When my Dad passed away last November, there was no way our family, my older brothers, could hold a funeral right away. Dad died in Salt Lake City, the family columbarium was in Houston, I was in Japan. I looked at the calendar but already know what day we would put Dad in his niche. I told my older brothers that I would be in Houston May 15 to inter Dad if they arranged to have his ashes there and do a Nichiren Shu Buddhist memorial service, as a priest it’s what I can do.
That last time I saw my father was in 2018 when I spent the summer at his apartment. He still drove and did well for 89 but the father I knew most of my life wasn’t there. The last time I saw that father was 2008 when he came to Japan for my graduation from my 35 day final training to become a Nichiren Shu priest, known as Shingyo Dojo.
I had invited him and some old family friends to the ceremony, in the boondocks of rural Japan that is Minobu because I had not been around for my high school or college graduation. And being gay there was no marriage ceremony either, so it was this or nothing to celebrate an important event in my life, and because it was special, my partner had put a lot of effort planning a trip of a life-time for all of us to travel together in Nagano and Kanazawa staying at exclusive hot spring inns with all kinds of special Japanese cuisine and experiences.
All the dates were set and I was almost on my way to 35 days of being cut off from the outside world when Dad threw a curve ball into our plans. Instead of coming into Tokyo together with our family friends, he would arrive in Tokyo a mere 12 hours before graduation took place in Minobu. He wanted to attend his granddaughter’s master degree ‘graduation ceremony’ at UCLA even though it was only an online program she did through her company. He didn’t sound very enthusiastic about it either when I asked him why he didn’t just tell her he was already booked for Japan. “She really wanted me to come,” he said. I could almost hear him shrugging and let it go. I knew his stubborn side and there wan’t time to argue.
Thanks to my partner’s hard work and detailed planning it all went well, so well in fact that I was none the wiser how much extra work, time and money he put into it to pull it all off. It was a dream trip far beyond expectations any of us could imagine. My friends still talk about it 10 years later. But at the very end of an idyllic time in Kanazawa Dad threw one last curve ball: he insisted on taking an early flight to Narita from Komatsu airport. My partner said, “Why does he want to sit in Narita when he can enjoy one last nice breakfast with everybody? You and I have to miss that to drive him to the airport.”
I tried to talk Dad out of it but could not get past his stubborn side that mom fought with so. Not because it inconvenienced her, but because it inconvenienced so many family and friends for selfish, childish, trivial reasons. “You have no feelings for others.” she would say when the argued. What ever the reason, we missed the famous Bororo Inn tofu breakfast, settling for on-the-go Onigiri instead.
Dad had arrived in Tokyo with a cold sore that slowly developed into a sore throat by the end of our trip. Maybe that had something to do with it and wanted to get back to the comfort of home. I do know that when my oldest brother came to Japan with his son in 2010, the first complaint out of his mouth after getting in the front door was, “Dad caught a cold in Japan and I had to take care of him.” Thankfully it was a short trip but full of complaints even though my partner had gone to a lot trouble planning it.
My partner, a non-practicing medical doctor graduated from Keio Medical School didn’t appreciate the complaints and said, ‘Your father already had a cold sore when he got to Tokyo…your brother didn’t notice that when he drove him to the airport in Salt Lake? That’s not taking care of your father. If he cared about your father, he would have noticed.”
When we met up in Houston I had made only one request to my older brothers. I had paid for flowers for Mom’s interment in 2018, when Dad, for some reason I could never figure out, neglected to invite my brothers. Maybe they didn’t want to come, I never found out but was experiencing the Dad that ran away from family responsibility, as he often did. A big stress point for mom their whole marriage.
Since I paid for Mom’s flowers, they should pay for Dad’s flowers. I told my oldest brother to make sure our middle brother paid his share telling him, “It’s not the money, it the gesture that’s important.” He said he understood but knew he didn’t care.
I had prepared a very short version of a traditional Nichiren Shu Buddhist funeral because I was the only Buddhist, and outside of mom, nobody else cared for religion. And it was free of charge. As the date closed in my older brother casually mentioned the funeral operator said would ‘only cost $4,000’ to do Dad’s interment with no details or explanation. I told him, “Dad already paid for everything, get an itemized estimate from them and find out what they’re charging extra.” A week later he emailed me, $4,000 for removing Mom’s urn, mixing the cremains and putting them in one urn.
