A foreign and awful noise jolted Dr. Hirochika Takada from sleep. Characteristically groggy after a long day of working in his personally owned health clinic on the outskirts of Osaka, he found himself instinctively reaching for the source of the noise. His right hand clasped a small and rectangular electronic device.
A cell phone? Takada had not seen one since he was a boy, but without hesitation and using muscle memory he did not know he had, he swiped the screen to silence the alarm, noticing in a fleeting moment that the message attached to the alert had been written in a language other than Japanese. Prone to over-stimulation and not wanting to begin his day in that brain state, he was more content with the renewal of quiet than he was concerned about what prompted the noise or about the fact that he was holding a cell phone, a machine long since rendered obsolete. Another sudden burst of auditory activity left little time to ponder the unusual circumstances.
Takada was greeted by his daughter, Kaisuka, but not with the radiant smile he so loved to see first thing in the morning. Instead, grim features covered his beautiful 7 year old’s face like a mask. She spoke in English. “Daddy, is it the Anoroc,” she asked. All he could understand was her listless tone because, like the words on his phone, her dialogue was not registering; had the cell phone’s alert also been in English? Her body language spoke volumes. Slumped shoulders. Disappointment. Eyes looking around him rather than at him. Resignation. Takada and his daughter, he assumed, had had a similar discussion before. He took a deep breath, hugged her tightly, and said in a perfect English that startled his ears, “It’s going to be OK, sweetie.”
He needed a minute. Surely this was a dream. He asked Kaisuka to leave the room, which he could see now that his eyes had adjusted to the morning light was not the room in which he had fallen asleep the night before. Yes, definitely a dream. Everything about this room was different. The processing of details so early in the morning had always flustered Takada, so he had learned through repetition not to try. Get up, go through your morning routine, have a cup of tea. He reasoned that he would probably wake up soon anyway.
Much of the weirdness washed away in the shower, so Takada made his way downstairs (downstairs?) with his usual morning sense of purpose. Nice house. As he walked into the kitchen, his wife, Aja, approached with a sympathetic smile. “Here we go again,” she said. “How do you think things are going to be at the clinic tomorrow?” And the weirdness was back. Confusion took a firm grip on his mind as he tried to process her words. He stood there looking at Aja for what seemed like minutes but was actually a few seconds. “I suppose we’ll see,” Takada replied, the perfect English again surprising him as he attempted to disguise the uncertainty of his response. She kissed him while his son, Kota, hugged his leg just above the knee. Kota was unbridled enthusiasm personified. He reached down and hugged him. “I love you, daddy,” Kota said in that heart-melting way that only he could. I understood what he said! This feels real; not like a dream.
His sharp memory for detail then recalled his wife’s comment and both she and their daughter’s questions. Anoroc. Again? Something different about the clinic? He ate breakfast lost in thought, took the vitamins that Aja had laid on the napkin next to the food, and gathered his things, aware certainly that it was not his typical morning meal and that the vitamins were unfamiliar, but at that point too busy being confused and overwhelmed to spend much energy on it. He needed his cup of tea, though, and a quick search for its location snapped him into focus. Sweet Iron Goddess of Mercy, his preferred oolong. Needed now more than ever. Where was it? “Aja, I’m feeling a little off this morning; where is the tea?”
Aja’s momentary consternation was replaced quickly with empathy, one of Takada’s most treasured of his wife’s traits and one he loved to be reminded about in dream states. “It is still on back order from the last shutdown,” she said. “Remember?” Takada nodded knowingly, hiding (perhaps not so well?) his continued struggle to discern whether he was dreaming, whether he had met up with his best friend, Minoru, and had too many drinks last night, or if he was plain losing his mind.
He then looked at the clock and instinctively asked Kaisuka, “You ready to go, sweetie? It’s time for school.” The three sets of eyes that turned on him immediately were hard not to notice; even the dogs (dogs?) seemed to be staring at him cross-eyed. “Babe, are you okay,” Aja asked. “You saw the alert right? Schools are closed.” Babe? Is that me?
With no room in his headspace left to process additional information so early in the day, Takada acknowledged his apparent foolishness, kissed his wife and kids (and dogs) and got in his car to leave under the guise of checking in at the clinic. Okay. Let’s just get out of here, find a place of serenity, and figure out what the hell is going on.
