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Thinking of the Friend So Alive He Can't Possibly Be Gone
Mourning Mirza

The Washington Post
April 25, 2005

My son Alex will never know my friend Mirza. But Mirza would have wanted to know him.

I thought of Mirza when I spent a week at home with newborn Alex in December. Mirza has been dead for some time now, more than a year but less than two. The time is fuzzy to me, but the fact he's gone isn't. And though I knew I'd never forget him, it took Alex's birth to bring Mirza back to me for a proper remembrance.

"You've got to get married!" Mirza, a Bangladeshi, told me a few years ago.

He was calling from Japan, where we'd met in 1992. I was sitting at a desk in Washington, where I'd moved after a year spent teaching English and writing in a town called Toi.

Marry I did, in 2001. In the summer of 2000, my wife-to-be, Naomi, and I traveled in Japan together. I'd wanted to show her some of the country and introduce her to friends.

Mirza was one. He bounded up the stairs of our inn the first evening Naomi and I were in Toi together, eyes twinkling and arms characteristically aflutter. He had a big evening planned — we would meet a mutual friend and go singing karaoke. "Come on," he insisted, shuffling us out the door.

Mirza had married since I'd seen him last, to Yumie, a Japanese Peruvian.

They had three children, to whom they spoke in Japanese. Mirza and I spoke English together, and during that year in Toi, we spoke a lot.

"I've got to find someone with a really harmonic rhythm," he'd tell me in my tatami-matted apartment. The starry speech — never flip — rolled sincerely off his tongue. And from his pen. A lapsed Muslim, he would nonetheless sign his letters with a wish that the Almighty would watch over me. On his car, he'd stenciled the words "optimistic lifestyle."

It was a fitting motto for Mirza, who fought a disease. "Bloody diabetes," he'd say before injecting himself with insulin. He had to watch what he ate and drank, and it showed if he wasn't careful. I once watched and worried as he vomited into an ashtray.

On that trip Naomi and I also stayed at Mirza's new place in Isehara, outside Tokyo, with Yumie and the kids. I loved the way Naomi played with Pia, their daughter. Watching us, Mirza knew where Naomi and I were headed.

"You've got to have kids!" he told us.

The next day he took us to the train station and we bade one another farewell.

I wouldn't see him animated again. The call came in 2002. "Moshi moshi" — hello — I heard a woman's voice say. Surprised, I answered back. "It's Yumie," she said.

And she told me. A car accident, she said. He's in the hospital. And then something about not returning to ishiki.

I didn't know the word. My Japanese is good, but not perfect, so I'd have to look it up. I said to hang in there; that I was thinking of them.

Sometimes there's only so much you can say over a crackly cell phone connection.

Ishiki is the Japanese word for consciousness, I learned later.

My friend was in a coma.

A few months later I went to Japan again to write an article. Before going to my destination, I boarded a train to meet Yumie. She and her son Alma pulled up in a white taxi outside the station, and I strode out to meet them. She didn't say much. We went straight to the hospital.

I didn't know what to expect as we walked through the sliding doors and up the stairs. But there, on the far side of a six-bed room, was Mirza: supine, limp, glassy-eyed and almost motionless. A blanket covered him up to his stubbly chin.

I held his soft hand and it twitched involuntarily. Yumie, meanwhile, readied an electric razor and began to shave his face. The shorn whiskers fell onto the white sheets like black dandruff.

"Rob is here!" Yumie said loudly into Mirza's ear when she'd finished. His eyes swiveled in their sockets. Could he have known what was happening? Part of me hoped so. But part of me just couldn't cope. It was a question Alma asked.

"Mom," he said imploringly, "when is Daddy waking up?"

He never did, of course. That night I bought the kids, Yumie and her father and uncle a meal in the neon-lit suburb where they made their alien home.

Her father spoke little Japanese. I speak little Spanish. But when he said, "Ah, Mirza," and swigged his beer, I knew what he meant.

Before I left, I told Yumie that I'd do anything I could to help. "Ganbatte kudasai," I said, using the Japanese for "keep fighting."

"That's all I can do," she said plainly.

I left Japan. Again time passed. And again, as I knew it would someday, the phone rang, displaying a funny sequence of numbers in the caller ID.

Yumie called him "Babul" when she told me he was dead. His father gave him the nickname. I listened, exhaled and tried to commiserate. When I hung up I felt blank. There was nothing I could do. And so, out of necessity and routine, I went to work. It was an early Washington morning.

That routine — wake, work, eat, sleep — continued until Alex was born in October 2004. I'd thought of Mirza from time to time. But not enough, apparently.

One day at home with Alex I suddenly remembered my old friend. I saw him in his shorts and white tank top on a steamy Japanese July night, in his cramped apartment, with his wife and children. I heard "You've got to get married!" and "You've got to have kids!" I'd wanted those things, too. But now that I had them, I wanted him to know.

And because I couldn't call him, I put Alex gently down on the gray sofa, and cried. I'd pushed his senseless death away for too long.

"The world should stop," thinks Willie, the protagonist in V.S. Naipaul's novel "Half a Life," "but it goes on." The novelist is right. But while I don't expect an end to loss, I can at least gaze into my son's eyes and think silently, prayerfully, about my friend and about death and life. I miss him deeply, still.

So that's what I did when I finished my delayed mourning. I picked up Alex, and looked at him. And then I looked again.

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