Pieces of my father sit on a white bookshelf in the spare bedroom of my apartment. Beside them: a dormant orchid, a set of neglected o-nenju, a quartet of childhood photographs in which I sport a bowl cut and my brother, regrettably, has box braids.

Last summer, I spent hours rearranging the bookshelves, combing Craigslist for the perfect desk, agonizing over rug colors and ergonomic office chairs and the right type of pen. My partner and I dubbed this room the Multi-Purpose Room, envisioning a creative space we could share, a room in which we would tend to our dreams, a collection of houseplants, and maybe, once we could afford a sleeper sofa, guests.

And yet, even though I found the perfect desk for fifty dollars, even though framed artwork covers the walls, even though there is a stained-glass hummingbird hanging from the window facing West Olympic and an elegant photograph of him next to my computer, even though I turn off the WiFi and leave my phone in the living room and attempt to write before the sun rises and well after it falls, I can rarely focus. Instead, my attention is pulled to the bookshelf beside me. To the little gray urn that holds my share of Dad.

Mostly, I wonder which pieces of him I got. I imagine plucking the little plastic bag out of the stone jar and spilling its contents across my desk or pouring them through a sieve or simply sticking my bare hand inside and feeling around, the way one hunts for loose change in the cushions of a couch.

I know that the likelihood of a good find – a single metal stent, a molar, the cherished hyoid bone – is slim to none. Because when someone is cremated in America, their remains are double processed. Burned, then crushed. Fed into a machine called a cremulator and ground to a fine dust or something akin to coarse sand, depending.

Cremains, that’s the official term.

I suppose the goal is to make the dead unrecognizable. To remove the metal joints and gold fillings, to destroy the bones that managed to survive the fire, so that if someone were to lift the lid or open the bag or pour the contents into the sea, they would not feel the urge to look away. Nothing about the grey silt would remind the bereaved that it once held the form of something other, something human. Someone they once knew, touched, loved.

This way, the American way, the last time you see the dead they are whole and human. Just sleeping, you can tell yourself. And the next time you see them, all you see is dust.


We are standing in a brightly lit room. Me and Dad and my aunt and her son-in-law and her two grandchildren. Technically, my cousin is there, too. She is in the center of the room, lying in a white casket, dead. The room is the size of a large walk-in closet, or perhaps a small bedroom, according to your frame of reference, and we are arranged in a circle around the casket, surrounding my cousin who is surrounded by flowers. Dozens of lilies and bright purple orchids and white chrysanthemums, stems not yet brown and petals not yet wilted, shroud her from shoulder to toe. Only her face is visible, a swath of glossy ink black hair, the collar of her white kimono, the right side folded over the left.

At least, I think, she looks beautiful. Her makeup is flawless, not a blemish in sight, her cheeks painted the perfect shade of coral, her lips plump and wet. There is no trace of grey beneath the ivory powder. Somehow, she is glowing. Somehow, I think, she doesn’t even look dead.

Selfishly, I feel relieved by this observation, comforted by the idea that her husband may marvel at his wife’s beauty to the end, that her twelve-year-old daughter might imprint such a pretty final portrait of her mother. I remind myself of these consolations as I watch the kids, their faces ruddy and wet, cry. They wipe their eyes with the backs of their hands and bite their lips and swallow large gulps of air between sniffles to catch their breath. They try to be quiet about it. Occasionally, their father attempts to comfort them in equal silence. He rests his palm against his daughter’s back. He pats her younger brother on the shoulder. He mutters something as he lifts his rimless eyeglasses to pinch the bridge of his nose.

Dad and I know that it’s not our place to cry, so we don’t. We are there solely for support, to do whatever my aunt tells us to do and whatever our relatives told us we should do even if my aunt refuses. We are guests in their grief and act as such.

An hour ago, we were entirely unaware of this bright white antechamber reserved for goodbyes. In fact, we thought that the funeral was over, a fair assumption given that the priest did his chanting and we did our praying, holding our palms together in gassho. We offered incense. We took lilies and purple orchids and white chrysanthemums from the black lacquer trays the funeral home attendants offered to us like hors d’oeuvres and laid the flowers on my cousin’s chest, on her hands, on her knees, along with everyone else. We bowed to the funeral goers after they bowed to us and accepted their condolences while making sure to keep our eyes glued to the floor.

If we were at the San Jose Buddhist Church, this is when we would have walked across the street to the Annex or down North 5th to a restaurant in J-Town. There would be platters of sushi adorned with sliced oranges and an endless supply of beer. And although we were drunk on the familiar perfume of smoldering agarwood, we are not, of course, at the San Jose Buddhist Church. We are in Japan.

Still, when my aunt told us we should get on the black bus idling outside of the funeral home, we did not think to ask where we were going.

She said we were going for the reception and whatnot.

