by liberal japonicus
Back when the world was young and Obama was running for president, one of the points, which I uncharitably assume was thought to be sufficient to derail his candidacy and so indicated not a modicum of restraint, but a desire to use only as much mud as necessary, was to highlight his choice of focussing on his father over his mother and suggest (often sub rosa) some sort of indication of a rejection of all things Caucasian.
While taken to idiotic heights by Dinesh D'Souza in his The Roots of Obama's Rage, the question of why he wrote extensively about his father yet, as Janny Scott, in her biography of Obama's mother, has her quoting second hand that Stanley Ann Dunham noted that her son had only reserved 'one sentence' for his mother might still be on people's minds. While it may be a bit of hubris, I think that I know what Obama was thinking.
I suppose the same charge could be leveled against me, in that I have written about my mother (here and here) but not anything at length about my father. While it is possible, in some sort of 'all possible worlds' theory, that Obama is, in D'Souza's words 'governed according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s', there is a more understandable and, I believe, sympathetic, way to look at things, (not that D'Souza shows any ability to actually be understanding or sympathetic). More below the fold
I believe that when you lose someone, a parent in particular, because that person is no longer changing and possessing the potential to change, you begin to try and fill that blank in. Russell wrote to me and said 'They leave a big hole when they go' and this is so true. Because of that, we look to fill the space, yet often times, our attempts only highlight that absence. In my case, and perhaps in Obama's case as well, that takes the shape of writing about the person, trying to recreate that person in your mind. Joyce famously said his goal was "to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the face of the earth, it could be reconstructed out of my book". One can easily imagine that drive, powered by Joyce's expatriate status, being similar to Obama's desire to make concrete the dreams of his father.
Yet, to write about the parent who is there, even though you may be far away, seems to be taking away the possibility of change and growth. And it seems like a particular kind of imposition of one's will which serves, as their options are growing smaller, to further circumscribe them in one's mind. Obama's book about his father began when he was chosen as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review while his mother was still alive and she passed away in 1995. He did write Audacity of Hope in 2006, but given the limelight, I find it hard to imagine Obama writing a book about his mother after she had passed, and I think that it becomes increasingly difficult as time passes. What he says in revised forward of Audacity of Hope certainly belies the suggestion that he somehow rejects his mother. He wrote:
I think sometimes that had I known she would not survive her illness, I might have written a different book - less a meditation on the absent parent, more a celebration of the one who was the single constant in my life. In my daughters I see her every day, her joy, her capacity for wonder. i won't try to describe hoe deeply I mourn her passing still. I know that she was the kindest, most generous spirit I have ever known, and that what is best in me I owe to her.
Which brings me to the goodbye. My father passed away. Not sure the day or the time when it happened in the states, and working it out isn't really so important to me. He was 88, in an assisted care group home close to where my brother was living. In the past few months, he'd been sleeping more and more and his body clock seemed to be opposite of normal. In the last few weeks, he would take a bite or two of food and then refuse the rest. We were thinking that it would be December or perhaps January, but the sudden decline was precipitous and he passed away last week.
Back to asymmetries. The parents are more likely than not going to be an asymmetry and my parents were no exception. As a mixed race couple, that was probably even more true, though the terminology of 'mixed race' doesn't easily fit them in my mind. My mother had immigrated from England at the age of 14 with my grandparents, the only daughter of my grandfather and his third (or perhaps 4th) wife, my father was the 6th child and second to last son of a Japanese Hawaiian Issei (first generation immigrant) and his picture bride. My mother was the verbal one who could talk to anyone (much to the embarrassment of my teenage self), my dad was taciturn to the point of total silence (which was also embarrassing to that same teenage self, because with teenagers, you can't win). My mother was a heavy smoker, which likely hastened her passing, and that is something that I wish I could go back in time and try to make her stop. On the other hand, while my father's decline was likely linked to his time as a college boxer, I couldn't imagine a similar trip back in time because, in some ways, boxing made him and defined him in many ways, but more about that later.
My father was born on Oahu in 1924, on the windward side in a place called Laie. The family then moved to Kahaluu, and after a flood which gave my dad one of his first childhood memories, that of being placed on the top of a dresser while the house flooded, the family, all 8 of them (there were two more daughters to come), moved to Kaneohe. Their home was in sight of Bellows airbase, which was was bombed by the second wave strike force and my dad said that he remembered the plumes of smoke that day.
As a kid, he played baseball on a church baseball team that was perhaps one third or more his siblings. The baseball team was the idea of the local Methodist minister, James Terauchi, who thought that the best way to minister to his flock was to keep the children involved.
My dad also studied judo under another interesting person, Henry Seishiro Okazaki, who came to Hawai'i and, much to the consternation of many elder Japanese, taught his school of judo/jiu-jitsu to all comers, including a large number of US servicemen. When martial arts teachers and buddhist priests and community leaders were taken to the mainland to be interned (had the entire Japanese-American population of Hawai'i been interned, most of the economy would have come to a halt), Okazaki was able to stay. The local dojo was just a branch of the main dojo, but that is where dad learned his judo.