The drive was like that state of consciousness you reach when you can tell what you’re doing, but at the same time it’s as if you are floating next to yourself, watching your own actions. This town Takada was driving through was familiar enough that he was driving with a purpose toward a destination he clearly knew. It was not, however, his home. This is America. Oddly, there was nobody on the road, like driving through a movie scene. After parking at his clinic, he got out of his car and heard nothing but nature, peaceful and disturbing all at once. Takada walked downtown to a tea/coffee shop he had passed on his drive. People in store windows who he did not recognize but who clearly recognized him pointed fingers of shame in his direction, their scowls so loud that he need not hear the details of their scolds. He took a deep breath near the entrance of the tea shop. “Iron Goddess of Mercy, let your nectar of life infuse me with clarity,” he said quietly to himself (please have it available here).
He pulled at the door into the tea shop, but it was locked. Again, he pulled, and then even tried to push, but to no avail. The tea shop’s owner, a middle-aged woman wearing a surgical mask, who apparently had become attuned to the sound of her locked door rattling, came to the window in the door and told him in a both annoyed and matter-of-fact tone, “We’re closed.” Noting and then pointing to the shop hours on the window, he simply and kindly asked, “Why?” She rolled her eyes and walked away.
Takada sat down on the bench outside of the tea shop, then pinched himself increasingly harder three times, both hoping that he would wake up and just to see if he could feel pain (I cannot recall ever having felt physical pain in a dream). The instinctive rubbing of his leg that followed the pinching would have confirmed that the pain, at least, was real had his attention not been diverted to the police officer walking toward him. It was his friend, Minoru (who owns a restaurant in Osaka…), but he was wearing a gas mask with a clear face pane. “Tak, what are you doing, brother,” he asked. “You have to get inside. Where’s your mask?”
Gathering himself and taking another deep breath, he looked at his friend and said, “‘Ru, I need you to pretend I woke up from a coma this morning and you’re catching me up on the world I’ve come back to. What is going on? Why do I need to go inside and why did you ask me about a mask? Why are schools closed? Where is this place? And why can’t I seem to get my much-needed cup of tea?” Minoru smiled at first, but when Takada did not change his expression, the officer simply asked him, “Didn’t you check your phone?”
Pulling the device from his pocket, he unlocked the screen and saw the morning message still prominently featured. The alert on the phone read, “Code Yellow: Infectious Disease Warning. Lock down to commence in 12 hours. Make immediate preparations. God help us.”
“‘Ru…are you messing with me,” Takada asked. “Look, you as well as anyone know that I don’t like to be screwed around with like this, not on my birthday (it’s my birthday…) or any day. So, if this is some kind of elaborate charade you and Aja are playing, my head feels like it is about to explode and I would appreciate you just letting it end here and now.”
Minoru was taken aback. His eyes were wide and his mouth agape. It took a lot to render his friend speechless. He’s not messing with me. Minoru changed suddenly and became uncharacteristically stern when stating, “Dude…I don’t need you messing with me today. You know how crazy days like today are. I’m supposed to arrest anyone who fails to comply with the edict. If you’re outside, masks are required, and it better be for a reason other than trying to enter a shop that you damn well knew would be closed today. I have a lot to get done before the lockdown. So, get inside or put your mask on. Better yet, just go home. This isn’t the time for another one of your goofy speeches. I love you and respect what you do, but people are in danger and we need you to comply.”
Seeing his friend since grade school snap at him and leave signaled to Takada that it was time to get going (no answers coming from Minoru), so he walked (sulked?) back to his clinic, which was apparently closed today anyway.
The next few hours were a blur. Dream or not, though, these were the details of his reality, as discovered through the use of his cell phone: he woke up in or was dreaming about the year 2022; his family, clinic, and friends were in a small town in North Carolina and it seemed that the world had reverted back to a more primitive understanding of healthcare. Anoroc was the world’s fifth “global killer” in two years, a virus thought to spread like wildfire to an unsuspecting population. The lockdown was the government’s chosen response, hoping to prevent mass infection. So, this has all been a dream. Takada reasoned that he was in his bed in Osaka, reliving the events that his father had told him about – the events that had brought about what he knew to be the “Healthcare Revolution,” which drastically altered the way that the world thought about infectious disease.