And we said, We will go wherever you’re going, and offered sympathetic smiles, the sort with no teeth. At her direction, we climbed onto the bus and chose window seats from which we admired this unfamiliar city, a blur of gray and brown and brick whizzing past.

We never, not once, wondered what the whatnot was.

That is, until the bus arrived here, at this enormous gray building with a sloping roof and tasteful landscaping and light wood floors and a bevy of perfectly polite, perfectly solemn, perfectly dressed attendants. Here, to the crematorium, where my cousin was already waiting.

Other guests rode the bus, too. In-laws and close friends and relatives with one degree of removal but no more than two. But these people are waiting in another, larger room with low banquet tables and large windows that look out to a garden of black pine trees with meticulously raked gravel. They are waiting for us to finish our goodbyes and then we will all eat, together.

It is the attendant who moves first. Silent, he appears as if from air and takes a long step forward toward the casket. Though we followed the flit of his black coattails down the hallway and through the door, just where, exactly, he has been hiding in this stark white box, remains unclear.

In quiet, indiscernible Japanese, he speaks to my cousin’s widower. There is nodding and bowing and silence, the latter of which my father ignores.

“Do you want to say anything to her?” Dad asks my aunt in the closest thing to a whisper he can manage. Which is to say, not a whisper at all. He places his palm on the hump of her kyphotic back and bends forward so that their cheeks are mere fingerbreadths apart, twin round heads on the same level. It occurs to me that this is the closest I have ever seen my father to any of his other siblings. But time has shrunk my already tiny aunt so that even I tower over her, making nearness a necessity.

I think she shakes her head no. Or says, It’s alright, or otherwise politely refuses. She does not sob or speak or reach. She grips the handle of her cane with both hands and just stares, studying her only child who lays in a white casket in the center of the room, her body covered in a blanket of fresh flowers, while the rest of us wait.

Minutes – or perhaps seconds – pass but feel like hours. A pang of guilt strikes when I wish silently for this to be over. And then, like instant punishment, my aunt turns and looks up, craning her neck to peer over her shoulder. She turns and looks up. At me.

“Well,” she says, “I guess this is it.” A small laugh escapes from her mouth, which is shaped into something like a smile or maybe something closer to a grimace. Tears well at the rims of her eyes but do not fall. Her voice is small, smaller than she is, and this makes my own voice nonexistent.

Somehow, I manage a smile.

Dad pats her on the back the way big brothers do.

The attendant closes the casket gently, as though it’s made from glass, and steps to the right of it. He takes two more steps backward, toward the wall opposite us, on which there is another door and a large rectangular window that I did not notice until now. On the other side, there is a wide hallway lined with what appears to be a row of elevators. Soft yellow light glows from recessed lighting buried in the floor.

From the waist, the attendant bows, his arms militant in their straightness, his gloved hands stuck at his sides. We bow back.

And then he takes her.

Together, we watch this two-person processional through the window. We watch as he reaches the elevator opposite our little room, as he turns to bow once more. We watch the doors open. We watch him push her through. When the casket fits neatly into the elevator that is not, I realize now, an elevator at all but a cremation chamber, the attendant pauses, takes several steps backward, and bows at such an angle that his upper body vanishes, his chest parallel to the ground.

Beside each cremation chamber is an LED touch screen, squares of bright in the darkness. The attendant pulls the white glove from his right hand and reaches it toward the screen. At first, it glows blue. But after he taps it several times with his bare fingers, the screen turns red.

Like ember.


That we were present at the funeral was mere coincidence. For my cousin happened to die the week my father wrapped up his class at the university and I happened to call my aunt on the day her daughter collapsed. To see about us having dinner, all together.

The truth is that neither my father nor I knew my cousin very well at all. We had to wait until we were home to rifle through boxes of faded paper in search of the old family directory that listed each person’s birthday, birthplace, address, and Chinese zodiac sign so we could do the math. Calculate the tragedy. (She was only thirty-nine.)

Although of my father’s nine living siblings and my numerous cousins – most of whom remained in California, most near San Jose – my father and I had spent more time with her than anyone else, our visits were brief and limited by both time and language. Usually, during our annual stays in Japan, we saved our visits with family for the end, when the summer session was concluded, the papers graded, and my father’s mind was at last free and unoccupied. Last minute calls were made, dinner plans hastily arranged.

Once, my cousin picked us up from the train station in her boxy microvan and took us to a drive-through nikuman spot. We sat in the parking lot and passed soggy cardboard boxes heavy with steamed pork buns to and from the backseat. Most of the time, we met at American-style diners or conveyor belt sushi places or at their home. I have vague memories of squatting beside her at a neighborhood matsuri while watching, entranced, other children scoop goldfish from a tray of water on the ground with palm-sized plastic bowls. I remember skipping across a bridge while fireflies swirled around our heads and the cicadas cheered us on. I remember sitting cross-legged in her living room while she held her daughter in her lap, back when her daughter was still small enough to hold.

