A friend of mine living here in Japan wrote this to me yesterday. Read it right to the end. It will chill you to the bone. You won’t be disappointed, and may even rethink a few things in your own life, or maybe make a different New Year’s resolution than the one you had in mind.
Well it’s coming up on another year here in Japan; hard to believe seven or eight years have gone by already. 2006 was a great year as was 1999-2005 here in Tokyo. I’ve got a great life here. Great friends, great job, great fiancée (oh yeah I got engaged to Kyoko last month in Italy) and low-stress which is key to having a great life! Tokyo continues to be a fabulous city. Sure it lacks in architectural finesse (I suspect it was much cooler looking before the Yanks burned it to a cinder 60 years back), but it more than makes up for it in entertainment opportunities, quality of life and the bizarre. Where else can you have thousands of people lining up for the opening day of Japan’s debut of Krispy Kreme!? There are already two huge chains of donut shops in Japan. Why another? And this one is even more fattening! Or canned oden (Japanese chunky soup) from a vending machine- a camera crew and a snaking line 20 people deep waiting for their turn at the machine (these people are so patient!), or a 500-person Japanese orgy flick that is circling the internet (not one of them wearing a condom). I wasn’t in it! Next time.
This past weekend Kyoko and I took the Shinkansen (bullet train) for about 4 hours southwest of Tokyo to Fukuyama, near Hiroshima. We were visiting Kyoko’s family (also visited some of the dead relatives’ graves) whom I have met on a number of occasions, and to meet the father’s side of the family whom I hadn’t met before. Our first stop was at one of her uncles’ house. The Japanese tend to really take to foreigners for the most part and are quite accommodating to them in their homes. We all hit it off right away and had an enjoyable time. Prior to eating, Kyoko prayed in front of the family’s Buddhist shrine (仏壇, butsudan) where the deceased members of the immediate family are honored. These shrines are found in most Japanese homes and are incredibly beautiful, ornate fixtures that are often built into the wall like a niche. There is usually some fresh fruit offered up for their souls and in this case a couple of large red and green apples and a pack of OREOS sat on a metal tray which really got my mouth watering. We had an enormous feast. Temaki zushi, which is kind of a Japanese burrito minus the beans and gas; basically sashimi (raw fish) that you roll into a sheet of dried seaweed along with rice and maybe some salmon eggs, sprouts, etc. also had oden atsukan (which is HOT sake – by the way the bad quality sake is usually heated up) and all kinds of other goodies.
I was seated next to Kyoko’s uncle whose name escapes me… we’ll call him Jessie. Simple man, has a farm that he tends, filthy fingernails, (his thumbnails looked like small inverted teaspoons absolutely caked with dried dirt from the garden) a dog tied-up in the front with muddy paws and mine-like excrement piles surrounding his limited tether (I’m assuming this was the dog’s excrement and not Uncle Jessie’s, after all he is pretty outdoorsy), a wife and three grown children, and two grand children that he just can’t get enough of. Crazy about his grandkids! For some things there just aren’t any cultural divides. Oh and he wouldn’t be seated at my mother’s table thats for sure! We immediately became drinking buddies and I could hardly get one gulp of atsukan down before he filled my glass back up. Granted, sake glasses are thimble-sized but nonetheless it was always spilling over the edge. The more he drank the funnier he got and the more embarrassed his wife looked. But I thought it was great. It was a very memorable time with my future in-laws (wow that gives me the chills) and after we said our goodbyes we were off to see MORE relatives…dead and alive. Basically the entire day was spent going from house to house to grave to rest home making introductions, offering up prayers for dead folks I’ve only seen black and white photos of, and chatting.
Towards the end of the day while in the car I received an e-mail on my phone from an old girlfriend from a few years ago. We’ll call her Keiko. Scratch that, that’s her real name, uh… Kumiko. It was a short message. ‘Hi how have you been?’ I hadn’t heard from her in probably a year and a half or so; we occasionally mail one another to touch base. I wrote back with my regards. And then she wrote back again with a message that rattled my inner core. ‘I have really bad news, I’m 6 months pregnant and I found out I have HIV’. This can’t be real I thought. I mean Kumiko is an office lady who is 26, educated, barely drinks alcohol let alone take drugs, and doesn’t sleep around. She has only had a handful of boyfriends with whom she was monogamous while she dated them. She doesn’t fit the profile. She said she was trying to determine where she got infected. I then began to fear the worst. My God, I might have it. We didn’t always practice safe sex, in fact I think we rarely did. She then said she’s already checked with her other boyfriends who all said they were tested and are HIV negative. I’d never had a test before. It was this that really made me take pause. I could be the carrier of this death-wish.
