Dr. Dugdale tells us that this image depicts Mrs. Ito and evokes the Japanese danchi where she lived and where she feared “being discovered dead and alone” (page 51). In the top frame, her paper screen window is wide open, revealing the living Mrs. Ito seated on a chair and engaged with an open laptop computer. In the bottom frame, the paper screen is mostly shut. It appears to me that the space with vertical lines might be blinds that are almost completely raised in the top frame and mostly lowered in the bottom frame. Those lines might also depict the darkness of the room in the bottom frame. The darker part of what is seen of Mrs. Ito’s room in the bottom frame looks to be Mrs. Ito reclined in the same chair in which she sits erect in the top frame. The text between the two frames, Dr. Dugdale explains, “is the Japanese for ‘lonely death'” (page 224).
It seems to me that the status of Mrs. Ito in the bottom frame of this image is ambiguous. In the text of Chapter Three, Dr. Dugdale states, “Mrs. Ito is so afraid being discovered dead and alone that she has asked a neighbor who lives in the building opposite hers to check her window daily. If Fr. Ito fails to open her paper screen one morning, it means that she has died” (page 51). In the bottom frame of this image, the paper screen is partially open. The viewpoint of both frames in this image is presumably that of Mrs. Ito’s neighbor. How is that neighbor supposed to interpret the scene depicted in the bottom frame? Did Mrs. Ito, who is seen alive in the top frame, fall asleep in her chair after partially closing her paper screen? Did she then die in her sleep, which would explain the paper screen remaining partially closed? Or did she wake up and partially open the paper screen before reclining in her chair?
I am probably among a small number of people who frequently experience this kind of ambiguity. I regularly receive messages from hospitals asking me to come to a patient’s death bed. Those messages usually include some information about the status of the patient: the patient might be in the process of dying; his or her death might be expected sooner or later; or he or she might have died already. When I arrive on the scene, I usually have some expectation of what the situation is. Usually the situation is what I expect it to be. Sometimes it is not. Sometimes I’m not sure. The patient may have died between the time I was called and when I arrived on the scene. The information I receive may have been wrong. It is fairly frequent that I come expecting to see a living patient who appears to have died. It is less frequent, but has sometimes happened, that I have come expecting to see a dead body that turns out to be alive. Sometimes it is hard to tell. I don’t want to ask the patient’s family whether he or she is dead or alive. Still less do I want to proceed as though the patient is alive only to discover that he or she is dead or vice versa. So I try to look for indications. Are there tubes or monitors attached to the patient that might give signs of life? Is the body warm? Are there any signs of breathing? Sometimes it is hard to determine. More than once, I have begun the Prayers for the Dead rite before seeing a sign that the patient is still alive. In those cases, I think I was able to transition to the rites for the dying without anyone else having noticed. I don’t remember making any egregious or embarrassing mistakes of this kind but It’s possible that my mistakes have been noticed and people have been too polite to point them out.
What can we make of that kind of ambiguity? We think of death as happening in a distinct moment in time. And I think that it does. But it can be hard to identify that moment, even to determine whether it has happened or not. This difficulty raises ethical questions about the diagnosis of death, especially as that pertains to organ donation. (Here is an article I wrote about that if you are interested.) How else might this ambiguity about death affect the living? In the case of Mrs. Ito depicted here, it seems like an irony. She intended the opening and closing of her paper screen to be a clear message about her death. But the paper screen is partially open and so the message is not clear. The multiple resuscitations of Mr. Turner that Dr. Dugdale describes in Chapter One of this book are similarly confusing. Did he really die three times? Is death not a once and for all event (excepting extraordinary resurrection miracles)?
What else can we glean from this duplex image? What might it have to say about community, which is after all the subject of Chapter Three?
I look forward to reading some of your thoughts about this.
Here’s an image that Blanch sent me that is interestingly similar to and different from the above image that is associated with Chapter 3: