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TOKYO — It is every foreign correspondent’s nightmare: a family emergency when you are half a world away.
For me, the call came last month. My 76-year-old father was sick, not with Covid-19, but with complications from congestive heart failure. There was nothing more his doctors could do, and he was entering hospice care.
I was in Tokyo. He and my mother were in California. Suddenly, I was facing questions unique to the pandemic — whether it would be wise to travel, or whether I could forgive myself if I didn’t. If I did go, I wasn’t sure I could return to Japan because of an entry ban on many foreign nationals, including Americans.
I knew that others in my situation hadn’t been able to make it to the bedside of their dying loved ones, with goodbyes delivered through the cellphones of hospital nurses.
My father told me to stay put, not wanting me to get stuck indefinitely in California when my two children and job as Tokyo bureau chief for The New York Times were in Japan. My mother agreed, but I could hear her stress mounting on the phone. I am an only child, so there was no one else to be with her.
In the end, I resolved to go. I applied for, and was granted, a humanitarian exemption from Japan’s entry ban.
The next day, I stepped into the nearly empty airport in Tokyo, where I felt like an alien arriving on Earth to find an entombed ruin of a dead planet. On the plane, which was perhaps a fifth full, I had a row to myself. I was slightly unnerved when a preschooler marched down the aisle, unmasked, shouting, “Ah-CHOO!”
To protect my parents from any coronavirus I might have picked up en route, I checked into a short-term rental, providentially right next door to the home where I grew up in California and where my parents still lived. With the state under a stay-at-home order, Airbnb owners could not accept tourist bookings, so the house was available for my self-isolation.
When planning to visit my father, I would put on a cloth mask and text my mother that I was walking over. She would open the door and back up six feet inside the foyer. I would slip off my shoes and go straight upstairs.
Standing in the doorway of my parents’ bedroom, I was about six feet from where my father lay in bed, a cannula for round-the-clock oxygen nestled in his nose.
We discussed what I could safely do to give my mother the household help she so desperately needed. My daughter, back home in Tokyo, came up with an idea: I should take their laundry next door, where I could use the rental’s washing machine and dryer.
The first load contained sheets and a pair of Dad’s underwear that looked impossibly large for his now emaciated frame.
At the bottom of the laundry basket were fabric scraps my mother was preparing so she could sew masks she wanted to donate to a local health care center. That effort had been halted by the sudden deterioration of my father’s heart.
I recognized dozens of pieces from my childhood, when my mother often sewed my clothes. There was the indigo print covered in orange, green and yellow balloons from a Japanese yukata — a summer-weight kimono — that she had turned into one of my favorite dresses in fifth grade. There were also scraps from a quilt my mother had made for my grandparents — her in-laws — on their 50th wedding anniversary.
Each remnant reminded me of my mother’s generosity and her years of caregiving, now adapted to the Covid-19 era.
The day before I arrived from Tokyo, she went to the grocery store during the early-morning seniors hour to stock up on fresh berries because she knew how much I missed California fruit. She wrapped homemade brownies in aluminum foil to stock the refrigerator in my rental. When she cooked dinner for my father, she would put aside a portion on a tray and set it out on the porch for me to take next door.
My father had been officially sick with congestive heart failure for five years, but in truth he had needed a lot of care for at least a quarter of a century, after he had undergone open-heart surgery at age 50. For years, my mother made well-balanced meals catered to his diabetes and heart condition. His doctors told her they believed he had lived as long as he had in part because she had taken such good care of him.
As my father’s condition quickly worsened and his breathing grew more labored, texts would pop up on my phone late at night while I sat next door. My mother was administering morphine drops, and she wanted me to record the time and dosages for the hospice nurses.
I suggested one afternoon that we take a socially distanced break in the backyard. My mother said I could come over and sit on a picnic bench while she watered the plants. “Can’t have both dad and plants die at the same time,” she texted.
One night, my mother laid out a Japanese teishoku — a set of several tiny dishes — that consisted of soba noodles and small meatballs and a grated daikon radish salad. I stood at the back of the bedroom as Dad ate it with relish — a sign, we thought, that he had more time.
But the end would soon come. On the night my father died, I was only a week into my self-isolation and had not received results from a coronavirus test I took, so my mother and I stayed masked on either side of the king-size bed. She crossed her arms over her chest in a sign of the hug we were afraid to exchange. I considered just taking the risk, but then thought: What if I test positive and I’ve just sobbed and snotted all over her?
At my father’s cremation ceremony, my children read their remembrances on FaceTime. My son said he wished he had a chance to say goodbye in person. “To say ‘I love you, Jiji,’ one more time,” he read, using the Japanese shorthand for grandfather. “So I’m going to do that now.”
On the way back from the funeral home, we paused to observe a Black Lives Matter protest wending its way down one of the town’s main thoroughfares. My father died three days after a police officer had killed George Floyd. Our personal loss seemed small in the context of the compounding losses around us.
Once I received my negative test result, my mother felt it was safe for me to be inside the house for longer periods of time and at closer range.
The aftermath of death is a strangely busy time, consumed with paperwork and the excavation of belongings. And pandemic-related restrictions made simple things difficult.
I emptied my father’s unused pills into a gallon-size Ziploc bag. Normally, the police station accepted such medications, but because of the lockdown, the precinct lobby was closed. My mother wanted to name me as her health care proxy now that my father was gone, but submitting the forms took numerous phone calls because no one was sure how to verify me without an in-person visit.
Not knowing when I would be able to return again, I was frantic to get as much done as possible. But I was moving too fast for my mother. I wanted to clear out decades of accumulated papers and magazines. She agreed to let me take care of some of it; other things she would get to in her own time.
Perhaps the guilt of an adult child with an aging parent is universal: We can never do enough. But it is doubly so when we live more than 5,000 miles away, and even more so during a pandemic that makes travel difficult.
At home in Tokyo, I am once again in isolation. I arrived just in time for my daughter’s 16th birthday but could not hug her. I watched the broadcast of my son’s digital promotion from eighth grade, sitting on a chair six feet behind them in the living room. My first morning back, my husband came to the doorway of our bedroom, where I am isolating, a reversal of my last conversations with my father.
My mother texted from California. She had gone grocery shopping for the first time in three weeks. She had picked up coffee beans and gassed up the car. She assured me that she had tossed her clothes in the washing machine and showered immediately after returning home.
The morning I had left, Mom rejoined her Zoom yoga class. “Self care means care for each other,” she texted.
My mother had been building a life independent of my father for years. She had done it for herself, of course, but it was also a gift to me. When I am on the other side of the world, I will know that she is going to be OK.