I had a very difficult time maintaining my composure for the remainder of the weekend. I continued to e-mail Kumiko for the next day trading information about her current boyfriend, who is the father of her unborn baby, and as to whether or not he has it. He doesn’t. Basically I was the only link missing from the ‘who’s got it?’ I was a mess. In my mind, life as I knew it was done, finished, in the 9th inning with 2 strikes 2 outs. My first thought was Kyoko and how could I tell her I have HIV/AIDS. This would end our marriage plans for sure. Then my mom – that would absolutely break her heart. Then the thought of calling the other old girlfriends and telling them they may have been exposed was horrifying. Then me. Lifespan with the currently available drugs for treating HIV is 24 years. From the time of infection. So that would mean I have a max of 20 years left on big blue, if I contracted this evil from Kumiko 4 years ago. I started to rethink my life’s direction. Nothing had value in my eyes anymore. Everything was superfluous. I started to think about the horrific images we’ve all seen of people dying of AIDS. Skeletal, gaunt. I couldn’t sleep at night and had the sweats and shakes. Literally every waking moment whether I was teaching a class or narrating a job, it has been at the forefront of my thoughts. We all have to die but this just wasn’t in the cards for me, I thought. George has AIDS. Mortifying! I didn’t like the ring of that one bit. I imagined myself having to clarify every time someone learned about my illness that I’m NOT gay and I’m NOT a drug-user. I got AIDS from unsafe heterosexual sex. I envied some of the people I saw on the street. A young mother with her young children in the supermarket; I’m sure she’s safe. Kids playing in a field near my apartment; they don’t know how lucky they are. But I also thought, jeez they could be HIV positive too.
I went to a Catholic church that is on my way home from work on Monday evening and prayed like there literally was no tomorrow. This went on for a couple of days (not the praying but the fear of God) until I could get an appointment to see a doctor yesterday, the 19th Dec. I went to an English-speaking clinic here in Tokyo which I usually visit for other life-threatening illnesses like the common cold and having stitches removed. I had an HIV test done and I figured as long as I was there and as long as the needle was in my arm (which by the way this was the first time I didn’t get light-headed or completely faint from a blood test) I may as well get some more blood drawn and have some other general check-up tests done as well. Never thought it would come to the tune of 50,000 yen! There are free AIDS clinics in town but the wait (one or two weeks) I think would’ve killed me. These results were promised in 24 hours. After the tests were all done I left the clinic and my blood and fate was in God’s hands. I told a friend I hope He (God) switches mine with some nun… certainly not a priest!!
The past 24 hours have been nerve-wracking as you can imagine. I’ve been absolutely on pins and needles. The doctor told me to give him a call after 4 which I did at precisely 4:00:01. The call was transfered to him and he didn’t even say hello, all he said was ‘the test is NEGATIVE.’ He knew how anxious I was about this. I could’ve hugged him. Or at least bought him tea and crumpets. An enormous weight was lifted from my shoulders. I never felt the word negative could in fact be so POSITIVE!
I immediately called Kyoko and told her the good news. She knew I had an AIDS test which I told her was just a ‘routine check, nothing to worry about.’ She doesn’t know yet just how afraid I was, or the REAL reason for the test. I’ll tell her tonight. I also mailed Kumiko. She asked that I not call her because she cries on the phone when she talks about her terrible predicament. She was relieved to hear the news. She has since pinpointed who she believes gave her the disease and has yet to hear back from him. He also is a foreigner living here in Japan. Perhaps he doesn’t know he has it? Perhaps he refuses to get checked for fear of learning he has it. Kumiko is also being rejected by her boyfriend now. They planned to marry after she got pregnant, that was until a month ago when she got the bad news from her doctor. He doesn’t want anything to do with her now that she’s been diagnosed with HIV. She told me that she will give birth to the baby and live in Tokyo for a year before moving back to her hometown to live with her father. She said ‘what about my life?’ I wish I had an answer for her. I told her to focus on the beautiful baby that she will have in a few months and that will help relieve her of the other pain.
Japan. It’s a beautiful place. The people are beautiful and kind and some of the most generous folks I’ve ever met. But these past few days have jaded me a bit. I used to think of Japan as a special place where the evils are forbidden from entering. A playground where you can laugh and sing and play along with life in a carefree and careless way – a Disneyland as such. It’s not that way. And I learned this in a very personal and frightening way. This has been an INCREDIBLY valuable lesson for me and should be for anyone who takes the time to read this. Sorry, I know it’s long but it’s important that we realize just how real HIV/AIDS is! We read about it in the papers. We see it on TV, but folks, this is mainstream. If Kumiko can get it so can I and you and your children and anyone who doesn’t practice safe sex! PERIOD! Take heed people. Please feel free to send this on to anyone you feel would benefit from it.
Oh and I almost forgot… Happy Holidays! Stay safe.