Apology to my Father on his Sixtieth Birthday
You used to say that when you look at your two children, you don’t see Koreans, just Americans. This was your idea of kindness. But can you define America for me? Is it the Constitution, Dad? Our borders? Your right to bear arms? Your bare arms are so white, but you don’t believe in race, even with your Korean ex-wife and children who look nothing like you.
I remember when I came home after my first year in college. It was ten years ago now, and you took me to the shooting range just outside the army base. You insisted that I shoot your 9mm, which you had just purchased. This was your idea of bonding. This was your first personal gun because Mom had never allowed you to purchase one for yourself. Now that she was out of your life for good, you were giddy, like you had traded your wife for the chance to fire artillery once again.
When we arrived at the outdoor range, the crack of gunfire greeted us. You seemed at home, a veteran back in his element. You stopped, smelled the scorched air, gave a child’s laugh as you lovingly patted your holster. It was a beautiful cloudless day in the “Greatest County on Earth.”
Me? I was amidst scores of angry white men blasting their munitions. Surrounded. I avoided eye contact, slouched my shoulders. I did not want to be noticed, nor did I want to appear as if I did not want to be noticed, which I assumed would lead to suspicion. I did not tell you any of this because you would have laughed and said something like, “Suspicious of what?” And I wouldn’t be able to explain, not then, not now, of the sense of danger that prickles up my arms and neck whenever I’m surrounded by groups of people that look like, well. Like you, Dad.
You handed me the 9mm and although it fit perfectly in my hand, it was heavier than it looked. That I could shatter bone, annihilate sinew, all with a simple flick of an index finger was chilling, but I didn’t want to upset you. I remember even laughing at the weight of it, trying to disarm us both, feigning that I could very well drop the gun. You gave me an impatient look and told me to just shoot already, pointing at the target across from us. Were you embarrassed then? I’m not sure what you expected from me, what you saw from the young man I was becoming.
What could you have seen when you looked at me? When I visited that summer, I kept myself scarce. The house felt empty without Mom there, with Emily getting her own apartment. I felt like an apparition visiting my old home, barely present and haunting you while you fell asleep to Bill O’Reilly replays. During the day, I stayed in my room or went to the library down the street. I told you that I was preparing for next school year with my reading, and I was reading, but not for school, and I was also writing stories and bad poetry, and I didn’t want you to find out. I would have been embarrassed for you to discover that I read for pleasure, that I dreamed of building a life from my writing. I had never seen you hold a book in your hands. Instead, you spent your free time listening to talk radio and trashing liberals. You had raised me to be another version of yourself and for me to discover a passion that was so alien to you it felt like a betrayal. And then what would I be to you?
I remember trying to form metaphors at the gun range that day. When I squinted my eyes, raised the gun, and aimed at the paper target, I felt what I was doing was implicitly America, but I was young then, just nineteen, and all that came to me were lazy metaphors. America is the bullet. America is the wound. I’ve only just realized: America is pleasing the father. That’s how this all persists, on and on.
I wanted nothing more than to please you when I was a child. When Mom and Emily fought, when Mom would scream in her mix of Korean and English and slap at her disobedient daughter with such violence that I would shutter and you, frustrated, would grab the car keys and leave, I would rush out of the house, ignore Emily’s cry for me to stay, and I followed you, just as you were about to peel the car away. You would always act annoyed and tell me that I should make sure my mother wasn’t killing my sister, but I knew you were relieved. There was a crinkle just under your eyes that only appears when you were pleased. That is something I alone noticed. And why wouldn’t you be pleased? I had chosen you over them. I was my father’s son and for that you were proud.
We would drive for hours. You would tell me how you didn’t understand my mother, your wife, and her uncontrollable rage. How, perhaps, you should have left her in Korea. “But what about me?” I asked once. “You would have come with me. Just the two of us,” you answered, as if it were obvious. As if your own daughter had never existed. As if we weren’t abandoning her, at that very moment, to violence. “We would be like this,” you added, like this was the ideal.
Neither of us considered Mom’s loneliness. She spoke little English and had no friends or extended family to support her. The only Koreans she met were Church moms who would siphon time and money from her, leaving her resentful. Her own daughter had become willful and caustic, challenging her constantly, and she must have known that I was dismissive of her with my nods of passive acquiescence. I no longer tried to engage with her because she unnerved me. She did not speak the way I spoke and insisted her American children be obedient like the Korean children she always imagined she would have. Any rebellion, however minor or perceived, was met with inconsolable fury. Worse yet, we never knew the rules until we broke them, like the time Emily and I laughed too loud at dinner or the time we didn’t hug Mom for packing our lunch before leaving for school.