Confident that he was dreaming indeed, he returned home. By then, he had reached a place in his mind where, now that he knew he was dreaming, he could enjoy seeing out the remainder of the events until he woke up. Cool, I’m an American living in a time of crisis to remind me how good we have it now…let’s see where this goes. Unfortunately, his wife’s greeting when he came inside snapped him out of his excitement. “Babe, it’s your dad,” she said solemnly. “He’s in the hospital. They think he has Anoroc and they are preparing extreme measures to save his life.” Takada often dreamed about seeing his dad again, but never like this. His father died a decade ago.
He usually loved dreaming about his dad, hanging out with him as if he was still alive. It put a smile on his face when he woke up. The news (in this dream) that his father was hospitalized, however, blurred the lines between dream and reality once more. “I’ve got to get over there and prevent them from using those measures; he doesn’t need them,” Takada said matter-of-factly.
“What do you mean he doesn’t need them,” his wife asked. “They’re his best chance to stay alive.”
The furrow in his brow was so pronounced that he felt like it might be cemented permanently. Straining to maintain his grasp on the situation, he replied, “Aja, don’t you remember from Health History class that those measures killed more people than they saved? Iatrogenic deaths from the treatment options of the early 21st century got so out of control that they completely flipped the focus of healthcare. Remember that quote from the American inventor that was on the wall at school? What was his name? Edison? ‘The doctor of the future will give no medicine, but will instruct his patients in the care of the human frame, in diet, and in the cause and prevention of disease’? I need to get my dad out of there! He just needs to let his body fight the virus! I can save him this time! Let’s go! I’m going!”
As Takada headed for the door, Aja moved swiftly toward him while demanding the kids go upstairs to their rooms. Blocking his way to the garage, she said, “Babe, I know this kind of thing bothers you, but you just have to let this go. I don’t know what you’re talking about right now. Take a breath. Let the doctors do their job and save your dad.” Incredulous, Takada fired back, “You know better than this, Aja! The germ theory of disease was definitively disproven for the last time before we were even born! You don’t know what’s going on? I don’t either! It’s like I’m stuck in a Tozawa film. If I can spend another second with my father, though, I’m going to try! Stay here, please. I need the drive to get my head right.” Aja pleaded, “You shouldn’t go anywhere in the frame of mind you’re in. The way you’re talking…are you okay? Please just stay.”
Before Aja could say another word, Takada had pushed past her and gotten in the car. I award this dream negative 1 star and can’t wait to wake up. He made his way to the hospital and struggled to keep calm as he fought his way through media trucks. Apparently, something was being filmed just inside the hospital, adding to his frustration since he could not get in the front entrance. Everyone stood there in surgical masks like it was…well, it was 2022…so like people did back then (or now…or whatever!). Nobody paid much attention to him at first and he could hear loud and clear the “state representative” while making his speech.
The most memorable part was this: “…so I’d like to remind all citizens to remain quarantined from 7PM tonight until this virus is contained. As in previous years, public safety is our number one priority, and for the good of your fellow man, you need to stay in your homes indefinitely as infectious disease experts handle this situation for us. Only necessary workers will be allowed outside of their homes until this crisis is averted. Stay calm if you are among the 85% of workers on the non-essential list; stimulus checks are the primary topic of legislation set for one week from today, and we hope to make electronic deposits within 8-10 weeks. The Anoroc vaccine is currently undergoing human testing and should be available in 12 weeks at the latest, and once completed will be ready for every citizen. After vaccines have been given, life can return to normal. The National Guard has been deployed to protect us from anyone who fails to comply with the governor’s edict; necessary force has been authorized. Please just be patient and stay home. It is in the best interest of all Americans.”
It’s amazing that anyone ever thought this was necessary or OK…
After the speech concluded, Takada tried to go into the hospital’s front entrance, but was forcibly blocked. “Sir, you need to leave immediately. No visitors are allowed in the…”
Takada cut off the lady when he spotted a familiar face and yelled, “Hey,” hopeful that she knew him like he seemed to know her. “Dr. Takada,” she said, walking swiftly toward them. “What are you doing here,” she asked. “My dad is here. He…has some unique things in his health history that he’s often not forthcoming about…and I’m his healthcare power of attorney,” he improvised. She nodded affirmatively. Thank goodness. “Ma’am, I’m the head nurse on the floor that Dr. Takada’s father is on,” his acquaintance said to the lady. “I’m going to take him up there and confirm a few things.”
