Photo by Toni Frissell
“You were a risk, a mystery. And the most certain thing I’d ever known.” ~ Beau Taplin.
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.” ~ Albert Einstein.
“Love is the way Messengers from the Mystery tell us things.” ~ Rumi
Underneath the surface of our daily lives—concealed beneath a hundred smiles and practical choices—its faint heart beat lingers, quietly pulsing and pulling us back into its orbit of truth. The mystery of love: for all its impractical, unwise, and disruptive qualities, contains an element of the mysterious, surviving in an eternal space beyond the physical realm. It is a timeless, yet terrifying space, that intellect strongly neglects, and the heart fully embraces and recognizes. It is the ‘Ah, it’s you,’ feeling upon the first hug, the first touch, the first scent that lingers at the nape of his/her neck. It tells you you’re home. It belies logic. It lives within the waters of intuition. And it exists within you long after the physical experience or relationship ends.
Australian poet Beau Taplin captured its essence for me with this line: “It’s a frightening thought that in one fraction of a moment, you can fall into a kind of love that takes a lifetime to get over.”
Maybe not everyone experiences this kind of love in their lifetime? But I’m convinced they know if they have. That’s been my experience. When it ends, it’s shattering. The idea of never touching, seeing, or being with the other person is brutal. It’s hard to go on. And what happens within that space of misery, is also a mystery. Trying to avoid pain, many of us can try to make intellectual ‘safe’ choices, like being with people we don’t love in the same insanely passionate way. Or maybe some choose to be with someone because of what they can do for them, or because they would be more accepted by family, or it just feels like a safe bet. But it could be farther from the truth as it short-changes your heart. Not taking the risk for love, over time, haunts us. Memories of our true love, or the longing for this love, will linger within us and bubble up to the surface eventually. Even if our safe relationship lasts a lifetime—think of the married couples who are miserable, treat each other with disdain, yet stay together for the sake of the children, or due to financial fears. What lingers underneath the surface? Who do they think of at night when their partner barely touches them anymore? Love will find a way to survive. It resides deep within us, like a longing whisper.
This mystery is what I write about in my novel Between Thoughts of You. An old man on his death bed, finally admits to his hospice caretaker, who happens to look like his true love, that for 60 years he has never stopped thinking about a Japanese woman he fell in love with during World War II. Riddled with guilt for leaving her, the old man, now in the final stages of lung disease, keeps having lucid dreams of his true love, forcing him to face the truth. Here’s an excerpt from my novel, that I’ll be sharing with agents and publishers this weekend in San Francisco (wish me luck!). In this scene, the old man recovers from a vivid dream and reveals his secret to his caretaker.
Excerpt from Between Thoughts of You: Chapter 3
Wasure raremasen: Unforgetable
“She’s here. I mean, I smell her. It’s so God damn real. You know what I mean?”
Lulu thought of her sweet Lani’s smell. The scent had been so real in her dreams that it often lingered a few seconds after she had awakened.
“I might,” she replied softly. She started to take his pulse and placed the oxygen reader on his finger, ensuring that his oxygen levels were OK. The old man began to cough, too.
“Take it easy,” Lulu advised, sensing that the conversation might rile him up. When she reached for the nebulizer, Pops put a firm hand up saying no. With a sense of urgency on his face, Lulu decided it could wait a few minutes.
“My dreams of her are so real, I can even feel her touch as I’m waking up. I feel her soft hand on mine. She had the softest God damn little hands. They were like doll hands. Light as a feather. And I smell her. Jesus I smell her!”
Pops closed his eyes and breathed in. Lulu couldn’t help but smile in response to his dramatic energy.
“She smells like goose down. I know, odd. But that’s her smell. Soft and innocent. I wake up needing her so bad.”
The old man’s eyes looked searchingly into Lulu’s.
“I even heard her voice this morning, calling me Yuki. She called me Yuki,” he explained with a sheepish smile.
“So he does have a secret,” Lulu thought. Most of her hospice patients told her at least one secret. Some might be small, such as secretly not liking a cat that a daughter had given her. But some were huge, like being gay and never telling their spouse. She had gotten used to hearing and keeping secrets. It was part of the job as a hospice nurse; to listen and not to judge.
The old man’s head fell back slightly onto his pillow, as his right hand instinctively lifted. His index and middle fingers straightened and touched, rubbing back and forth like he was rolling a cigarette between them. Lulu imagined that he often had long conversations with friends, while smoking cigarettes and drinking cocktails.
“Who are you talking about?” Lulu finally asked, demanding more clarity.
For more than 60 years, he had not said her name. Not once. When he did, it came out as a whisper: “Kiyomi.”
A sense of relief seemed to wash over the old man’s face after he spoke her name aloud.
“She was the one. I mean, no one has ever come close. You know what I mean?”
Lulu blinked, wondering if Akoni was her one and only, then decided not to go there.
“Of course, when you’re young and with the ONE, you’re just, you’re-I mean, you’re so God damned young and stupid you tell yourself that there will be other women like her. Like they’re just waiting for you everywhere, on every street corner and bar. But they aren’t.”
