A Fire Brings Father and Daughter
Closer - by Shizue Seigel
"Courtesy of Nikkei West: Northern California's Japanese American Community Newspaper, www.nikkeiwest.com"
Yesterday I got word that my 83-year-old father's house had burned down in the middle of the night. The message came fourth-hand: my old boss heard from
my dad's old Army buddy who heard from the widow of another buddy. Good thing the Japanese American community is so good at networking. My dad is so
independent that he didn't call anybody, not even his brother, who lives nearby. I called the hotel where the Red Cross had put Dad up, but he wasn't there.
Then I called Phil, Dad's Army buddy to get more information.
Phil's wife Sue answered the phone. "Phil's out right now, but as soon as he gets back, we're driving up to Stockton." The Nisei are so practical in crisis situations, I thought. They've dealt with so many of them that they know what to do. I'd left a message on Dad's phone asking him to call and tell me what I could do. Sue and Phil, who are in their 70s, were simply going to drive 150 miles to see him.
"How did it happen, Sue? How bad is the damage?"
"It happened in the middle of the night. Your Dad and his wife just barely made it out, I hear. And their dogs perished in the fire. They lost the whole house. Only the garage is left. Your dad wanted to stay overnight in the garage to guard what remained of his things. The police had to make him go to the hotel."
I envisioned my Dad hunkered in the garage surrounded by charred timbers and collapsing walls. I decided he 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 my father. Then I packed on overnight bag, got some cash, and asked my partner Ben to go with me to Stockton. I offered to drive part-way, but instead I fell asleep. What with a book deadline and helping a sick friend, I was exhausted.
All my life, I've asked my dad what he wanted from me. "I don't need anything," he'd always say. In the current situation, if I had gotten him on the phone, he probably would have said, "Nah, you don't need to come." Dad stiffens when he sees a hug coming, he rushes me off the phone because he doesn't want to run up my bill. 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 Ben and I got to Stockton, we drove right past Dad's house. There was no scorched earth, no pile of rubble. From the outside, the house looked pretty much intact. On closer inspection, the walls were dark with smoke and the roof shakes warped from water damage. Dad was in the garage with some friends, making an inventory of his belongings. I got out of the car with tears in my eyes and rushed up to hug him. He looked surprised and pleased to see me for a second. He recovered quickly, and introduced me to his friends. They were Japanese-speakers, so we couldn't really have a conversation.
"Are you are all right, Dad? How bad is the damage?"
He told me about the $150,000 in property damage, the $100,000 in personal losses, the insurance coverage and his plans for the next month, which he intends to stick to. Then 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 remembered and cared. He took me into the house and showed me the rafters burned halfway through, the refrigerator whose facing was entirely burned away. I shuddered when I saw how close the bottom of the stairs were to the hottest part of the fire. He'd had a close call.
Kicking at charred carpet and twisted metal, Dad talked for an hour about his manuscript, 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."
Dad was softer and less judgmental 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 who didnšt 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 street outreach worker 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.
I told Dad that I was expecting him to live just as long as Uncle George, who is in his late 90s and still kicking. The fire scared me. I almost lost him. If the smoke alarm hadn't woken them up, he and his wife might not have made it. Dad is a crotchety old bird, and tough. He didn't want me to stay and help clean up the mess. As he pushed me out the door, he loaded me up with foodstuffs that he'd been buying in bulk and storing in the garage. A practical move he won't be able to use the the food until his house is fixed, 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" maybe even "I love you." He did actually manage to say, "Thank you for coming. It was nice of you to drive up here." That was a first he's never thanked me for anything. 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 youšre all right."
Driving home, I thought about how much I've learned from Dad. He taught me to be proud to be Japanese American, to understand Japanese culture and spirituality, to be impeccably honest, to love books and travel, to enjoy talking to lots of different people. He taught me to notice how much I had been given and to give back to those in need. He's taught me so much. I wish I could teach him how to talk what's deeply emotional, about what touches his soul. I wish I can teach him to be more open-minded. But he's the only dad I have. And I'll take him as he is.
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 had to be secret. Mine is more open and a lot more diverse. But 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 both of us are fighting against ignorance and injustice, racism and classism each in our own way.
Shizue Seigel is a San Francisco writer and art director. She was formerly the managing editor of Nikkei Heritage, the quarterly magazine of the National Japanese American Historical Society, and English editor of the Nikkei monthly, The Beam.