The Liver Nephew

Susan Ito

Parker Katami had just come back from a four-mile run when he opened his mail—a photocopied article from the New England Journal of Medicine tucked into an envelope. He pulled it out with hot, damp hands. There were a few lines, in his uncle’s trembling, miniscule print, scribbled in the margin. Dear Nephew, it said, I must ask you for a rather large favor. The article was about a groundbreaking medical procedure called Living Donor Transplant. The favor, it turned out, was for Parker to donate half of his liver to Uncle Min.

Parker leaned against his front door for several minutes, panting and staring at the brass mail slot through which the envelope had been spat. Thin rivulets of sweat streaked down his neck and forked around his clavicle like transparent veins. He put his hand to his stomach, and then around toward his ribs, patting the skin. He wasn’t even quite sure where his liver was located. 

Contact with his uncle had been infrequent recently—not much beyond the chipper, generic holiday cards that his Auntie Reiko sent out every year, signed with both their names—but Parker’s childhood memories of Uncle Min were tinged with comfort. Parker seemed to remember some mention of Uncle’s being ill, but this was to be expected with people of their age, wasn’t it? His own parents were both dead, his father of a brain tumor some years ago, his mother from emphysema. Did his uncle really expect to trick Nature, and gain new life from having a younger person’s liver? It sounded hopeful and naïve, like cryogenics. Parker squinted at the medical article again, clotted with words he didn’t understand, and then tossed it onto the coffee table.

He didn’t like the idea of going to a hospital, much less letting them open up his body and take something out. He had seen enough of hospitals with his parents: his father’s wrists tied to the metal bedrails with cotton gauze rope, his mother straining to pull in air through bluish lips.  

He went into the kitchen and snapped the metal ring from a can of ginger ale, took a long noisy gulp. After rummaging through a junk drawer for a ballpoint pen, he studied the article and then slapped it face down on the table. Uncle M, he printed on the back of the page, wish I could help but I can’t. Sorry. As he contemplated whether or not to write “Love,” before signing his name, the phone rang.


“Paka-chan!” The high, breathy voice of Auntie Reiko, who always sounded on the edge of hysterical giggles.

“Hi, Auntie.” He scribbled a little star shape on the paper, and then wrote Love, Parker.

“Parker, tell me, did you get Uncle’s letter? It should be there by now.” A rumbling voice in the background, Uncle Min saying something. Muffle muffle, and then a hard click as her wedding ring hit the receiver.

“Auntie? Yeah, it came today.” 

“Oh, Parker…” Her voice rose even higher, tightening and shrinking, until it squeezed into the corner between the ceiling and walls. “Your uncle is so sick, he’s suffering so, kawai soh, poor thing.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize.” He chewed a bit of skin away from his thumbnail, and closed his eyes. Uncle suffering? He didn’t want to know.

She sniffled loudly. “So you’ll help him, neh? Your papa’s o toto?”

“What about Patty and George, Auntie?” His cousins.

“Oh, Parker, they couldn’t. So you the last hope. Doctor says he can’t last long like this, maybe two months. Parker-chan, please!” Her voice was broken and wet.

“Auntie, I don’t know, my job…” Perhaps this was something they could understand, his career. He had recently been promoted to editor of a slick but faltering Denver-area magazine, targeted toward urban athletes.

She was now weeping uncontrollably.

Parker’s blood thumped so loudly in his ears that he could barely hear her voice. Uncle Min was talking in the background beyond her sobs, and he sounded just like Parker’s father, the way Parker remembered his voice from long ago.  He looked out the window, at a woman on the sidewalk in a red raincoat. A black dog was pulling away from her, nosing at a paper cup in the gutter. “Let me talk to him,” he said.


He paced in his apartment for two days before he gave way to his desperate confusion and dialed Joel’s number. They had agreed there would be no phone calls, but this constituted an emergency, didn’t it?

Joel picked up on the first ring. There was jazz playing in the background, and more than one person talking.

“Joel. It’s me.”

There was a pause, and then, “Hey. Hey, what’s up?” A strained kind of casual.

“Listen, Joel, sorry to call so late, but something really freaky is happening and…”

“Wait a sec, let me go in the other room.” The sound of a door closing, and the music abruptly stopped. “What? You’re not sick, are you?”

“No, it isn’t me. It’s my uncle.”

“Your uncle? What uncle?” Parker realized that he’d never mentioned his remaining family to Joel, nor Joel to them.

“My dad’s brother. Min. Well, he’s got some medical problem, something serious, and they’re asking me to donate my liver.”