Emily had given up trying to live up to Mom’s hidden expectations and instead responded with her own fury, laughing when Mom didn’t understand her insults. “You’ve been here for years, and you still can’t speak English!” she would defiantly scream. “Do you even know what I’m saying?” she would goad. Do you remember that time that Mom threw a can of tomato soup at Emily’s head, that just missed? You heard about it when you returned from the field a week later, but I was there, and I heard that impact from upstairs. I thought it was a gunshot. When I saw a red splotch on the wall, I thought that Mom had killed her. I was scared, Dad. So scared. But not surprised.
You, in comparison, felt like peace. No, you never broke up their fights or tried to soothe hurt feelings. Emily and I always thought it was strange how you almost never reacted when you heard a slap or a shriek. Instead, you took naps or turned up the volume on the TV. You would leave the house only when the screams drowned out your dissociation. In this way, you isolated yourself on your own little island, making your presence feel like a safe harbor that we could rarely breach. Escaping Mom and abandoning Emily was an act of desperate self-preservation. Reaching your car before you drove away was clutching onto a life raft.
I remember getting ice cream during these escapes. Sometimes, we would go to a coin store and you would buy me a silver dollar. Once, you took me to a gun shop, and the proprietor eyed us suspiciously, asking, “This your son?” And you laughed and said, “Of course,” and you didn’t even see the old man’s telegraphed disgust. When we left, I heard him laughing with an employee, pointing at me, and it didn’t seem to register on you that they were laughing at a white man who looked nothing like his Asian son. Back then, I thought you just couldn’t see these things happening to us. Now, I believe that you shielded yourself from this violence, like the way you detached yourself from the violence at home. It is in that vast absence that my world was created.
I just set Simon down in his crib three hours ago and he’s miraculously still asleep. By ten months, I’ve been told, a baby can sleep the whole night in the crib without waking up once. I have never seen this happen. We’re lucky if Simon sleeps for more than two hours uninterrupted. Helen and I take turns with rocking him back to sleep, and most nights Helen has to nurse him again to calm him down. He gets angry often. The way he screams rocks the whole apartment and our neighbors give us dirty looks when we pass them in the hallway. We love Simon, but we’re tired.
Now that I have the chance to sleep, I find that I can’t. I can’t stop thinking about how I am a father now and what that means to me, and, for some reason, my racing thoughts go still at that gun range. Maybe it was the way you were trying so hard to connect with me, like I was a child again, with something you believed I would be interested in. Or maybe it’s because that was the day that I fully realized how far apart we really were, how your perception of me was so different from who I was becoming, and how difficult it would be to bridge that gap.
Dad, I’m sorry that I missed your birthday party. I’m writing this to accompany your birthday card, but I doubt that I will send it when I’m fully aware of myself in the morning. You were understanding on the phone today, but I know that you were disappointed because you wanted to see Simon. I hear that even Mom came, and her new husband, and Emily, who is angry at me for never visiting. She’s gotten protective of the both of you, has soothed her anger with age. I used to think it was a form of surrender. I’m thinking now that it’s something closer to grace.
Mom has told me how important the sixtieth birthday is. In Korea, there would be lavish party thrown to commemorate longevity and the end of the first 60-year cycle. It’s a time of celebration and reflection, and the time for children to honor their parents, I know. I was surprised that she was so adamant that I show up with my wife and son. I did not expect her to be there either, after not seeing you for years. It seems like everyone has moved on except for me.
On the phone, I told you that Simon had a meltdown as we tried to strap him in the car seat, but the truth is that I took one look in the mirror with my son in my arms and knew that I couldn’t muster the will to come to your party. Simon was laughing and smiling at his reflection, as he seems pleased with seeing himself. His skin looked so white, like his mother’s, when pressed against my light brown. When he’s older, when I take him to get ice cream or to the bookstore, someone may ask, “Is that really your son?” because we may not look anything alike. A Korean father with his white-passing son.
Simon will not experience the chaos that I did growing up. His mother is patient and kind, and we rarely fight or raise our voices, and are far too privileged to ensure anything except a privileged life for our son. Helen has a stable profession and I make do with teaching at a number of colleges. While you were disappointed and correct in your prediction that I would never make a living as a writer, we will do everything in our power to protect our son from sorrow. But violence, in some form, will still befall him.
