THE HEART OF A GOOD GIRL / Nodoka Kunikata

“You’re going to feel drowsy and tipsy. Tell us immediately if you feel any pain or nausea.”

As soon as I heard these words, I started to feel dizzy and nauseous. I felt like I was on a small old boat navigating turbulent water, although my body was safely laid on an operating table. I tried to report that to a nurse but soon realized that I could neither utter any sound nor breathe. I instantly discerned I would die before having surgery.

This was my second time being hospitalized. The first time was with my twin sister. Both of us were low-birth-weight babies and they kept us in an infant incubator in the NICU for more than a month. So, I have no memory of it, of course. In a sense, that time was the first conscious experience of hospitalization.

I had the last supper the previous day, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to eat anything for a while. My mom grilled me special meat for dinner, and my sister urged me to eat hers, which appeared quite strange for my foodie sister. I also ate my favorite chocolate ice-cream for dessert. I went to bed with my stomach happily stuffed. Since all my interests are devoted to eating and sleeping, I was in seventh heaven, not knowing I would be the complete opposite the following day.

With grave anxiety and a little excitement, I was on a bus alone, bound for a hospital where I would stay for a long time. As soon as I arrived at the hospital, I got tested for the COVID-19. It caused me great pain that lasted for no more than a day. I was unsure if I would test negative since I frequently took crowded trains to commute to my workplace at Shinagawa and had to deal with countless customers, sometimes without a mask. Although there were plastic plates on a checkout counter to prevent droplet infection, my 5-feet-body couldn’t reach up to the panel’s lowest part even. I was super nervous and busy imagining what would happen if I tested positive. Time passed slowly until the result was announced.

“Kunikata-san! Kunikata-san, are you there?”

A nurse’s irritated call brought me back to the present. Although I waited for no less than 20 minutes, I felt as if I spent a whole night waiting for the result. Both the nurse and I took a seat, and she browsed some sheets of paper in a bright blue file folder that contained the test results. Her grumpy face turned cloudy as she frowned and took a close look at those papers.

“You tested negative,” she bluntly told me.

Another nurse appeared out of nowhere and took me to a sickroom on the 3rd floor. I somehow was assigned to the pediatric ward although I was 19, which I later found quite problematic. All I heard from the bed next to a window were babies cracking up. When one stops their hysterical cry, another starts to have a tantrum, and that endless sequence never stopped bugging me throughout my entire hospitalization. At night, the annoying chorus performed a decrescendo that allowed me a temporary sleep. To my sorrow, the chorus accompanied a percussion from my left arm with a tube for an intravenous drip. As long as the medicine dripped constantly, it kept the rhythm with a B flat sound. However, when the drip was running out, it abruptly performed a crescendo and never stopped unless the medicine was replenished.

Birds tweeting told me it was Wednesday, the day for the operation. With the announcement of breakfast, the ward suddenly became busy with people carrying meals and the irresistible smell that made me realize that the feast last night completely vanished from my stomach. I quickly glared at a yellow paper, saying, “This patient is NOT allowed to eat today.” Time passed slowly until the curtain opened. I was finally called for my long-awaited operation.

As soon as I arrived, they placed me on an operating table, and several female doctors quickly introduced themselves to me. I was asked to say my name and birthday out loud for the prevention of medical error. I did not remember how many times I told my name since the day before when the nurses exchanged or replenished my IV bags after I came back to the pediatric ward from a medical examination for the upcoming surgery.

Then I heard these last words before drowning in the deep, dark water.

“You’re going to feel drowsy and tipsy. Tell us immediately if you feel any pain or nausea.”

I could see everything from my feet to the silver medical apparatus. I could smell disinfectant, and I could hear the nurse and the doctor. But somehow, I could not breathe. As I struggled and strived to breathe, I realized my transient destiny. All the light went out of my eyes, and I suddenly heard people sobbing.

With the choking smoke of numerous incense sticks, I was in a black suit, surrounded by a solemn but familiar atmosphere. I was quite used to someone’s death. When I was 10, my two grandfathers passed away in the hospital peacefully. That was my first encounter with death. At the first funeral I ever attended, my mom asked me to cry, although I did not have enough memory for the deceased who lived far away from Yokohama, and I could not feel sad and cry. Since everyone at the funeral was crying, I blended into the atmosphere by pretending to cry. When I was 14, my favorite English teacher suddenly died of cancer. I’ve lost all my incentive to study English then, but I did not cry at her funeral since no one there was crying. Within the same year, one of my classmates never showed up to our class. This time, I pretended to cry again since my friends and other students of the same grade, summoned into a school assembly hall, were crying.