I'm sure that my father's high school education was interrupted by the war, but he graduated from Benjamin Parker High School in 1943. The 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team were formed in 1942, so my dad missed out on that first rush to service (the Army called for 1,500 volunteers from Japanese-Americans in Hawai'i, 10,000 came forward), though he had classmates who dropped out of high school and served. I wish I had asked him more about that time. Did he resist the siren call of services or had the time passed?
My father had had what some refer to as 'island fever', a desire to leave Hawai'i and go to the mainland. Which is why, after working and saving money for 6 or 7 years, he was the first of the family who left for the mainland, and he was eventually followed by all but the oldest brother and sister. he entered Milwaukee School of Engineering, and the UW Milwaukee, and then transferred into the University of Wisconsin at Madison to earn a degree in Geophysics. It's something I knew, but sitting down to write down dates and places for the obituary, I realized that this wasn't a summer spent earning tuition, this was a multi-year committment to a strongly held dream. He was the 6th child, but the first to go to the mainland and the first to go to university. Unlike the other siblings who followed him, my father retained a lot more of his Hawaiian accent, such that I can often recognize someone from Hawaii after hearing 2 or 3 phrases.
A number of years ago, when we had gone to Hawai'i for my aunt's funeral, I from Japan, my father and brother from Mississippi, we were staying in a bed and breakfast and, at the breakfast buffet with fresh mango and papaya and pineapple, looking out at Kaneohe Bay, I asked him, 'Why would you want to leave this place?' and he looked at me and shook his head and said 'I don't know. I just can't explain it.' Perhaps my regret is that if I would understand why he felt compelled to leave, I could understand why I am where I am now.
My dad was also an amateur boxer, and would fight in matches in Honolulu, which, at the time, required a two hour drive from Kaneohe, often in the back of a pickup truck. Perhaps he knew, or perhaps it was just chance, but the boxing squad at UW had a train of Hawaiian Japanese Americans. Thus, he tried out for the squad in 1953 and won a place, training under John Walsh, the legendary boxing coach of the Badgers Boxing team.
My dad won a place (and therefore a scholarship) on the boxing team in 1953, 1955 and 1956. That last year, he was runner-up for the NCAA individual championship in the 132 pound weight class, and the Wisconsin team won the team championship 5 individual championships and the highest point total up to then recorded. In searching the internet for this information, I found this page of discontinued NCAA records, and on the front is a picture of my Dad.
Another page listed the ages of that 1956 squad, and every member was 23 or younger, except for my dad, who was 30. How did he handle that? While there were, because of the GI Bill, large numbers of older GIs going back to university, how did it feel to be doing a sport where youth and speed were such a premium as a 30 year old?
The story of the UW boxing team is told by Doug Moe in his book Lord of the Rings, and has a sad ending that has echoes today. After my dad had graduated, a UW boxer named Charlie Mohr collapsed after losing the title bout in the 1960 NCAA tournament, went into a coma and died. Within two weeks, the faculty voted to close the boxing program, and the NCAA has never sanctioned a boxing event since. Perhaps it was the distance of time, but my father never expressed any of the sentiments that we see with the recent questioning of football concussions and their relation to brain-damage. Of course, death immediately after a fight is different from the long term deterioration, and there were already questions about the sport, with fewer and fewer schools fielding full teams, but that things could so quickly end in one case, but even rudimentary rule changes in football can arouse such ire suggests that perhaps times are different.
My dad graduated with a degree in Geophysics and went to work for the US Geological survey, travelling around the country to take seismic readings. I didn't really have a real idea of how much he got around until I went through his slides and found boxes of slides from all around the US. During those travels, a christmas card put him back in touch with a girl he had dated at university and led to them marrying. Dad felt that he needed to get a better understanding of the instrumentation they were using for seismic work and so went back to school to get an Electrical Engineering degree. At that time, he had the opportunity to go to Antartica to do seismic readings of the polar ice cap as well as work on determining the magnetic field at the Pole.
He returned and took a job with Naval Oceanographic, a government office which worked to map the sea floor. Much of this work was classified, because the maps were for submarines. His work often required 1-3 month trips at sea where they would take sonar readings out of different ports around the world. Our house was filled with souvenirs from various places around the world and I had always attributed those glimpses of foreign places as the origin of my expat life, but sitting and reviewing my dad's life, it certainly seems to run a lot deeper.
Though my dad never boxed again, when we were living in Maryland, he had a heavy bag hung up in the basement and he would wear his old sweats and do roadwork. When we moved to Mississippi, there was no place in the house to hang up the heavy bag, but he still did his roadwork, maybe until he was in his 50's, when a back injury stopped him.
