutinizing the casket on its frame above the deep grave, noticed the finely polished wood, the shining brass handles.

“How much does something like that cost?” he asked.

“Um, it depends,” I said, “on what it’s made of.”

“But that’s a nice coffin,” he stated. “Do they just put it in the ground like that?”

“No, dear, they put it in a vault.”

“What’s that?”

“That big concrete box sitting in front of the first row of chairs, with the etching of a dove on the lid.”

“They put the casket in that box?”



“Um, I don’t know.  To protect it? That’s just how it’s done.”

“So they put all that in the ground?” he said in amazement, trying to figure out this strange protocol.


“Will Alan have to get down in the hole to help?”

“Uh, no.”

“How do they get it down there then?”

“Um, I don’t know.  The funeral director takes care of all that after we leave. I think they use a machine to lower it in.”

“So they could bring it back up?”

“Um, yeah, in theory they could, but we don’t usually do that, unless there’s been a crime and the body has to be exhumed.”

Just then, the priest stepped to the side of the grave and began his last round of prayers. When he closed his book for the last time, everyone stood up and began milling around the seats and out into the gravel pathways. Like my siblings and a few others, I stepped up to the casket and removed several roses from the flower blanket that still adorned the lower end. People came to speak to my father and shake his hand or offer a hug before they drifted off to their cars or to look for other dead relatives in other parts of the cemetery.

We stayed awhile under the awning, helping Dad greet those who came to honor her and console him. Then we moved out among the rows of headstones and, as my husband stood surveying how the cemetery was laid out (and apparently how the dead were laid out in it), the questions began again.

“So all the dead people are down in the ground?”


“So we’re standing on top of dead people?”

“Um, yeah.”

“Well, if these are called headstones, shouldn’t the head of the person be under it?”

“Well, yeah, that would make sense, but the stone is usually already in place before the person dies. I think it’s good enough to make sure the head is at that end.”

“How do they know they’ve got her head at the right end?”

“Um, well, I think there’s some sort of indicator on the casket.”

To be honest, I was just guessing. I have no idea how to tell which end is up. It’s not something I’d ever thought about. But once you assume a role, it’s hard to give it up.  So I concluded confidently, “The funeral director probably knows which end goes up.”

My husband’s mother had died several months before my own. Had we been able to attend her funeral in Japan, I would likely have had similar questions and would have welcomed the explanations. But I doubt my husband’s irritation would have made the same transformation as mine.

A few days later, I was back in my classroom on the west coast, where the students were asking about how much detail a writer should include in a descriptive essay.

“It depends on the knowledge base of the audience,” I replied.

And there it was – the perfect chance. “For example, here’s what happened to me over the weekend….” I began. And I told them of my husband’s questions and my answers, and found myself amused all over again.

On that night in October, Mom slipped her earthly bonds and left her slightly odd family behind. But — she left me this story to tell.



Shipping Out to Japan

Last week, the Global Wisdom arrived in port here, skimming lightly in at high tide, escorted by a couple of tidy Crowley tug boats.  Several days later, this traffic-cone-orange cargo ship sailed back up the sound, through the Salish Sea, and out into the Pacific Ocean.  Along with thousands of logs from the lumber giant Weyerhaeuser, the Global Wisdom was carrying bottled water: 29 pallets, 1960 bottles per pallet, 16.9 oz. of water per bottle. A total of 960,596 ounces of water, all bound for the people of Kashima in the Tohoku region of northern Japan.

It’s an astounding amount of water – about 7500 gallons or 500 tanks of gas for my car — but nowhere near the amount of water that surged over sea walls and washed away coastal villages after the devastating earthquake on March 11.

Here we are, 6 weeks later, and I still cannot bear to watch the videos of the black water swarming, like some monstrous sea creature, over the walls and buildings of those towns.  This series of events is, yes, horrible.  But devastation occurs everywhere. Constantly. Just ask the people in Alabama whose homes were demolished by tornadoes yesterday.  Their devastation is no less important.

Nonetheless, it is the scale of events in Japan, the continuing series of disasters, that is so heartbreaking:  the earthquake itself, registered as 9.0 on the 10-point Richter scale, the tsunami tossing trucks and boats about as if they were toys, the explosions at the nuclear reactors and the subsequent contamination of the surrounding land and water that will displace people for decades and take away their livelihoods.  When reading the accounts of the shifts of workers trying desperately to shut the plant down, I imagined the horror of the 3 workers whose legs were inundated by radioactive water – what they must have felt, looking down at their submerged feet.

