I’m laying, dazed, in bed at my family’s house in Chiba, Japan, nursing a horrible head ache. Yesterday was my grandpa’s funeral.
It all began the day after I got back from South Africa. It was a 28 hour trip and I was excited to be back home in San Francisco to get some work done before the holidays. Then my sister Hanami IMed me during Staff meeting.
“Gigi’s in a coma. He had a heart attack.”
The rest of the day I was distracted at work. Later that afternoon, I went to a birthday party for Chelsea Manning outside in the Castro to perform with my flash mob a piece we did for the Manning contingent at Pride parade. Right before we performed my sister called to tell me he passed away.
We spent almost every summer with him when we’d come to Japan, but I never felt close to him in the normal let’s-share-laughs-and-feelings kind of way. He was tall, stern, practical, and a man of few words—unless that is, you got on his bad side. If you tried to make small talk, he’d ignore you. If you did something he thought was irrational, he’d let you know immediately by giving you one of his lectures about why you’re not making any sense and that you should think about how not to be an idiot. He valued pragmatism over all else, within his own established structure of duties and obligations.
For him, his highest duty was to his family. After spending World War II as an airplane engineer and seeing the horrors of the Tokyo firebombing, he had an arranged marriage to my grandma, a beautiful, tiny girl who escaped her family from the countryside. They had three children, my mom being the oldest. They were poor, really poor, as most families were in post-WWII Japan. He worked crazy hours for years to build a chain of successful pachinko businesses and pulled them out of poverty. He was known to be forthright, but never to be played for a fool.
But he showed his love in his own way. When we were little, he always took us to the Chiba zoo and amusement parks. We’d be home watching TV on a hot day, and he’d slowly saunter in and drop a big bag of ice cream bars or rice balls or fireworks on the table in front of us and walk away. We’d scream “Thank you Gigi!!!” in Japanese and he’d just grunt back. Sometimes, he’d come and suddenly announce that he made reservations at a hot springs hotel for a few nights and demand that we were all going. Sometimes we’d already have other plans but there wasn’t any way to argue with him.
Two days after he died, Hanami and I got on a plane to attend the funeral. It was a Buddhist ceremony. Like my grandma’s funeral eight years ago, its rituals didn’t feel gratuitous at all, but each felt meaningful and purposeful. After the monk’s prayers, each person in my family went up to pray and say our farewells to his spirit as we lit incense next to his body. Our whole family filled his coffin with flowers until only his face showed through a mass of white and dark pink petals. I whispered to my sister that he’d probably think this was humiliating.
The most haunting and most important part is the cremation process. After the prayers, we all drove to the crematorium. There, we each said our goodbyes for the last time. They then took him into a hall with a line of elevator-like doors, and placed his coffin into one. After about 2 hours they took us into a room where they wheeled in a silver table covered in bones. We were given long silver chopsticks, and in pairs, we lifted his bones into the urn. After we each did so, the cremator guy told us which pile of bones came from which part of his body. As I said before, he was really tall for a Japanese man, so his bones barely fit into the container. We all watched as the he had to struggle to break up the pieces with his silver chopsticks. When he apologized for having to do this, my aunt told him to do what he had to do to fit him in there. A few of us laughed out of the absurd morbidity of the situation.
At the end, the pieces of the skull are placed into the container—so as to recreate the alignment of the body. I don’t think there’s anything at all that reminds you of how ephemeral life is until you’re made to interact with human death in such a direct way.
When I told my friends and colleagues why I was going to Japan, they gave me their condolences. I was sad, am sad, but he was so hard to love. Despite everything he did for the family, his inability to express his feelings, to compromise with others, and to just be able to have a simple conversation about anything in life all made it so hard to be near him. It makes me sad that he had to build his cold exterior as a defense mechanism, and that this was expected of a man in his generation…that this caused so much pain for everyone around him and led to him living alone.
While he never once showed any weakness to anyone, you can see his gentleness in his paintings. He was a landscape painter. It was a skill that, pretty hilariously, he acquired from watching hours of Bob Ross on TV. His works are all of peaceful scenes of the Japanese countryside. I wish I got to know that side of him, to get a chance to talk to him about his painting technique, or at least about his thoughts about art. But that just wasn’t the kind of relationship he had with anyone.*
(*) My sister just read this and said, “Oh I painted with him this one summer. He was trying to teach me but he kept yelling at me that I was doing everything wrong. He even corrected my painting after I was done…with oil pastels. He was being such a huge asshole.” So there you go.