Santa Clara University

Unfinished Message

Unfinished Message: Selected Writings of Toshio Mori, is a compilation of the work of short-story writer Toshio Mori, a native of Oakland. His work highlights the plight of immigrant Japanese in America prior to and during World War II, including the wartime evacuation of West Coast Japanese-Americans to the Central Utah Relocation Project. The book was published as part of the California Legacy Series, a partnership between Santa Clara University and Heyday Books. The following excerpt focuses on Mori’s younger brother, Kazuo, who was seriously injured while serving on the Italian front with the all-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

It was on a chilly May night in 1945 in the middle of Utah desert when my mother sharply called me. “I can’t sleep tonight,” she said. True, she had been fretting the past few nights, and I knew she was worried over her son at the Italian front.

I reassured her that everything would be all right. Hadn’t he, I reasoned with her, come through without a scratch with a full year’s service at the front, even with the 442nd Infantry Regiment?

Toshio Mori
Toshio and his mother, Yoshi, circa 1913-1914

“But I keep seeing Kazuo’s face tonight,” she said. “Each time I’m about to fall asleep his face keeps coming back.”

I tried to calm her fears as best as I could. Nevertheless, she did not sleep that night.

The next night and the night following she slept fitfully more or less. Beneath her outward calm, however, she was under an ordeal only a mother could understand. “No news is good news. He’s all right,” I assured her.

A few days later we received a wire from the War Department that Kazuo had been seriously wounded. The news almost killed her. In the full medical report following we learned that he had a fractured skull but was resting peacefully. What struck me as odd was the day my brother was wounded. It was on May 5, the very night my mother was unable to sleep.

When we received word again, it was more cheerful. Kazuo was coming back on the hospital ship destined for home, and we were to decide the hospital nearest our home. We were still living in Topaz, Utah Relocation Center at the time, and the nearest available army hospital was the Fitzsimmons in Colorado.

“Let’s have him transferred there so we can visit him as soon as he comes home,” I said to Mother.

My mother would have none of it. “Do you think this is our real home? Our home is back in San Leandro, California. We’ll be moving from here again, and Kazuo too will have to transfer. No, we’ll go back and Kazuo can go to a hospital in California.”

My mother couldn’t get out of the camp soon enough. She counted the days when the next train to California would take us back home. In the meantime we learned that Kazuo was being transferred to DeWitt Army Hospital in Auburn, California.

Mori Family

On our trip home, our train stopped for a few minutes at Auburn, and our first urge was to get off the train and visit Kazuo. My mother stared toward the Auburn interiors. “It must be only a few miles from here. Here we are, so close to him and yet so far.”

We heeded our good judgment and did not get off the train. “We must make ready our home. It must be in a mess. We must first go home and get busy cleaning the place. Our home must resemble our old home for Kazuo.”

It took us two weeks to clean the house and settle down. My mother had to apply to the United States Attorney’s office for a travel permit because she was an enemy alien and Japan and United States were still at war. Secure with a permit my mother accompanied me to Auburn. All the way on the bus to the hospital she nervously weighed the seriousness of Kazuo’s actual condition. Are his legs all intact, are his hands there? she wondered. Can he see, is he normal mentally? It wasn’t until she saw him in person did she feel relieved. He could see, his hands were useable, but his legs? Mother talked constantly on everything she could think of but his condition.

Before long, she became aware of his actual condition.

In order to relieve ourselves of the hot valley air caught inside of the ward, my brother suggested sitting on the screened porch. It was when the ward boy saw my brother moving on the bed that he came to help him to his wheelchair. The ward boy bodily lifted him on the chair, and Mother saw my brother’s spindly legs. He was unable to walk.

Afterwards, Mother asked me to inquire the doctor about Kazuo’s condition. Will he ever walk? The doctor I talked to was not too hopeful, but I did not tell Mother.

“He says there’s a fifty-fifty possibility that Kazuo will walk,” I said to Mother.

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Coming home, Mother said, “I’m worried over him. If I only could live long enough to see him fully recovered.”

After another operation on his head, my brother was transferred to Letterman Hospital in San Francisco, making possible weekly visits for Mother and I. Each time we saw him, she would take me aside and ask, “Do you think he’s much improved? Isn’t he better?”

That Christmas my brother got a two week furlough and came home for the first time since the war had started. I had to help him with his bath and toilet. My brother was confined to his wheelchair.

Time and again, Mother would ask me, “Will he ever walk again? I can’t tell him that I worry over him.”

Before my brother was released from the hospital, Mother died in her sleep on August 5, 1946. Although she complained of pains in the neck, we were totally unprepared for her death. Her doctor had previously diagnosed her symptoms as arthritis, but her death was sudden.

After her death our house became dark and silent. Even when my brother returned home for good in a wheelchair, the atmosphere was unchanged. We seemed to be companions in the dark. However, it changed one day.

As I sat quietly in the living room I heard a slight tapping on the window just above the divan where my mother had slept her last. When the taps repeated again, I went outside to check, knowing well that a stiff wind could move a branch of our lemon tree with a lemon or two tapping the wall of our house. There was no wind, no lemon near enough to reach the window. I was puzzled but did not confide in my brother when he joined me in the living room.

I had all but forgotten the incident when my brother and I were quietly sitting in the living room near the spot where our mother had passed away. For a while I was not conscious of the slight tapping on the window. When the repeated taps were loud enough to be heard clearly, I first looked at the window and then glanced at my brother. He too had heard the taps.

“Did you hear that?” I said.

My brother nodded. “Sure,” he said. “Did you hear it too? I heard it the other day but I thought it was strange.”

We looked at the window. There were no birds in sight, no lemons tapping. Then the taps repeated. After a few moments of silence I was about to comment when we heard the tapping again. This time I looked silently at my brother and on tiptoes approached the window. The tapping continued so I softly touched the windowpane.

The instant my fingers touched the glass, it stopped.

My brother and I looked at each other, silently aware that it must have been Mother calling our attention. At that instant I became conscious of the purpose of the mysterious taps. I couldn’t help but recall Mother’s words, “I can’t stop worrying over you, my son.”

The tappings stopped once and for all after that. We never heard it again after the message had reached us.

Reprinted with permission of Heyday Books. For more information on the California Legacy Series, see www.californialegacy.org.
 
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