By now, the tsunami has found its way back to the sea, though water still stands in the lowered fields. The aftershocks may continue for up to 6 months, but the earth will eventually grow quiet.  The radiation leak has been stopped, but there are many bodies yet to be recovered.

Natural disasters – earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis – pass quickly, though the devastation does not. Manmade disasters, on the other hand, are prolonged, driven by ego, money and the darkness of the human soul. (I admit to growing angry when the front page headlines in the local paper switched from the events in Japan to the attacks on Libya.  Disaster reigns there too, but it is one initiated by greed and the desire for power.)

Many of us have tried to find ways to help the people of Japan – donating money, folding chains of paper cranes in a beautiful reversal of custom.  The irony of Americans folding cranes for the Japanese can’t be overlooked. It was the nightmare of Hiroshima in 1945 that gave rise to this custom of folding cranes in Japan.  The chains of cranes adorning monuments in that city are constantly replenished in an essential effort by people to ensure that beauty overcomes nightmare.  The cranes are as necessary and refreshing as the water the Global Wisdom carries.

My heart is especially with the people of Japan, because of the scope of the disaster, and also because of my personal connection.  You can look at the photo in the top left corner of this site and know that I am not Japanese, though my surname is.  My spouse is a native of Japan, and we lived there with our children for 2 years at the turn of this century.  Thankfully, our friends and family there were never in danger, never even felt the quake from their homes in the southwestern part of the country.

I have seen close up the integrity, the diligence and the heart of the Japanese, and I know they will work as long as it takes to recover, bearing their sorrows as they go, always with the goal of making things better.  It’s not their first disaster of this scale. One need only look at Hiroshima today to see what might arise from the contaminated fields and flooded plains of Tohoku.


If you’re interested in the ongoing rescue and clean-up efforts in Japan, you can find continuous updates in the Wall Street Journal.

If you’re looking for ways to help the Japanese efforts, consider one of the agencies listed here.  These links were sent to me by a friend in Japan:

And if you want to send a message to the people of Japan, this site allows you to translate that message into Japanese.

The Death of an Immigration Bill

Note: A version of this column appeared in The Olympian, July 11, 2007.

Dead again.

That’s the status of Senate bill 1639, the 1,000-page rat’s nest that tackled the nightmare called immigration reform. Like Lazarus, this bill was resurrected, only to have a stake driven through its heart.

During debates about the bill, I found myself in a strange camp – with conservative Republicans, who fought it because it would give amnesty to undocumented immigrants if they jump through some hoops and pay some fines and fees. (Much of immigration is about money. He who pays, plays.)

When I lived in Laredo, Texas, in 1988, a student of mine led a group across the border to tour a maquilladora – a manufacturing plant American companies established in Mexico. This one was for Ford Motor, and this student’s father had relocated from Detroit to manage it. The most startling characteristic about this plant was not the 15-year-olds working there or the low wages but the surrounding neighborhood, a collection of houses the employees constructed of plywood from shipping crates sent to the factory. I understood instantly why people risk their lives to cross a border. It’s not hard to feel sympathy for people who just want a better life.

It is hard, though, for me to be sympathetic toward those who break laws, especially when legal immigrants work so hard to enter this country. I could only stand by, hands tied, while my spouse jumped 10 years of hurdles to earn a green card to work in a field that desperately needs his talent. And I can only commiserate with the man at the bus stop who, after 14 years here legally, has still not received his card.

According to an article in a recent issue of Newsweek, “Every year we take in more immigrants than the rest of the world put together.” We already have 43 different visas on the books – 44 if you include the diversity visa, which is given lottery-style each year to 55,000 people eligible to emigrate from countries that have been historically under-represented.

Forget the morality of the issue. Consider the logistics. The proposed Z and guest worker visas, which require short stays and several returns to the home country, couldn’t possibly succeed. Our government recently had to postpone its mandate for American travelers to Mexico and Canada to carry passports because it couldn’t meet the demand of its own ruling. Imagine the paperwork involved in tracking the guesstimated 12 million illegal residents already here, not to mention new migrants seeking these visas.