She handed him a mask. “You’ll need this, of course.” He begrudgingly put it on.
When they reached the door of his dad’s room, Takada gasped. There he was. Tagomi Takada. It had been 12 years. Tears welling in his eyes, he said hello. His dad turned to him, smiled, and said, as he had ever since Hirochika had earned his doctorate, “DOCTOR Hirochika.” It sounded strange hearing that nickname in English, but he barely cared; hearing it at all was a dream come true.
After a few minutes of idle chatter that ended with his dad commenting on another cancelled American football season, Takada was consumed with motivation to get his father out of there. “Dad, we need to bring you home,” he said. Tagomi replied, “But I don’t want to get Aja and the kids sick.” Takada pressed. “You won’t. I promise. Trust me.” His nurse friend (name tag reading T. Austin) re-entered the room. “Excuse me, Dr. Takada, but what’s this about taking your dad home? He can’t leave; he has been confirmed as an Anoroc patient…”
“Who do I need to speak with to get him released to my care,” he asked. Dream or not, I want to spend as much time with my dad as I can. Nurse Austin was joined by a man in a hazmat suit, who she introduced as “Dr. Johnson, the medical center’s infectious disease expert.” The man spoke directly and rather condescendingly to Takada. “Mr. Takada, your father is scheduled to undergo mandatory treatment for his condition.”
Tagomi spoke up. “I told them I feel fine.” Takada’s father informed him of how he was at the grocery store preparing for the lockdown when, several minutes following a few sneezing episodes common to him during allergy season, he was escorted to an ambulance and taken to the hospital. Apparently, someone had called the authorities because he sneezed. This is ridiculous. Why does nobody else in this room find this ridiculous? “Pardon, but you’re saying my father needs mandatory treatment, you made him come here, and you called my wife to tell her that he was dying….because he sneezed,” he asked, trying to hide his own condescending tone.
“Yes, Mr. Takada, that is correct,” said Dr. Johnson. “The state has retained authority during this time of public health crisis to protect the citizens at large by admitting anyone with symptoms that could be related to Anoroc. It’s for your own…”
Takada interrupted, “Really, doctor? He sneezed. It’s allergy season. Besides, if your theory about this virus were true, nobody would be alive to refute it. Please release my father to me and I will handle his case personally. Does that sound acceptable?”
Dr. Johnson looked at Takada as if he had suggested he set the hospital on fire. “Absolutely out of the question,” he sneered. “It’s time for you to go, Mr. Takada.”
Frozen in that moment, Takada thought about when his dad died and how in the years that followed he had emotionally struggled with the idea that he had not advocated strongly enough on his father’s behalf; he had never been able to shake the thought that he could have done more to save his dad. In Takada’s world, his father had never even met his grandkids. It was then that Takada figured to have discovered that the point of this dream was for him to put to rest his lingering shame and advocate for his father’s health with uncanny zeal. After that, he would wake up, tell Aja about it, retell it to his emotional counselor, and move forward without regret.
With a burning fire in his belly, Takada unleashed 50 years of wisdom on them all. He drew quite a crowd during his impromptu lecture, which he had given hundreds of times before. Among the on-lookers was the state representative whose speech he had heard earlier. Takada explained that the philosophical errors which had led the United States to far outpace the rest of the world combined in pharmaceutical usage and consequent deaths from adverse reactions, at a rate higher than any other condition including heart disease and cancer, finally caught up with Americans in 2024. That was the year when the latest in a series of viral infections caused the country as it had been known to break; the economy was in shambles, the people sicker than ever and feeling hopeless. The president who took office that year, elected largely because of his healthcare platform, brought in experts from countries who had health systems that were thriving – the American system had for decades been considered the world laughing stock because it produced the worst results but cost the most. Takada’s uncle was part of the team from Japan.