I only have one picture of my dad in his Judo uniform, and it is just him taking a breakfall on a mat, but when I asked him where it was, he said it was in Chicago, where there was a judo dojo. Now, it is a 2 and a half hour drive, but back then, maybe it was 4 or 5? It puts into perspective my 1 hour drives to study martial arts. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
But boxing is the thing I wonder about. My dad was always quiet, and as he got older, his hearing was going, though my mom swore that he could hear what he wanted to hear. And when my mom was still around, they had that shared memory that couples would often have where they would each fill in the other person's gaps, though my mom filled in a lot more than my dad did. But when my mom passed, the forgotten things became more pronounced, and it was more and more difficult. The 'diagnosis' of Alzheimer's after my mother died was a great relief to my brother, because it gave a name and a reason for things, but for me, it didn't really mean so much, because distance and time would serve to mask the decline. He was 88, about to turn 89, and when I spoke to him, he would always say 'where are you calling from?' and I'd say 'Japan, dad' and he would ask how long I had been there, and I'd say 20 years and he'd say 'wow, has it been that long?', but that seemed more like Dad being dad rather than someone whose memory was shot. He was a voracious reader and for a while, I was sending him books that I know he would like until my brother said that I shouldn't bother cause he was reading the same books over and over.
We had a family reunion and a memorial get together in Hawai'i after my Dad's younger sister had passed on the big island. Schedules being what they are, my brother rented a beachhouse and Dad stayed with him, until we got there and then he stayed with my wife and I while my daughters stayed with their cousins for some very useful lessons in sisterhood and I got a glimpse into how much work it was to keep up with dad. The first night, I heard something and I woke up to find my dad trying to open the patio doors. I asked him what was up and he said he was trying to get the bathroom door open. After that, I kept the lights on in the bathroom and slept on the couch to intercept him.
He came to Japan 4 years ago for a month. He and my mom had come over to Japan every year I was on the JET program and loved it, so I hoped that it might recharge him a bit. I flew over and then flew back and then flew back with him. I found a Japanese teacher for him and brought back his old picture albums so he could talk about his childhood. The hope in the back of my mind was that this would open the linguistic floodgates, but there was no opening of the clouds. He enjoyed it and the teacher, whose father was about the same age as my dad, had a great time, but any drive longer than 30 minutes was too hard for him. And unfortunately, the jet lag he experienced going back had him behaving erratically and coming over to my brother's house next door at 3 in the morning asking about lunch. Our family doctor gave us some pills that would knock him out, and the first one worked so fast that he was sitting on the couch one minute and was out like a light the next. Thru the rest of the series, my brother had the foresight to have him in his pajamas and in bed before he took it. That experience with jet lag meant the idea that he would be in the states for 6 months and the US for 6 was clearly impossible.
After that, about a year later, an episode that I wrote about here took place. He got in the car and drove west, stopping at a hotel on the West Bank of New Orleans. As my brother got ready to go out there (with my cousin, who was visiting), he called the hotel and found that Dad had checked out. He was stopped in Shreveport, and the officer got him checked into a hotel and called us. He was saying that he was doing geophysical surveys in Louisiana for the government, though he had retired from work 18 years earlier and had worked for the US Geological Survey in the late 50's. When my brother and cousin got him and the car, he had notes about driving up to Wisconsin.
After that, the decline was gradual but relentless. We moved him to a group assisted living home. About half a year ago, he refused to eat, but we arranged that he go to a clinic where they adjusted his meds and had him back. But this time, he refused to eat and was sleeping 18 hours a day it seemed, and we made the decision to put him on hospice care. My brother and I talked about it, and we came to the conclusion that to take away his agency, to force him to eat would simply be unfair. A few weeks later, he was gone.
When my mother passed, it often felt as if there was a huge weight on my chest, making it difficult to breath, but when my father passed, the feeling that I had was that it seemed like a breeze could pick up my body and limbs and they would float away, like a plastic bag. I think that when my mom died, I realized subconsciously that the role that she had played in keeping my dad going and connected had passed on to my brother and me. On the other hand, when my father died, I feel like that different feeling was acknowledging that my brother and I are orphans now, and that main taproot that bound us to so many things was gone.
When we were living in Prince George county, Maryland, Naval Oceanographic was based at the Navy Yard and dad had to wake up early because of the traffic to get to work. He always woke up and cooked himself a breakfast which consisted of two slices of bacon or sausage links or ham, one egg over easy, a piece of toast and a cup of coffee. Just before we decided to move him to the group home, my brother asked me if I could come over and stay with him while they took a family vacation. I said sure and came over for 2 weeks and stayed with him. It was just him and me at the house, so every morning, I tried to replicate that breakfast that he had cooked for himself when I was a kid. Though we talked about different things, he couldn't really remember so much so we spent most of the two weeks reading books, but I still retain the hope that he might get an idea, a glimmer of how much I had taken in, how much I was noticing.
Goodbye Dad, I will miss you.