Now that S-1639 is dead, maybe we can get to the real work of reforming immigration.

First, we could enforce the Immigration and Control Act of 1986, passed when there were only 2.7 million undocumented immigrants. Enforcing that law might uncover more companies like two in Texas, which supplied fake documents for aliens working at an oil-rig manufacturer that received a $73 million federal contract.

Second, we could work with Mexico to undo the damage of NAFTA, restore its economy, fight the flood of immigrants on their southern border, and reign in the drug lords. If you keep citizens happy – and safe – at home, they’ll likely stay there. Then the border-crossing theme park that opened in the state of Hidalgo could truly be for amusement rather than reinforcing a legacy.

Third, we could ensure that the expensive surveillance equipment already placed at the border by companies like Boeing actually works.

And most importantly, we could reduce the hurdles imposed on those trying to migrate here legally.

The US is indeed a nation of immigrants. Here’s to all of us immigrants who obeyed the laws to find our better life.

Travels from the Comfort of the Couch

Note: A version of this column appeared in The Olympian, February 7, 2007.

Recently, I took a couple of trips while sitting in my living room. No chemicals involved. Just the help of some magazines.

I assure you there’s no Travel & Leisure at my house — I have young children — but these magazines took me places I don’t usually go.

My first stop was in the land of American Handgunner magazine. I’m one of those who thinks guns should be controlled, so I opened the cover of the magazine (passed along by a student) expecting tales and politics, written by and for men, promoting the ownership of guns regardless of their danger.

But as I looked through the magazine, I was surprised. The magazine has women on the editorial board and a Japanese photographer. Several letters to the editor were from women, one of whom fights her husband for the newest issue when it arrives in their mailbox. An enlightening letter from an American civilian described the conditions of working in Iraq. The articles included a quote from Shakespeare, ideas for writing a journal, and a curious tale of hunting hippos in Africa. (Why someone would try that with a handgun is beyond me.) But most of the articles, including one by a man who accidentally shot his bedroom mirror, stressed the responsibility that comes with owning a gun and using it safely.

My second trip was through the vistas of Men’s Health, published by Rodale Press, which publishes other mainstream magazines such as Prevention. In its pages I expected a wholesome view of men’s lives but again was surprised at what I found. Lots of slick photos of buff guys, of course, and diet, exercise and nutrition tips. Recipes. (Nice to see those in a guy’s magazine.) Sex tips, of course. There’s even an advice column. Change the sex of the bodies in the photos and it starts to look like Cosmopolitan.

Unfortunately, I was left with that familiar view of women as objects, something to be had, like a car or a house. To its credit, the magazine had human interest stories – a doctor writing about everyday experiences with patients, a guy writing about marriage in terms male readers understand. (That’s the October 2006 issue, ladies.) But overall the magazine reinforces the same narcissism that many women’s magazines are guilty of. Not surprising, but definitely disappointing.

It’s not that I prefer handguns to buff guys. Frankly, I don’t need either one. It’s that reviewing these magazines from the comfort of my couch showed the value of “crossing over” – looking at how others live and think about the world. Imagine magnifying this investigation to a societal level, where everyone steps outside their comfort zone to see the world as others do. It might forever change how we see ourselves. Expand this plan to a global level – say, Americans living outside mainstream culture (easy to do within our borders) — and it might profoundly change how we think. It just might also change how citizens of other countries see us.

There is wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar: it keeps the mind nimble, it kills prejudice, and it fosters humor.

— George Santayana, philosopher (1863-1952)

Learning the Local Language

Note: A version of this column appeared in The Olympian, March 5, 2006.

Recently, I moved to Olympia from “flyover country” (FC) — that place east-coasters fly over to more important places on the other coast. My specific spot in FC was Lexington, Kentucky.  If you’re a fan of racehorses or bourbon (or both), you know it. Now that the dust has settled, or been subdued by rain, I’m noticing some language differences between FC and Olympia.

First off, I’ve learned new meanings for familiar words. I’ve heard these words before, but here I’ve come to know them on an, uh, intimate level: septic tank, power outage, and the most critical — generator. In FC, these terms were spoken only by people “in the country” – three more words that now apply to me.