I wonder how I will fail him. Will I force him to see the world the same way that I do? Will he feel obligated to impersonate me growing up as I felt obligated in being another you? I wonder, Dad, what world will he create in what I have erased? I felt an exhaustion creep under my skin when looking at our reflection, one as deep as I’ve ever experienced. A weariness that only new parents must feel. Honestly, Dad, I just didn’t want to see my son with you that day, when you look so much more like him than I do.
Do you know what I remember most about that day at the gun rage, Dad? Not the firing of the gun itself. When I try to remember the sound of the 9mm firing in my hands, I only recall the sound of the can of tomato soup caving in the wall instead of Emily’s head. I remember how you didn’t even notice that man shooting next to us. He was not much older than I was, wearing his army fatigues. His hands were trembling, more than mine were, but not in the same way. He could hold the weight of his weapon, his AR-15, just fine. On his target, this man had placed his own cutout, a large cartoon caricature of an Arab soldier holding a machine gun, a sinister smile on his face. This was during the time ISIS was headlining Fox News.
I have no idea when he could have placed the cutout on the target and what the rules were for this site, but I have no doubt that any rules would not have been enforced. I knew then, from the sensation rippling from my back up my skull, that there was danger emanating from that man, a seething violence that made me avert my eyes and hope that he would not catch sight of me.
I have never again seen, in all of my life, as much hate as that man had for the cutout. The man fired his AR-15, again and again. I felt that he would never stop. Worse, I felt that he would notice me and, in his delirium, his ecstasy, he would use me for a target next. You slapped me on my shoulder and asked what I thought of the gun that I had just fired. But I could only see this man, even when I wasn’t looking at him. I took one last glimpse when he had stopped firing. He had shot at his target so many times that the Arab soldier’s entire mouth was gone, replaced by a giant void.
Mary Lee and Akemi Breyer fainted during Midnight Prayer Group the week before Narumi Kai finally died. Even though Narumi had been collecting cancer for years, we took this as a sign that her health had become especially dire. One would only have to look at her medical history for proof: she had cancer in her pancreas. She had cancer in her colon. She had cancer in both of her breasts. It was as if Narumi Kai had more cancer than organ, more weeds than garden, more suffering in her long life than any of us could ever conceive, and still, we held our faith, and we chanted for her unconditional recovery at the Midnight gatherings that were arranged just for her. When we tired, we chanted to sustain our vitality to greet the Sun with our prayers. When the two pioneer members fainted from exhaustion, we chanted for them too. We gathered by the dozens at Phil Monroe’s house. We took off our shoes at the door and rubbed our beads furiously and we chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo until our throats became hoarse, until Phil Monroe delicately asked us to leave because he had to work in the morning, a request that disturbed his wife, Kotuku, so greatly that she gave him this cutting look that would surely wound him for the rest of his life, and the next one too.
Narumi Kai had been a Latter Day Buddhist for over fifty years. Born on the outskirts of Tokyo, she moved to Tacoma, Washington when she was just in her teens. She was a pioneer, one of our first members in the Pacific Northwest. When she was twenty, before her karmic fate had taken its course, she perkily travelled door to door, from Hilltop to South Tacoma Way, walked right down Pac Ave, propagating our Mystic Law. She carried fliers and prayer books, homemade Lotus flower bookmarks, determination, and a serene smile that was untouched by her future sorrow.
Mary Lee told us that she had never seen anyone with such determination in all her lives. Narumi Kai never doubted. She marched right up to each house, with Mary Lee following meekly behind, a detail that made everyone at the meeting laugh when she shared this story a few days after her fainting spell, for Mary was never known to not speak her mind. Narumi had not mastered English back then, but what she lacked in language she made up with her beautiful black eyes that never broke contact with their receiver, her magnificent curly hair, and her curvy, lithe figure. But really, all Narumi Kai had to do back then was show her shimmering white teeth and men would fall in love with her and follow her to meetings. Buddhism, sure, whatever, they’d shrug, and it didn’t matter why they came but that they stayed, every single one of them. Said Mary Lee: Narumi Kai’s perfect smile saved their souls.