Pops looked contemplatively over Lulu’s shoulder, out the window facing the driveway lined with cypress trees. He placed a cloth up to his mouth as if he would cough, but just cleared his throat politely.
“I was so stupid to let her go. I mean. I knew. Deep down I really knew she was the one the moment I laid eyes on her. It didn’t matter that I was only 20. She was like this Japanese princess. I laid eyes on her and just couldn’t breathe. Like now,” the old man laughed a little. “Like God damned now.”
The conversation was riling him up. Pops started coughing so violently, his shoulders crashed up and down on the bed frame. Lulu had no other choice but to give him his nebulizer and to leave the room to finish making his breakfast. If she stayed any longer, he would just keep trying to talk.
It had turned out to be a gorgeous morning, so after his treatment, Lulu decided to wheel Pops out to the patio for his favorite brunch: eggs benedict and orange juice and toast. Apparently, on Sundays Pops liked to re-create the regular brunch he had in New York. The old man adored traditions. Yet, Lulu noticed that he hadn’t seemed to miss his homes in Rome or Manhattan—or his boys, or his wife—much at all. That perplexed her at first. Now that she had heard his heart was with another— and for nearly sixty years—her curiosity was peaking.
Once the old man settled into the patio area and ate at least half of his meal without any signs of distress or coughing, Lulu leaned in. “I have to hear more about this Japanese princess. Where were you? Who was she? I thought you had been married forever?”
So, the old man started to tell his long love story. But in his fashion, he began telling it a bit lop-sided. He started the tale of his greatest love affair, after it had died.
“I married the boys mom, but I didn’t love her.” Pops looked around like he was at his favorite restaurant in New York or Rome, fearing someone might overhear his confession.
Lulu instinctively placed a hand on top of his and said, “You can trust me. I won’t tell a soul.”
Pops smiled and blushed. He really loved Lulu. He couldn’t explain how or why, but it felt as if he had known her before, or in another life. Or maybe he was just old and dying and needed to finally tell someone? Either way, he knew he was safe with her, so he continued:
“I mean I liked their mother, but Fran didn’t hold a candle to Kiyomi.”
Lulu wasn’t able to hide her quizzical expression. She just never understood why or how any man could ever marry a woman he didn’t love.
“See these were different times. I returned from the war and suddenly was making money. I mean, Real money. That’s a long story for another time. But, see, my mother was very patriotic. You’d think she’d been born in America, the way she acted.” Pops began to giggle, then continued in a high-pitched voice, imitating her: “‘No son of mine’s marrying a Jap! Just get over her.’ She had said that to me so many times it should have painted it on the kitchen ceiling!” The old man sighed.
“See, I made the mistake of telling my mother, after I returned to New York, that I was in love with this Japanese girl. My mother went Bofo. She went crazy. It took her less than a week to start rounding up pretty Italian girls in the neighborhood for me to date.”
The old man rolled his eyes and shrugged his shoulders, like what could I do?
“I was only 22 then and making a lot of money and really stupid. I mean, the boys’ mother was a looker. I’ll give her that. But nothing made me want to hold her. I mean, she was bossy and flashy. And LOUD. So loud. Key could barely whisper and I’d always hear her, or lean in so I didn’t miss a word. Fran was always yelling. I don’t know.” He shrugged his shoulders again and then took a sip of his orange juice that Lulu had poured into a champagne flute to be festive.
The old man then shifted into a more serious mood and looked off in the distance, as if sizing up how to best explain what he’d say next.
“If I could do it all over again I’d change everything. That’s why the boys can never know. Never. See, I’d marry Kiyomi. I still love her so much it hurts inside. Isn’t that crazy? It’s been what, 50, no 60 years. Nuts.”
The sun had risen, getting too bright, causing the old man to squint. Tuscany in September could still be hot. Lulu helped lift Pops out of his chair and handed him his walker. “Lets get a little exercise around the property, before going back to bed,” Lulu suggested. Walking on the gravel would be tricky for him, she had decided, but it would also be a good way to provide a focus for the old man. He’d have to concentrate fully on exactly what was before him, and not behind him. Lulu loved the moments that were fully present, like dancing or painting—neither the old man could ever do again. This little treacherous walk would require all the focus he could muster.
They stopped in the shade by the pool, so he could catch his breath. The old man had been panting and trying to hide how hard the walk had been for him. Lulu wondered if she had pushed him too far.
The old man leaned into an old knotted olive tree and looked up at Lulu with such love in his eyes it caused Lulu to blush and look away. Although he hadn’t told her, Pops had been thinking that if he had married Kiyomi, they might have had a daughter, or granddaughter that would have looked like her. The old man touched Lulu’s face gently, turning her gaze back to his, before asking an impossible request:
“I want to die smelling my Kiyomi. Feeling her hand on my hand. I know you understand. I can feel it. I don’t want the boys here. Just you, me and Key, OK?”
Lulu touched the old man’s hand with her own, tears welling in her eyes.
“I promise,” she said, making a promise that she had no earthly idea how to carry out.