Imagine my surprise when I walked into the teacher’s office at School C and saw none other than Mrs. Betty seated at Yamada Sensei’s desk!
“Mr. Loco! Welcome back!”
“Mrs. Betty! What are you doing here???” I thought whatshername was coming back and…” I had used the word ‘whatshername’ sort of contemptuously.
“She extended her leave…still grieving, I guess, poor thing!” Mrs. Betty replied with a tinge of sarcasm in her voice. First time in 7 years I’d ever heard even the slightest bit of sarcasm from a Japanese person.
“I’m so happy to see you!” I said, feeling moved enough to go give her a big hug and plant a wet one on her cheek! But I’ve rarely seen Japanese hug and kiss one another for any reason other than romance or family, and I didn’t want to give the woman a heart attack. “So, how much longer are you….Are you ok???”
I rushed over to her. She’d tried to stand but grimaced, a face that held years of pain. She looked like she belonged on extended leave.
“Don’t get up! What do you need? I’ll get it for you.”
I glanced over at Akiyama. She had concerned etched in her face.
It’s the rare school in Japan that has an elevator. And I’d yet to see a student or teacher that needed a wheelchair to get around…until today. Back in NY everything, everywhere, by law, was wheelchair accessible. The only thing in the school that I’ve noticed that’s designated for the physically challenged is one stall in each bathroom. For some reason I’d never thought about how that disabled person would get up to the fourth floor. I guess I presumed there was some device like JR has at some of the older stations, a device that attaches to a rail along the staircase wall that carries wheelchairs up and down.
“Let me help you, Mrs. Betty…”
All of the 1st year classes were up on the third and fourth floors. She’d need more than a head start to make it on time. She’d need an escalator.
“I’m going that way,” Akiyama said as she came around the desk to Mrs. Betty’s side. “You just walked in the door, Loco-sensei. Go settle in, I got her.”
“Don’t y’all start fussing over me, now. I’ve been in pain since before either uh y’all was born. I can handle myself. Y’all just go ahead now…”
Akiyama and I began to protest.
“I said, go ahead now!” she snapped, all Betty Davis on us. “The day I can’t walk upstairs by myself is the day I meet My Maker!”
Akiyama followed behind her anyway.
A few minutes later Akiyama came back in the office, smiling.
“What happened?” I asked her.
“Nothing,” Akiyama shrugged. “She walked up the stairs like she said she would…wouldn’t let me touch here. That’s a proud woman.”
“Does this school have one of them thingamajigs that slide up the wall…you know what I’m talking about?”
“It’s like a machine that carries wheelchairs or it has a seat…for elderly or disabled people.”
“Oh,” she sad. “I don’t know. Probably not, though. I’ll check later. What did you call it? A thinga…”
“A thingamajig. It means a thing you don’t know the name of, or can’t remember the name of….I guess it’s like when you say “nan toka” in Japanese when you don’t know the word.”
“Ah! Wakatta! (I got it!) That’s funny!” Akiyama loves when I teach her new stuff. And she always finds a way to use it.
“Hey, what happened to whatshername?”
Something occurred to me and I laughed.
“What?” She asked, lighting up. She just knew it was gonna be good.
“I have 5 brothers and sisters…”
“Well, sometimes when my mother got upset, when we were kids, she’d say something like, ‘tell whatshisname to take out the garbage for I get upset and kick everybody’s ass…’ There were six of us so sometimes she’d forget our names…”
She was cracking up. Japanese families average about 2 kids, so 6 kids sounds like a village to them.
“You’re lying!” She said when she could speak. “Your mother forgets your names? I can’t believe that!”
“Are you kidding? Mannnnn, my mother called me the other day at 3:30 in the morning. I answered the phone, half asleep, and she was like, “I woke you up? Oh, I’m so sorry, baby. What time is it in China?”
Akiyama was almost in tears, trying not to cause more of a disturbance with her laughter. Already teachers were watching us with curiosity and envy.
“Tell whatshername to bring me the thingamajig,” she kinda said to herself, still laughing.
Just about then, my laughter kinda ran out of gas though as something occurred to me:
My mother had forgotten my birthday last week. First time in my life.