Stories like that are hard for us to picture. Gone are the days of door to door propagation. It has been replaced by, we have to admit, more subdued methods we find more palatable in these cynical Latter Days. Now, we bring close friends to meetings, or lovers. Like we’re sharing a secret to only those in whom we hold the deepest trust. No more door to door missions or chanting on the streets. We are careful, we are safe, and, ultimately, we are not worthy of Narumi Kai’s powerful legacy. Instead, we breed new members into the practice and, when we’re feeling our most ambitious, we hold propagation campaigns at Point Defiance Park, serving Korean BBQ chicken and spicy tuna rolls that entice the curious to attend. And then in the middle of the meal we will bring up the practice and our everlasting happiness, and when our friends and neighbors return our stories with quiet indifference, we move on to pie.
But still, we are all Bodhisattvas. All of us, even the most cowardly, have the potential for enlightenment. Narumi Kai taught us that. Even in the turmoil of her life, she believed that, and so can we. We must.
And so, we chanted. We filled the Peace Center every night at seven. The Midnight gatherings continued, and then grew. We chanted and we shared our stories of Narumi.
How she drove a young Judy Pride to Taiko practice every weekend; the forty miles from Tacoma to Seattle and back again, for a whole summer. No complaints.
How she led group meetings for nearly twenty years at her small bungalow once a month, and when she lost that house, at her studio apartment, and when she lost that apartment, at her hair stylist’s home, in a spare room that was meant to be a garage. A lotus flower grows in a swamp, she would remind us, but it still blooms.
Grumpy Charlie Morgan shared how she chanted tirelessly for his performance review, and when he received high marks and the raise that accompanied it, he tried to thank her, but she would not accept his gratitude, because he had given her something far more important: proof.
Proof is all around us. Good cause will lead to fortune, bad cause will inevitably bring suffering. No one holds immunity against the Mystic Law of cause and effect. Cause follows all, if not in this life, then into the next, and the next. This is what we believe. Yes, still.
None of us asked, aloud, what negative cause Narumi Kai had accumulated that led to the suffering she had experienced. What happened before she had come to Tacoma all of those years ago? Did she really leave Tokyo for the opportunity to propagate the Law like she had said, or was there something she had done that she had been trying to escape? Still more of us wondered what conviction she held within herself that kept her resilient through the many dark years where she never wavered, not once, in her terrifying faith.
We knew about her troublesome son, Sammy, her only, who died decades ago when he swerved into a pine tree at 2:00 in the morning, nineteen, drunk out of his mind, and then, upon impact, dead. We saw Benjamin, her kind husband, suffer through his quick deterioration, aided by dementia in just his mid-fifties. We heard rumors of how he hit her in his mad fits, how he would call her a dirty Jap, and yet she took care of him, alone, because she believed it was her mission to return him from the void. But he didn’t return; he died too.
We would find out after Narumi Kai’s death that her parents had died in Tokyo when she was in her early twenties propagating in Tacoma, both from, of course, cancer. They died one after the other, or so the story goes, as if the cancer were a contagion, a love sickness, cancer of the heart. Those were the words from Narumi’s closest cousin from overseas, and by then her parents’ deaths had taken the form of local legend. Narumi had never mentioned this story to any of us, not even to her closest friends. Much later, we found out that Narumi and her older sister were not on speaking terms because her sister had abandoned Buddhism and Narumi had refused to forgive her. We only found out because Narumi’s sister called Nancy Davis for Narumi’s phone number, and poor, sweet Nancy Davis had to be the one to tell Narumi’s sister that Narumi had passed away three weeks ago already, and she’s sorry, she had no idea that no one had told her. In all honesty, the years had been so long since we’d seen her, and the silence between Narumi and her so final, we had forgotten that Narumi’s sister even existed.
Narumi Kai’s life was etched with this degree of suffering. During her last years, you could see that suffering carved on her face, in the very lines of her skin, bark-like and coarse. Her hair was like a weathered birch tree, pitch white. She slouched in her wheelchair and her stout body had to be wheeled from one location to the next, since she had long lost her ability to transport herself. It was easy to compare her to lumber, sedentary and ancient. We imagined tree rings circling her petrified organs, marking every moment of loss. But she wasn’t like a tree, really, Narumi Kai was more like the tree’s stump. And towards the end, the tree’s ghost.
