Dying Love

Kazuko is dying. Pancreatic cancer will kill her in the next month. Twenty-nine years ago, she fell in love with a man named Katzuya. He fell in love too. He brought her to America, where he became a promoter of Japanese art. They never married.

In the early 1900s, a group of black Lutherans from the Danish West Indies (now the U.S. Virgin Islands) immigrated to Harlem and started a church. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the church was a haven for new immigrants. Today, their church is dying. The church council is considering selling or tearing down their historic building on 126th Street. They fired the last pastor after six months and have not found a replacement. They can only afford to pay a part-time salary. In addition to leading the worship on Sundays, pastors ritualize births and deaths. They do hospital visits. Sickness, life and death can’t wait. The church decided to hire a coverage pastor to deal with life and death. Pastor Dan took the position. 

Paul grew up in Harlem. His father was pastor of the Lutheran church. He would go meet immigrants at the docks and make sure they had food, shelter, and a community in America. Now, Paul is Vice President of the church council. He is tall and thin with a Barry White voice. Kazuko’s best friend from childhood married Paul, and they have all been close ever since. Paul called the Dan on a Wednesday.

“My friend Kazuko’s dying wish is to marry her partner. Are you free this Friday?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Great, I will pick you up at eleven.”

Paul drove the pastor from Harlem to Kazuko’s apartment in Weehawken. On the drive, Paul reminisced about his childhood, recounted bits of the church’s history and told stories of traveling to New Orleans to play bass for Dizzy Gillespie when Harlem Jazz was king. Paul appeared on five of Dizzy’s albums.

Paul and Dan arrived at Kazuko and Katzuya’s apartment. They took off their shoes at the door and put on white hotel slippers. The apartment was cluttered with piles of paper and Japanese art. The hospital bed took up most of the living room. Kazuko is a slight woman with charcoal hair. Propped at a 45 degree angle, she lay on top of the sheets in a white linen pantsuit. Her feet were bare. Paul’s wife, who had arrived earlier, applied some make-up and fixed Kazuko’s hair for the wedding. In her own haze of pain, floating between the living and the dead, Kazuko stared out the picture window at the Manhattan sky line across the Hudson River.

“Kazuko, how are you feeling?” Paul asked.

“Okay,” she whispered.

Katzuya arrived with turkey and ham sandwiches. He went upstairs and reappeared wearing a black suit, white shirt and cream tie. The tie hung well past his belt. In his late 60s, Katzuya is short and stout with gray wisps of hair on his balding head. He took a chair, moved it next to the bed, sat, and reached for Kazuko’s hand. There was talk of moving the ceremony to the balcony. They decided to stay inside, so Kazuko did not have to be moved. A young Japanese man in the corner waited with a video camera. A nurse arranged the sandwiches in the kitchen.

The wedding ceremony was brief.

There was an opening prayer. In his message, Pastor Dan talked about river teeth. When a log travels down the river, the places where branches have fallen off become denser and sharper against the flowing water. The log, he explained, is like Katzuya and Kazuko’s twenty-nine years together. They created memories in their shared life journey. Some are mundane. Others are extraordinarily vivid and dense. The latter stick out like teeth. The wedding ceremony will be a river tooth for them both. A public declaration of their love.

Dan read the vows one sentence at a time and asked the couple, one by one, to repeat after him. Maybe because of her pain, maybe because of the language barrier, Kazuko would say the first two or three words and then smile. At points, instead of repeating, she simply said, “Yes.” The pastor proceeded. The couple exchanged rings. There was a closing prayer and a blessing. Katzuya and Kazuko remained stoic, looking at each other with worn-in courage and affection. There were no tears or cheering, no cake or flowers. It was not especially beautiful or comfortable or emotional. But there was something in the discomfort, the functionality of the ritual, that carried a beauty of its own.

After the ceremony, they ate turkey and ham sandwiches. Then Paul took the pastor home.