Other words I’ve had to rethink include that ubiquitous phrase uttered by salespeople everywhere: “Have a nice day!”  Salespeople in FC say those words constantly, but they have a different ring here. Shopfolk seem to mean it and look me in the eye when speaking. The cashiers at Safeway even pronounce my name correctly. That’s one advantage of being on the West coast. With the Asian influence, my surname doesn’t seem foreign. And yakisoba is easy to come by.

Naturally, I’ve come up against the vocabulary for ordering coffee in the Pacific Northwest. But I don’t drink the stuff, so I can plead happy ignorance of the terms. The closest I’ve come to a double mocha latté is chai, but I can’t tell you what’s in it. I enjoy seeing espresso huts on every other corner, drive thru ones at that. In FC, you can drive-thru for money, dry cleaning, drugs (the legal sort), and even beer, but not latté. That’s a true measure of the culture.

Certain terms I learned as oddities in FC are common here, especially those associated with yoga:  plank, warrior, and anything ending with –asana.  If I shouted “down dog!” in a crowded theater, everyone inside might actually assume the position. Those street corners lacking espresso huts harbor yoga studios, and my kids even learned the tree pose while standing in the school bus line.

On the other hand, the meanings of some current terms here have already been decided back in FC — for example, smoking ban and water rights. I’ve found the image of a place doesn’t always reflect reality. East-coasters joke about FC, but the folks there are, on occasion, a step ahead.

I’ve also become attuned to the visual language of Olympia, and much of it delights. The Mountain. The calming presence of the water. The sharp outlines of trees against the sky, a scene made possible by clear air.  More men in grocery stores, shopping and working checkout. That booklet in my mailbox detailing issues on the ballot, so I could actually cast an educated vote. Older couples hand-in-hand in a lively downtown. Olympia’s downtown thrives at a level larger cities should envy.

For all the new meanings I’m discovering here, though, there are two visual terms I’m glad not to encounter.  Big hair.  Power suits.

One Country, Two Men

Every morning I wake up with immigrants.  One in my bed.  One at the bus stop.

The one in my bed is the lucky one.  Lucky to have me, perhaps, but more so because he came here from Japan, a country Americans respect. Like most other immigrants, he came looking for personal freedom and opportunity. He is the epitome of the diligent and hard-working Asian. Highly educated. Highly skilled. Productive and industrious, in a field where his skills are in demand. Just the sort of person we want to come here.

And yet, his journey was not easy.  Because he’s in medicine, he was subject to restrictions that other immigrants are not. He was fully trained and licensed in Japan,  but because the U.S. doesn’t recognize medical training from other countries (except Canada), he had to repeat 7 years of training here and return to Japan for 2 more years before he was eligible for a green card, regardless of his marriage to me, an American citizen. It was a grueling odyssey during which he nearly collapsed, but now he’s living the American dream. Home and children. Good job. A martini before dinner.

The man at the bus stop is not so lucky. He came from Mexico – legally — 14 years ago, after his butcher shop failed when NAFTA destroyed the surrounding farms and ranches. At first it was picking tomatoes in California, then a series of manual jobs till he landed at the farm across the road, where he tends horses and, with his wife, is raising two daughters. He also works a second job at a restaurant across town. In the meantime, he studies for his GED.

José and his family live in a disintegrating rental trailer on the horse farm, but the owner is selling the farm and has told him to find somewhere else to live and work. He managed to save up money for a down payment on a house. But the horse farm owner, an elderly and increasingly ornery man, wouldn’t vouch for him with the mortgage company, and so he lost the house, and his $3,000 down payment.

As the work at the horse farm dwindled,  José worked maintenance at a nearby casino and considered getting another job 20 miles away. He has finally found a new job in town. Before he began, however,  he had to have an emergency appendectomy, with no insurance, and his visa expired when the regional immigration office got bogged down in a backlog of applications. No one has been able to sponsor him for a green card.

José, a man of pride, is also smart, hard-working and diligent. He too is just the sort of person we want here. But there is no happy ending for him. He now works nights cleaning floors at a health club. No house. No martini.

If I could save him from this string of calamities, I would. But I have no avenue to help other than to commiserate with him as we wait for our children’s school bus. So I look for ways to help that he can’t trace back to me. Anonymously paying off the rental bill for his daughter’s flute at the music store where my children take lessons. Leaving a tip at the health club at Christmas time, a small number of bills tucked into an unsigned greeting card.  It’s my apology for how my country has treated him.