“What? You mean if you get in a car wreck?”

“No, Joel, that’s the thing. They want me to donate half of it, now. They call it a living transplant.”

Parker heard water running, and the squeaky sound of the medicine cabinet door. He hadn’t been in Joel’s apartment in a month, and suddenly he was sick with longing. “Joel? You still there?”

“Wait. He wants half of your liver?” Parker gripped the phone hopefully. Maybe Joel was understanding how important this was, how impossible it was to make this decision alone.

“Yeah. It’s this new thing, this experimental…” Parker was rushing his words into the phone.

“And what are you supposed to do with just half a liver?” 

“Supposedly it grows back.” It sounded insane now, telling it to Joel.

“Huh. That’s… interesting.” The sound of running water.

“So what do you think? Do you think I should do it?” Parker ached to say, Please come with me, but he couldn’t.

“I don’t know what to tell you, Park. Listen, man…” The bathroom door swung open, and the receiver filled with partying sounds again. “Hey, it’s your decision.”

“But I’m asking you. Do you think you could come over? Maybe later?”

“I’m sorry, Park. I’ve got people here.” The voices and the music began mixing with Joel’s voice, growing louder—he was probably walking into the kitchen now—and Parker knew that his five minutes of privacy was up, that he was being firmly led to the door.

“Yeah, I know,” he said in a low voice, and hung up.


And so Parker didn’t say no, but he didn’t say yes. He had conversations with his uncle’s physicians, both the primary-care doctor and the hotshot guy in charge of the transplant team, who spoke rapidly and repeated himself, a verbal twitching. The only clear thing that Parker recalled from the conversation was the number two: two percent mortality rate among living donors. He repeated that to the doctor to make sure he understood. “Mortality rate: that means dead, right?”

“Right, right.”

“And you don’t think I’m too… old for this? I’m thirty-eight, almost.” His birthday less than a month away.

“No, not at all. It’s a good age, a good, good age.”

Parker thought of a morning when he was seven or eight, bouncing on the edge of his father’s bed. It’s my birthday, Papa. Say Happy Birthday. He bounced and chanted until his father rose up from his pillow and smacked him above the ear. Here’s something for your birthday!

There was one present he remembered vividly: a kite that Uncle Min had brought him for his birthday, a tiger on red silk. Uncle had taken him and Patty and George to a park in Berkeley, a lonely place that was empty of trees, just grassy hills with a wind that tore at their clothes and set the tiger pouncing against the sky.


He agreed to the blood test, and when it came up a match, he packed his suitcase. A thick envelope arrived in the mail from his aunt and uncle, containing a first-class airplane ticket to San Francisco. He had never flown first class in his life. I’m the fatted calf, he thought, being led to slaughter. He notified his publisher that he’d be out of town, saying that the associate editor would handle things while he was gone. He wrote a note to Joel and left it prominently on the coffee table, in case Joel should happen to stop by. He still had Parker’s key. 

He boarded the airplane ahead of everyone else, along with the wealthy, the infirm, and the parents traveling with small children. When the flight attendant led him to the wide leather seat, his eyes darted about momentarily, as if he was going to be thrown out. Parker sat down gingerly. How inexpressibly more comfortable the first-class seat was, how delicious the food, how reassuring the heavy thick silverware, the actual china plates. They brought him ice water in a glass goblet, and a steaming towel to press against his face. He tried not to think of the Last Supper.


Uncle Min opened the front door as soon as the taxi pulled up to the curb. “Take a cab, not the shuttle van,” they had told him. The house, outer Sunset district, was the same as he remembered—pale pink, unremarkable in the rows and rows of minty little houses all lined up together. Parker remembered wishing, when he was small, that he could lick them, thinking they would taste like the candies next to the cash register at the Ocean Diner.

Uncle Min was wearing his bathrobe and slippers, even though it was four in the afternoon. His skin was a frightening amber color, and his eyes golden, like a cat’s. They glossed over with tears as he took Parker’s hands in both of his. Auntie Reiko was right behind him, shaking her head with emotion, her hand covering her mouth. Parker reached past his uncle to embrace her, her dyed-black hair smelling like onions and Pond’s lotion.

“Dinner ready soon,” she said. “You go, go, lie down and rest. Bring your suitcase to George’s room. And wash your hands, those planes are so kitanai.”