Immediately I got on the phone, “Are you insane? Do you know how much Mom would hate parting with that kind of money just to put them in a blender? Do we even get to hit the switch? Is that what everybody wants? I don’t.” He didn’t have an answer for that, “I’ll look into it,” but came back with a pissy, superior, business-like message a few days later, “I have confirmed the dimensions and we can fit both urns in the niche.” It was a double niche, he would have know that if had taken the trouble to come in 2018. How he ever ran a successful business was beyond me. But I kept my mouth shut, answering with an ‘OK’ and a picture of the 2018 setup so he could arrange the same details. He came back with, “Two flower vases on either side?” I said, “It’s normal, check with the florist to see if they can do it, otherwise one vase will do. Double check the order as florists forget things in the Mothers Day crush.” He said he would.
On the morning of the 15th we went early to check on the arrangements and flowers. Our director greeted us and went to the flower room to check. No flowers. My brother called the florist. No order. They had no idea of how that had happened. I did.
There was nothing to do but time running out. We went to the columbium and waited for our cousins to arrive. While explaining the Buddhist service I would do I spotted an electric cart speeding up to our place with flowers. As it got close I saw a mass of tired looking red and white roses and muttered ‘what the fuck’. Mom hated roses and I specifically told my brothers, who didn’t care about that kind of stuff, what not to order. From the look of it the florist had grabbed whatever last gasp flowers were left in their flower fridge, or run to Walmarts. Probably the later.
After the service as we took group pictures I told him, “Don’t pay that florist, this is not what we ordered.” “I’ll take care of it.” “It’s not about the money, it’s about getting it right.” I snapped. Our very last opportunity to do anything right for Mom and Dad was gone. “People make mistakes, I’ll take care of it,” he said in pissy, know-it-all, big brother annoyance. Yes, after 60 some years he still plays those tired old cards from childhood. I let it go. No use trying to make my brothers care about what they are incapable of caring about. If mom never succeed in that with that her whole life, neither would I.
Our cousins took us out for lunch at the big, popular, noisy Tex Mex place with big tables, big daiquiri glasses and big plates of enchiladas, tacos and burritos. The service was American style cheery, slow, not very helpful. A daiquiri, food and small talk took the edge off, I sat back to enjoy and take it all in one last time, letting my brothers do the talking. Somewhere in the middle my oldest brother was showing his trip pictures and insisted on showing me the “Magic Castle,” as he gushed, “It’s invitation only and you get to see magicians do everything up close. Dad really enjoyed it.” “When did you go there?” He said they all went out to LA in 2008 to attend his daughters masters degree ceremony, the one who didn’t care about her grandfather or take time to ever visit or call.
As he said it, I felt a violent tug like something was being ripped out of me. My brother forgot that he lied about not going to LA in May 2008, and Dad had lied about going on his own. It was their little secret. I could see my brother telling Dad it didn’t matter. Like the flowers didn’t matter, or it didn’t matter that my partner had to scramble to make things work, or it didn’t matter that my 80 year old father was already exhausted by the time he got to Tokyo.
That my brother didn’t care and lied was nothing new and didn’t matter, Dad’s lie ripped out the last feelings I had for him. I finally saw the sweet, weak man that he was, rudderless without Mom’s guiding heart and soul, to show him what was important to do for others, and why.
My mouth snapped shut. I was silent. My brother rolled his eyes and showed his Magic Castle pictures to my cousin. I recovered enough to put feelings aside and focused on the moment. After lunch we went back to our cousins place for a toast and talking old family times. My brother had brought a box that Dad had left for us, carefully taped shut with his handwritten note: Not to be opened until after my death. He made a big ‘this is my job’ deal of carefully opening it. Inside were a bunch of old letters, things Mom had kept, letters from family friends, a few clippings. I lightly rifled through the pile and immediately knew they were not important to Mom. Dad had only thought they were. All the things he had kept of hers and given away were like that: keepsakes of important things in her life with no understanding of why they were important.
I went outside to the backyard pool, listening to the water, enjoying the quiet. I didn’t mind being the only one to see and experience my family in a certain way but could feel my circuit breaker reaching a limit. As late afternoon slipped into early evening it was finally time to go to the airport. I was the last to go out the door but just before I did, my cousin slipped him arm around me and said quietly, “You all look alike, but only you are just like your mom.” I thanked him for hosting us.
As we drove past the cemetery I took one last look, remembering what an old family friend of mom’s had told me months earlier, “Stop wasting your energy being disappointed by them. They just aren’t capable, they think they care and they say they care but they don’t actually understand what that means beyond saying it. Do it for you, that’s all that matters.”
I had done all that I had set out to do: climbed Shichimensan to get memorial toba made for the service, gotten a new suit, traveled to Houston to do a service and put Dad in his final resting place with Mom. I felt free. But there was one secret left to keep. I couldn’t tell my partner the real reason Dad was nearly too late getting to Tokyo in 2008. My partner was fond of my Dad despite all the extra trouble. I knew he would be disappointed hearing the truth. My feelings for my father were gone, but I never wanted to rob anybody’s feelings they had for him.