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Dad’s Fire

Yesterday I got word fourth-hand that my 83-year-old father's house had burned down in the middle of the night. My old boss heard from my dad's old Army buddy who heard from the widow of another Army buddy. Good thing the Japanese American community is so good at networking. My dad is so independent that he not only didn't call me, he didn't even call his brother who lives in the same town. I immediately called the hotel the Red Cross had found for him and left a message asking him to call me and tell me how I could help. Then I called the Army buddy so see if he had anymore news. His wife told me she and her husband (also in their 80s) were driving up to see him.

I decided my dad would feel pretty bad if his Army buddies showed up and his own daughter didn’t. I called a friend and cried for about 10 minutes about almost losing him. Then I asked my partner to go with me to Stockton.
It was a good move. All my life I've kept asking my dad what he wanted from me. “I don’t need anything,” he’d always say. “Nah, you don’t need to come.” He stiffens when he sees a hug coming, he rushes me off the phone. He can't tell me what he really wants from me, but he's pleased when I can guess. He thinks he can’t allow me to see that he's pleased, so I have to be very observant, and catch the fleeting delight in his eyes, the quickly suppressed smile, the way his body softens into a hug for a moment before he pushes me away.

When I got out of the car in front of his burned house with tears in my eyes and rushed up to hug him, I could see that that was exactly what he needed and wanted. After he told me about the $150,000 damage to the house, the $100,000 loss of personal goods, the insurance coverage and his schedule, I asked if he’d lost his book-in-progress. He had written and lost the book once before. His eyes twinkled for a moment that I had remembered and cared. He proceeded to talk my ear off for an hour about the information in the book, which had indeed been lost again. "You better write that book, Dad," I said. "I can't remember all those names and dates. And send me the pages as you write them, so they don't get lost again."

He was more real with me than he's ever been. He asked about my mom, and found out she is doing well. Then, instead of asking gruffly and abruptly what I was doing about money and retirement, he said, "What I really care about is, how are you and the kids doing financially?” I told him how much I had in IRAs, and he said, "That much?" in a pleased tone. For once I didn’t feel criticized. I’m one Sansei that didn’t take the safe Nisei route and work for 30 years in a boring job to collect the pension. I’ve worked as an artist and a writer. I don’t make much money. I thought my dad was critical of that, but I guess he was just trying to make sure that I had enough money for my old age. Our family is long-lived, after all. My Uncle George is in his late 90s and still kicking.

I told Dad that I was expecting him to live just as long, so the fire was scary. I almost lost him. If the smoke alarm hadn’t woken them up, they might not have made it. Their dogs perished in the fire.

Dad is a crotchety old bird, and tough. He didn't want me to stay and help clean up the mess from the fire. He pushed me out the door with my arms loaded with caned pineapple and peanuts that he'd been buying in bulk and storing in the garage. He was being practical. He won’t be able to use the the food until his house is repaired, and he has no place to store it during five months of repair. My dad always gives me stuff, usually something useful but unexciting, so I’ve always felt like the child, with nothing to give back. Yesterday, I realized I can let go of that notion. My love and my hugs and my writing are enough.

Three bottles of olive oil, two cans of nuts, two cans of pineapple and a two-quart jar of gherkins were his way of saying thank you. He did actually manage to say, “Thank you for coming. It was nice of you to drive up here.” That was a first. I guess the fire shook him up, too. I hugged him again and said, “Dad, how could I not come. I had to see for myself that you’re all right.”

Driving home, I thought fondly about my dad, and how much I’ve learned from him. He taught me to be proud to be Japanese American, to understand Japanese culture and spirituality, to be impeccably honest, to enjoy books and travel, to talk to lots of different people. He taught me to be responsible and community-minded. He taught me to notice how much I had been given and to give back to those in need. How I act on those values looks a lot different from the way my dad does it, but I think for the last ten years or so, we’ve figured out that we’re fighting the same battles against ignorance and injustice, racism and classism – each in our own way.

I used to think that he was ashamed of growing up poor, with nine brothers and sisters in a skid-row hotel. But as I was thinking about about how much my dad hates ties and fancy restaurants. I realized he is not ashamed at all. He knows that it was racism that prevented some Japanese American families from prospering. He is proud of surviving and thriving in spite of oppression and discrimination. As a career military officer, he had people telling him all day long how to dress and how to act. He likes Mexican and Chinese restaurants because while he’s there, he can be his relaxed, sloppy self. On his own time, he holds on to his right to talk with his mouth full and put his elbows on the table. Dad has traced our family history back to 7th century Japan. We've been rich and we've been poor; my dad is aware that class is a very temporary thing.

My dad grew up in a time when he couldn't speak out against oppression as freely as I can, but he never let it grind him down. He was and is a fighter, though as a military intelligence officer, his fight was covert. My fight is more open and a lot more diverse. But in some ways we’re on the same side. So I can enjoy my fancy Italian cuisine and he can eat his slop-suey. I can give him hugs and he can respond with pickles. He can work on veterans' affairs and I can distribute condoms to poor black women, but he has handed down his torch. Both of us are on fire to fight ignorance and injustice, racism and classism – each in our own way.
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