“I don’t need to rest, Auntie,” Parker said. “It wasn’t that long a flight.” He carried his bag up the half-flight of steps to his cousin’s room. The room had been preserved as a kind of shrine to George’s boyhood: posters of punk bands, the electric bass on its stand, the rows and rows of sci-fi novels on the shelf. Nothing had been tampered with since George, the prized son, had graduated from high school. Parker’s own childhood home didn’t even exist anymore; the year he’d gone to college, his parents had moved into a small townhouse in another state. 

When Parker returned to the living room, Uncle Min shuffled past him and collapsed in the red easy chair in the living room. It had dishtowels on either arm to cover up the bald spots. “Come on, sit down then. You want a beer? Reiko, get him a beer.”

Parker sat on the piano bench, half covered in unopened mail and catalogs. The television was tuned to a tennis match. A gray band of dialogue scrolled up the screen. AND IT’S LOVE NOTHING. 

“How come the volume’s off?” Parker asked.

“Ah, those announcers, their voices give me a headache.” Uncle Min waved his hand disgustedly at the screen. The stereo was on, a scratchy LP of “Man of La Mancha.” Parker and Uncle Min sat and watched the yellow ball silently plunking back and forth. To dream the impossible dream. By the time Aunt Reiko brought a tray with a bottle of beer and a bowl of rice crackers, Uncle Min was slumped in the chair, snoring. 

Parker watched the soundless game until his eyes came to rest on the lacquer box on top of the television set: his uncle’s Go game. He lifted it down, and a rush of remembered anticipation filled his throat as he opened it: the same smooth black and white pebbles he’d played with when he was small, their cool weight, the clicking sound they made in his palm. He laid them out on the wooden board, rows of ten. Parker had never actually learned how to play; he just loved making patterns of the smooth stone on wood. He counted out ninety-eight of the blacks. They nearly filled the board, solid, dark. Then he plucked two white from the box and considered their small stark forms against the black field. That was two percent.

“Parker! Baby cousin!” His cousin Patty arrived just as the tennis match was finishing. Her Minnie Mouse voice was a younger version of her mother’s. She was only a year and a half older than he, and it annoyed him that she still called him Baby. 

Parker awkwardly draped his arm around her. “Hi, Patty.”

“Look at you!” She squeezed his upper arm. “You’re in such good shape, Parker. Are you still running?”

Patty was twenty pounds heavier than he remembered, and her bangs and round black haircut made her cheeks even plumper. He wondered if she remembered kissing him under the ping-pong table one teenaged Thanksgiving, her mouth tasting like cherry lifesavers, his hands clutching the black rope of her hair. It was so long it had brushed the floor. She was the only girl he had ever kissed.

Brad, Patty’s hakujin husband, gave him a high-five. “How you doing, man.” Brad was the kind of guy who bounced on the balls of his feet, who wore athletic shoes all the time, and who would want to play touch football on the lawn after dinner. Their two-year-old hapa kid wouldn’t look at him when Brad held him up. “Say hello to Uncle Parker.”

“I’m not his uncle,” said Parker; he didn’t like joining Brad in false joviality. “We’re first cousins once-removed.” He reached out to tickle the boy under the chin, but it turned into more of a poke. The boy treaded air and started to cry.

Aunt Reiko came into the living room and held up her hands, red and chapped, as if she had just finished building a snowman without mittens on. Parker wondered if she had the kind of illness that makes a person scrub their hands every five minutes.

Itadakimasu,” she called out cheerily. “Please come eat. Everyone wash hands first.”

“What about George?” Parker said.

Everyone’s face suddenly fell flat, and Parker looked out the window. A teenager from the pale yellow house across the street was hauling a black trash bag down the steps. The last thing he’d remembered hearing about George was that he had started up his own computer-graphics business. Maybe it had gone bust.

“George has important things to do.” Patty’s voice was sharp and she had a tight, odd smile on her face. “Maybe he’ll grace us with his presence, and maybe not.”

Parker saw Auntie Reiko trying to exchange a look with Uncle Min, but his uncle wouldn’t look up from the tablecloth. “Itadakimasu,” he said firmly, and everyone took their seats and responded in dutiful chorus, even Brad, “Dozo.”

There was sukiyaki in an electric skillet, the orange extension cord snaking across the dining room table, just as Parker remembered from Sunday dinners after church. Auntie Reiko leaned over the pan, poking at the meat and the clear glossy noodles with extra-long chopsticks. Parker remembered a plastic plate with a duck on it that they had kept in the cabinet just for him. The blue hinged kiddie-chopsticks. He tried to remember how many years it had been since they had all sat around the table like this, his mother and father, aunt and uncle and cousins, lifting the curled meat out of the communal skillet, while the windows around them grew moist with steam. 