Since then, my biggest strength was fitting in atmospheres perfectly without standing out because I knew that is the best thing all the time. It’s always better to follow others’ advice without resisting them so that I do not offend them. It’s always better to take a neutral position to avoid quarrels. It’s better to ignore friends’ bad-mouthing to live peacefully. Instead, I did not trust anyone in my school since I knew they would betray me someday. I’d never enjoyed my school life. Being a “good” girl was stressful enough to feed an evil monster in my heart.

At my first annual checkup at school when I was 13, I was supposed to finish it in a second as all the other girls in my row did. Since all I could boast of is being healthy enough that I’d never gotten the flu nor broken my bones, I had no doubt I would successfully pass the checkup. Contrary to my expectation, I was stopped by a doctor claiming that he heard a strange noise from my heart, and he finally handed me a paper with an unfamiliar name on it, a cardiac tumor.

“You need to see a doctor for a detailed examination in a university hospital near here. You may have a serious problem, and you might need to have surgery as soon as possible.”

Despite this advice, I did not see a doctor because I had a lot of confidence in my health, and I was not afraid of dying and sometimes rather wished to die than continue to be a “good” girl.

On a hot day, I was playing tennis as usual. I was a tennis club member, and I reckon I was the best player in my club because I always was chosen as one of the players for every match and was appointed as a captain. I did not like tennis, though, because it’s all about competition, which contradicts my “blend-in” policy. But it was also true that I needed to practice hard to meet others’ expectations and be a “good” girl.

I swung my racket without knowing this would be the very last swing in my entire tennis career. All of a sudden, I found myself lying on a court. Some of my teammates were anxiously and hysterically shouting my name from above. Then I realized I had collapsed. I felt something had crashed my heart. I regretted having not followed the advice of the doctor I received more than five years ago.

The next thing I saw was a white world. I was in the hospital. Several male doctors soon visited me and told me that I had a serious issue with my heart, a cardiac tumor, that I needed to undergo surgery within a week, or otherwise I’d be killed by my heart. He continued in a bland tone that “Approximately 90% of cardiac tumors are benign, but mine is the other 10%, a malignant one. Also, one in four people who have a malignant cardiac tumor dies abruptly.” That day, I somehow succeeded in persuading the doctors to let me go home to mentally prepare for an operation, and I was released. On my way home, I realized I’d lost the only strength I had. I had no hope in my future.

As soon as I got home, I retreated to my room. I wasn’t afraid of dying but somewhat afraid of betraying others’ expectations of being a “good” girl by having lost my only strength. Then I started to prepare for my death. I booked a photo studio for pictures to use at my funeral, wrote letters to each of my family members, and finally cleaned up my room so that the bereaved family has no trouble deciding what to be discarded. Then I found a little diary which said: “Nodoka-chan’s diary! Confined!” Inside was all about myself when I was about 5. It seemed 5-year-old Nodoka-chan enjoyed being who she was, without caring about reputations and pretending to be a “good” girl. I felt something warm on my cheeks. I regretted having ruined my life, but at the same time, was conscious that there was not enough time left. I knew that the pain in my heart, the countdown to my death, was getting stronger.

“I don’t wanna die yet! I want to live!” I wailed with regret.

BUMB BUMB BUMB BUMB BUMB

Suddenly I heard a faint but steady and strong sound that I hadn’t heard since I drowned. “Kunikata-san! Can you hear me? The operation was a huge success!”

I realized I could breathe. A mixture of relief, delight turned into a warm liquid in my eyes with the chorus in the noisiest tone.

‘No way. Babies crying again? Give me a break,’ I thought.

“Hi, Nodoka-chan! It’s your mommy,” in a whisper. I saw my mom wearing an oxygen mask, connected with several tubes, and a dark-red sleeping infant, my twin sister.

It took me a second to figure out that the chorus came from me.

I was reborn as baby Nodoka-chan, as I wished.

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