During President Johnson’s two terms, healthcare in America was completely overhauled. The world came together to study health less from the viewpoint of what causes people to become sick and die and more through the lens of what causes people to remain alive. “Each person carries his/her own doctor inside and we are our best when we give the doctor inside a chance to work” became the primary motto of the Healthcare Revolution. The germ theory, the linchpin of the pharmaceutically-driven, disease-based model of healthcare, was eventually disproven unequivocally through several long-term, worldwide research projects confirming that germs preyed on unhealthy hosts. Rather than concentrate nearly all resources on creating chemical concoctions to rid an infected, unhealthy body of germs, funds were heavily reallocated to studying the various avenues through which people could optimize health; the statistics were staggering, as within twenty years rates for the most common causes of death (iatrogenic/pharmaceutical-related fatalities, heart disease, and cancer) plummeted.
Takada’s uncle’s research on the terrain theory, which states that healthy bodies are well-equipped to prevent disease, had already been making huge strides for Japanese healthcare. It became one of the foundational pieces of the Revolution. By 2030, American use of pharmaceuticals had dropped by 50%. There was no more reliance on the germ theory to perpetuate the fear of disease, and thus no more need to lockdown the country whenever a new virus was discovered. Healthcare research, within a decade, had completely shifted its focus to prevention, with Health taught in schools alongside language and mathematics. Takada continued his Health History lesson for several more minutes.
By the time that Takada had earned his doctorate in health sciences, the world economy was booming like never before, with coordinated efforts to reduce the pollution that the 20th century had created and that the early 21st century had perpetuated. In Health History classes, it was written in wonderment how much the fall of the pharmaceutical industry as it had been known seemed connected to the return to prominence of America’s worldwide reputation. Mass shootings plummeted. Political turmoil calmed considerably. The ideals of the western world had long been shaped by America, and the western world followed America’s lead when it broke free from the shackles of its dilapidated healthcare system, which was not just causing an inordinate amount of deaths from the methods professed to save lives, but also causing generally poor health, malaise, and weakness. The food, the water, the medications, the cleaning products, etc…it was collectively the by-product of a strange fascination with trying to treat the human body as a petri-dish for science experiments; and it colossally failed.
“My uncle had so much respect for President Johnson,” Takada told them in closing. “He used to tell us that many people referred to President Johnson as the second coming of the Messiah because the cultural shift that he initiated was of Biblical proportions. He changed the world truly. By 2070, few of the problems that you concern yourselves with now even exist. So, again, I’m taking my father out of this facility. Infectious disease doesn’t spread the way you’re claiming, my dad’s body may have tested positive for Anoroc, but it is quite clearly self-containing it and he is not a threat to spread it unless you drop him in a room full of already ill people and have him sneeze directly into their faces. Dad, gather your things.”
Moments later, Takada’s world became fuzzy. He felt a sharp pinch in his neck and everything went dark. His last image before losing consciousness had been of his dad, hand outstretched toward his. He longed to reach out and grab it, but he had been subdued.
Well, I advocated for my dad. Now, it’s time to wake up from this roller-coaster of a dream and get back to the real world. I’m thankful that I got the chance to see what it must have been like for people who could see the ridiculousness in the approach to disease back in those days, but having not grown up in that world, I don’t know if I would’ve had the strength to endure the insanity. How could anyone in their right mind believe something so illogical? It’s terrifying. The January 2070 World Health Journal stated that the number of viruses we encounter daily is 1.23 million. To convince the world that one virus was stronger than the human body designed to fight off millions per week? Uncle once told me that western medicine in the early 21st century was the dominant religion of the culture; so few questioned its teachings, even though its failures were consistently epic across a half century. Not even childhood illness skyrocketing at alarming rates was enough to jar people out of their faith in a false prophet; instead they eventually accepted required doses of nearly 100 chemical concoctions in just the first few years of life. To live in that world? Oh my. To have my children grow up in that world? Unimaginable until now. Thankfully, we live in a wiser time in human history.
Takada awoke feeling cold and groggy. Light filled his room and he heard the sound of Aja’s voice. Thank goodness. His eyes tried to adjust to the brightness. He began to roll over, but something prevented his movement. “It’s going to be okay, babe,” Aja said. “Just let them help you. You’ve got Aronoc too.” His attempt to reply was muted somehow; he couldn’t speak. He struggled to move his arms and legs; they were each shackled to a hospital bed. Dr. Johnson came into focus above him.
“Mr. Takada,” he said, “This will only take a moment. I assume you consent to the mandatory Anoroc treatment. It’s for your own good.”
(This short story was written as part of my on-going trek through Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing. He advised in the introduction to just go write something and do it with zeal)