Uncle Min’s nose was the same shape as his own father’s, a soft, short beak. They had the same wedge-shaped eyebrows too. Parker thought about the final months of his father’s life: a chaotic seesawing between raging incoherence and disturbing, childlike affections. Parker never knew when his father might hurl his dinner to the floor or when he would hold out his jittering hand and whine, “Kiss.”

His father had never kissed Parker before, not in his living memory. He had been gruff and distant, communicating mostly in disgusted grunts and a furious tossing of his head. “Baka!” he used to shout. Stupid idiot. There was not a sliver of kindness that Parker could dredge up from his childhood. All gifts, all warmth, every kiss was only from his mother. Or from Uncle. 

Uncle Min was pouring sake into small white cups. Auntie had warmed it in the microwave. “I want to say toast for Parker,” he said, his voice husky. 

His aunt and Patty and Brad all lifted their little cups. The little boy waved a plastic cup of apple juice. “Kampai, Parker.” Kampai! The heated sake coursed, clean and bright, through Parker’s chest.

“Thank you, Uncle,” Parker said, the heat of the drink strengthening his resolve. “I’m glad I can do this.” This is my purpose, he thought. This is why I am here. He reached down, as had now become a habit, and rubbed his side. He wondered if he would have been able to do this for his own father.

Parker slept in his cousin George’s room that night, surrounded by teenaged posters whose edges had begun to curl. There was no trace of the adult George, the slick guy who produced special-effects graphics for high-end clients like Pepsi and IBM. Parker lay between the clean, faded plaid bedsheets and wondered what his aunt and uncle’s favored son had done. Nobody had mentioned his name again during dinner.

Parker slipped out of bed and walked to the kitchen in bare feet. There was a night-light glowing yellow over the stove. He dialed Joel’s number, not caring that it was three in the morning in Denver.  Joel didn’t pick up, so Parker mumbled into the receiver, “Just wanted to let you know, I decided to do it. I’m at my uncle’s in San Francisco. We check into the hospital tomorrow.” He paused, wanting to say more, but he couldn’t think of how to say it to a machine. 

Parker woke up to the sound of Auntie Reiko’s tapping on the doorframe. “Ohayo gozaimasu, Paka-chan. Big day today.” Parker and Uncle were going to the hospital for a week of tests and hi-tech photographs, a careful mapping of their veins, the mysterious terrain of their livers’ lobes. Before the first slice into flesh, they would see it all on computers, the plan of the entire medical procedure. Parker imagined the click of the mouse over his uncle’s darkened liver, how it would lift and float into the little trashcan.

They ate breakfast in silence, bowls of ochazuke, hot tea over cold rice, with scrambled eggs on paper plates, and raisin toast. A soft wet grain of rice stuck to his Uncle’s chin. As they listened to the drone of weather and traffic on the radio, a buzzer ripped through the kitchen. Auntie Reiko leapt to her feet. “Who—so early?”

And then her pained exclamation from the front door, “George!” Parker looked up to see a familiar face, but with a shining bald head and something sparkling and black in one earlobe. It was his cousin, but nearly unrecognizable. George wore a long black overcoat with delicate shoes and an expensive suit. Parker wondered for an instant, seeing the smooth bald head, if George had cancer, or a brain tumor, but he looked too healthy. He was carrying an armful of lilies wrapped in green waxed paper.

“Hi, Dad.” George spoke to his father without looking at him, and then scraped a chair across the floor, straddling it backward. “Hey there, cuz.” He narrowed his eyes for a second, and then flashed a brilliant, tooth-whitened smile. “You’re a better man than I, Gunga Din.”

Parker shrugged. “It worked out. Just luck that my blood matched and yours didn’t.” 

A strange look passed over George’s face—a microsecond of pity in his eyebrows. “Yeah.”

Parker nodded toward his cousin’s outfit. “Well, look at you, George. I guess life’s been treating you fine.” He hoped that George wouldn’t ask about his job, shoestring editor at a monthly that was probably going to fold in a year.

“Well, yeah, the company is really taking off. We did twenty mil this quarter.” George spoke with a distracted formality, and his eyes roamed from the ceiling to the floor and walls while he tilted back and forth on the kitchen chair.

“Is that right?” Parker had the urge to reach out and hold George still. 

Auntie Reiko dug into the rice cooker with a wooden paddle. Her voice was high and wound up. “George, you want some ochazuke? Plenty here.”

“No Ma, I already ate.” 