Even then, she gave guidance. Wheeled to the front of the Gohonzon Room, the mahogany shrine towering behind her, she would recite the grand teachings of the Lotus Sutra. There are Three Ages of Buddhism, she told us. We are living in the final, Third Age, one that will last 10,000 years. It’s a terrible time, marked by suffering. We are living it right now. That’s why we practice. She would say, “You chant. You can face anything. Understand?” During her final months, her voice became hoarse and we had to lean forward in our folding chairs. Her beautiful teeth had decayed, and her dentures were clumsy in her mouth. And yet her guidance continued to enthrall each member in the room, up to sixty strong, from the young boys and girls to the most stoic of Men’s Group members. Her mind fading, her Japanese mixed with English and her fables became her truth.
She told us how she would often see Benjamin and how he would nag her anytime she wanted to skip chanting. In life, he always complained of how much time she put into the practice, but death had made him devout. At other meetings, she would reminisce about her parents and how she planned to visit them in Tokyo next Christmas, she was so close to having the money saved, and she regretted not calling them or writing them letters. Towards the end, she revealed that Sammy, her sweet musuko, had returned. He was the mourning dove pecking at her nursing home’s feeder. He visited early every day. Sometimes Sammy came so close to her, right to her dead legs, his head bobbing up and down, that she knew he was attempting to tell her something. Sammy had been such a troublemaker as a child, always trying to get away from her. So, of course, every time she would try to pick her musuko up he would flutter away.
She was worried he would never return, but every day he did. Every time he arrived, she tried to wait until hecame to her, but she couldn’t control herself, she wanted to hold him. Her determination was to concentrate at staying still so Sammy would be able to give her his message. And then, finally, she too could die.
We listened to these stories intently. But we knew, from Narumi’s own teachings, that we would not return from the dead to visit our loved ones, or live future lives as birds or insects or fleas. The cause we created in our past lives could only influence our present condition if we continued in the same form. Creating cause as humans, we will suffer the effects as humans. But we loved her, all of us loved her, and if she believed the mourning dove was her son, who were we to contradict her?
As gifts, during holidays and visits, we would bring her bags of bird feed. When Narumi Kai was too sick to get out of bed, Kim Johnson, who was receiving chemotherapy herself, bought her a see-through bird feeder and had her husband, Rich, install it outside Narumi’s window at the nursing home. When Narumi was dying, that last week in the hospital, she lay in her bed, looking out the window. Waiting.
Who knows if she saw that mourning dove again, towards the end? That last week she couldn’t even speak, couldn’t even recite her prayers. Her faith had outlasted her body and even her mind. When George Motley visited and stayed with her, he was sure that when her lips moved, wordless by then, they moved only to propagate the law. Coming from George, who was deep into his own cynicism by then, this meant a lot.
No one saw her final moments. No one was there to see Narumi Kai find some small victory before her death. One night she was waiting. The next morning, nurses found her and her eyes were stuck wide open. She had died alone.
And we couldn’t help wondering. Was it her failure or ours?
After Narumi Kai died, for days we found ourselves trapped in a malaise. We chanted listlessly. At the Tacoma Peace Center, our Nam-myoho-renge-kyo was muted and uncoordinated. The Peace Center, tucked in between a Driver’s Ed School and a beauty salon along a row of dilapidated shops and businesses, now seemed even more gray and industrial than before. The Gohonzon Room itself, never ornate to begin with, looked truly drab and mundane. We could no longer hide the mustard walls with our extravagant banners that promise victory for the new century. We could see through them and noticed the paint chipping, the little concave dents in the wall widening. Was this really where we met to propagate the law? Amidst this decay?
We did not question the practice. We questioned ourselves.
Did we not confront these Latter Days with the same strength as our pioneer members had before us? If we were more worthy, would Narumi Kai have somehow survived long enough to find true peace? True proof? Where was the proof in Narumi Kai’s storied life? We had no proof, and our hearts ached. For days, we questioned. Until her service.
At the funeral home, we gathered around Narumi’s coffin and recognized that smile that we thought had been long lost. That same smile she had carried when she propagated the law door to door. Her white hair seemed serene, like untouched snow. Even her battered cheeks had a vibrant pink glow. We knew then. Narumi Kai was removed from this body, and all the suffering attached to her life had been washed away at the moment of death. Surely her next life would be one of great fortune.
We believe this. We have to.
We took our turns bowing to Narumi’s body and some of us smiled, and some of us cried but this was our proof. And then, hundreds of us together, we chanted for Narumi’s next arrival.
We pictured a newborn sheltered on a secluded island, untroubled by these Latter Days. We pictured a young girl doing somersaults in a bamboo garden. Or a boy climbing a cherry tree. Some of us, we couldn’t help it, we pictured a baby mourning dove, staring at the giant burning Sun.