Taki was 16 years old and had a newspaper delivery route in his small Japanese town. Like every morning for the last two years, he was riding his moped around with his load of papers strapped to his moped when, for a few seconds, his attention drifted and Taki tragically blasted headlong into a parked car.
Taki’s parents had given up on their son for all-but-dead when 6 months later he miraculously came out of his coma. Sadly, Taki had lost control over the right side of his body but his mind was not affected. It took him a year to learn to walk with a walker, and another year to get enough coordination to drop the walker. His gait was awkward, but he had won more independence.
Five years after that disaster, Takis showed up at my rural doorstep as a foreign exchange student – he was regaining more and more independence. Hand written on his application, Taki mentioned a “minor” physical handicap but I had overlooked that note, so was surprised to see a young man limp, with great effort, up to my door. “Minor” physical handicap? Well, that already told me a lot about Taki. And soon I learned that it was not with “great effort” that he walked, but he was used to his condition by the time I met him — it was his “normal” effort.
At that time I was a professor in a rural Pennsylvania university with two young children. I thought the exposure to foreign students would be good for my son in our ethnically homogeneous community (my daughter was too young). But I was naive, of course, both of my kids were too young to remember any of this (and thus this post). Instead, all this was to add color to my life — and it was immediately clear that it would not be Taki’s Japaneseness in rural Pennsylvania that would be enlightening, but his indomitable spirit.
I did my best to show Taki a good time in our little town: I took him out to pubs, local restaurants, college classes and kite flying. One night, I even introduced him to chewing tobacco. You see, Japanese don’t chew tobacco, and though I no longer chewed myself, Taki saw lots of folks chewing and had asked me about it. So I thought, “What the heck, this could be fun.” It was horrible, of course, and his head was spinning for about a half-hour and the nausea was not fun. But Taki was very happy and proud to have tasted Pennsylvanian tobacco chewing culture that day. As the Japanese say, “we had made a memory”.
But the real reason for this post is to share a different very special, touching experience I had with Taki that touched my heart.
One day Taki and I drove by a bowling alley in town and Taki shared with me that he use to be a bowler. In my 7 years in Japan, I had never run into Japanese person who bowled — I was fascinated, so I asked him more about his days of bowling in Japan. But Taki became tearful during our conversation. With no significant control over the right side of his body (his former dominant side), Takis had never bowled since his accident and our conversation reminded him of his huge loss. No matter how much his condition had become “normal” for Taki, he privately often sadly remembered the normal he desired. So I let the conversation end, to stop the tears, and soon we were talking about other things and laughing.
Two days later, however, I was thinking about what to do with Taki during his last week with us. And as is my nature, I decided to take a big chance: “Takis, I have an idea, tomorrow why don’t you join me and some of my students at the local bowling alley?” He was shocked and did not know what to say, but he finally decided to give it a try. He agreed to just go and watch.
We weren’t at the bowling alley for more than 20 minutes when he decided to participate. He rented some shoes and carefully picked out a ball. My graduate students, like me, were a bit nervous with him.
Sure enough, it was very awkward. Takis stumbled a bit down the alley, threw the ball with his left hand and we all watched each ball pathetically land in the gutter time after time.
However, in the end of our first game, in the very last frame, Takis threw a slow careful ball down the alley that made a perfect arc into the center pins and made a strike — all ten pins tumbled.
And then, to all our amazement, in the next two games, Taki slaughtered all of us with incredibly high scores. He had figured it out. Pins flew while he bowled only strikes and spares. Using his natural athletic mind and his strong spirit, he figured out a way around his handicap and reclaimed his former skills. It was amazing.
The beaming pride and happiness in Taki’s face as we congratulated him in his victories, will stay in my mind forever. Thank you Taki.