“So! Parker, are you seeing anyone? Got a girlfriend?” George looked pointedly at his parents. Uncle Min had put his head in his hands and Auntie was rubbing her fingers, shaking her head. George opened his wallet and showed Parker a photograph of a smiling young Asian woman in a ski jacket. The background was brilliant blue sky. “This is Nancy, Nancy Chu. You’ll get an invitation to the wedding, next summer.” George laughed. “Shinajin. Big banquet wedding, lots of good food.” He folded the wallet into his coat. “You’ll get an invitation. And you can bring a date.” George stared at Parker with piercing eyes, the color of strong coffee.

Parker shrugged and dropped his gaze to the table. “I’m not seeing anyone right now.” Joel had only been half a year, not long enough to introduce, just like all the others before him. He hadn’t come out to his relatives, not really, not after his father had foamed and shouted, baka boy! Kitanai! Filthy.

George clapped his hands together.  “So, Dad, you lucked out, didn’t you?” There was steel in his voice. “Got old Parker here to give it up for you.” 

Auntie Reiko had backed away into the hallway with the telephone. She was calling the taxi company with a high urgency in her voice. “We need a ride to hospital.”

Uncle Min lifted his head wiped his mouth with a paper towel. “Parker is a good boy. Good nephew.” He grunted and smiled with watery eyes at Parker.

“Yeah. He’s the greatest.” The two front legs of George’s chair hit the floor with a sharp crack. “Only you know what, Dad? I would’ve done it for you.” George leapt to his feet and was pacing the room now, his fine leather shoes slapping on the linoleum.

Uncle Min let out a small cry. “No.”

Parker felt something slipping from him, his sense of understanding, his connectedness with the elderly man across the table. His being useful. Here he had been ready, ready for sacrifice, in his mind he was already stripped down and laid flat on a rock, his limbs bound with strips of leather. The hawks would be coming any day now, to tear his liver from his side, and deliver it, dripping, to his uncle. He was ready.

Uncle Min was shaking his head. “George. Enough.”

“No, Dad, I don’t think it’s enough. I don’t think Cousin Parker here has heard enough. Not until you tell him that you wouldn’t let Patty or me get our blood tested, wouldn’t even let us talk to the doctors. And so now you’ve got this poor sucker here, and God help you both.”

Parker blinked but still the room would not clear, would not slow its spinning. The sunlight from the glass suddenly hurt. His face twisted into a confused, helpless smile. “Wouldn’t let you?” It was an enormous task to form each word.

George paced back and forth, his long black coat flapping like the wings of a bat. “That’s right, cousin. That’s right. We wanted to, Patty and I, because who wouldn’t want to be able to do this for their very own father? But he said no. NO, he said, what about Patty’s husband, what about Patty’s child. Can’t do this to them. And even me, I have this fi-an-cée, and I have this business; no, no, too much risk. Huh, Dad? So why don’t we call Parker instead? He’s healthy! He’s athletic! As long as his blood checks out, he’s the perfect candidate! He doesn’t have any…” George abruptly stopped.

Uncle Min’s face was nearly drained of its considerable color. He had turned his face to the window, his shoulders hunched around him. 

George’s face softened as he looked at Parker.  He lifted his empty hands. “I had to tell you, cousin.”

So that was why he had been chosen: not for being favored nephew, for being beloved kin, but for being dispensable. For being alone. For being different.

Auntie Reiko stood in the kitchen doorway, her face wet, her mouth crumpled behind her hand. The bouquet that George had brought lay on the counter. The petals were soft and limp, drooping against the green paper.

Parker’s mouth tried to say “Thank you,” to George but his tongue lay fat and dense against his teeth. Was that the thing to say? Thank you? He stood up uncertainly.

His aunt’s anguished voice ripped across the room. “Paka-chan! No! Not like George say!” 

Parker drew a ragged breath and walked to where his uncle sat. He put his hand out, lightly, uncertainly, and touched the thin shoulder. He felt a faint ripple of pity pass through his fingers, and for a moment he thought of changing his mind, of saying it’s all right, it doesn’t matter, I’ll do it anyway. But it wouldn’t help things: wouldn’t make Joel stay, wouldn’t make Parker any less alone. The tiger kite had snapped its string and smashed to earth. 

“Goodbye, Uncle.”

He walked quickly to the hallway, to where his bag was already packed, ready for the hospital. The taxi was idling outside. He passed by his cousin on his way out, and saw that George’s brown eyes were wet and bright. George bowed deeply, the front edges of his black overcoat brushing the floor. Parker leaned forward in return, and their two heads—one smooth and golden, one dark—touched briefly, then parted.