But these are just memories, weightless things that live in the back of my mind and revolve around my experiences and mine alone.

Of Mayumi, I knew very little. Perhaps closer to nothing.

I knew that she was an only child, that she was a daddy’s girl, and remained so even after her father was dead. I knew that she collapsed at her daughter’s elementary school and died, a few days later, from a ruptured brain aneurysm no one knew she had. I knew that she left behind a mother, a husband, a daughter, a son, and a small business that was sort of a bar or maybe a restaurant or a combination of both.

All of which amounted to scarcely more than a sketch of who Mayumi was or who she might have become. An entire lifetime reduced to summary, to a handful of cold, impersonal details that were nothing more than facts.

It was the blank space between, where you imitate a person’s laugh or mention every odd habit you can remember because you’re afraid you’ll forget, those things that make a person a person and not a list, that gnawed at me. Especially as we stood there, huddled around the glossy white casket in which Mayumi laid, witnessing her body in its final moment as something whole.

I worried that we were intruding. Trespassing into someone else’s grief.


In the banquet room, the rest of the bereaved are seated. Waiting.

On the long tables that stretch from end to end, there are bottles of sake and cans of beer and pitchers of chilled orange juice, condensation collecting on glass. At every place setting sits a black lacquer box and set of chopsticks. Sunlight seeps in through the windows and scatters itself across the expectant faces and for a moment our attention is drawn once again to the living.

As we take our seats, the room thickens with sound: chatter and clinking and the rustle of cloth napkins being shaken out across laps. Soon, silence is smothered by dozens of voices and trills of laughter in different keys. I wonder if everyone is sharing stories about Mayumi, or lamenting her premature death, or making small talk about the weather or the funeral or the food.

We sit at a table reserved for immediate family. My father’s cousins from Osaka crawl across the straw floor to greet us, smiling wide so that their gold teeth wink beneath the light. We pour beer into tall glasses and say kanpai. We take greedy bites of fish and sip soup between laughs. Photographs are taken, some posed and others candid, to commemorate this moment. Later, we will muse aloud that if it were not for the all-black attire, for the string of pearls around my aunt’s neck, these pictures might be mistaken for Fujimoto Family New Year or a birthday or an anniversary party or a wedding.

All the while, a body burns.

It takes a few hours, about two. Not as long as I thought.


Our attendant returns as the lunch boxes are being cleared. He has slipped into the room, as seems to be his style, without much notice, a well-dressed ghost. From his tone and hand gestures, I glean that he is requesting our presence elsewhere. Maybe he explains what will happen next and we miss it because my father is too busy talking or because my father is almost completely deaf. Maybe the attendant explains nothing because everyone, except for Dad and I, knows what to expect.

It doesn’t matter. I’m feeling at ease and at peace and relaxed. Beer sloshes in my stomach and warms me from the inside out. I trot along in buzzed oblivion, following my cousin’s widower who follows the attendant, the heels of my shoes clacking against the ivory tile.

We walk through a maze of corridors until our faithful guide welcomes us into another, private room. This one is larger and darker than the first. The walls are painted an earthy beige, the lighting adjusted to mimic candlelight, the air conditioning on full blast. It has, I think when I see the rectangular table placed at its center, the vibe of a somber but tasteful dinner party.

There are no seats, but the attendant takes his place at the table’s head and directs us to gather round. Satisfied that his guests are settled, he walks around the table and hands us each a set of oversized mismatched chopsticks with a smile.

The table, I see now, is not empty. In fact, it is covered in a thick layer of what appears to be dust and debris. There are chunks of grey, like jagged pebbles, and several sticks. Curved and uniform, the sticks rest upon the silt, evenly spaced and in perfect alignment.

Like ribs, I think to myself.

And then I get it.

I stare at the tablescape made from my cousin’s remains, the wooden chopsticks in my hand suddenly heavy as stone. I glance at my father. I try to play it cool. I resist the urge to slap his shoulder, to pinch the back of his arm, to whisper in his good ear and ask if he sees what I’m seeing, if he knows what we’re looking at. To see if he gets it.

But Dad does not feel the weight of my gaze. His mind, as always, seems to be elsewhere. Busy. He is fondling his pair of chopsticks, squinting to make out the details of the designs etched into the wood.

One day, many years later, I will learn that this ritual is called kotsuage and that it is an important part of the cremation process in Japan, the moment at which a family delivers what remains of their loved one from this world to the next. That the mismatched chopsticks represent these two separate worlds, that you always start at the feet and work up to the head to ensure that the dead walk into their new world right side up.

But today, I know none of this. And apparently, neither does Dad. It is not until bones are plucked from ash, some whole and others broken into shards, and passed from husband to daughter to son to urn, that understanding flickers bright in his eyes. Slowly, he drifts toward the back of the room. Occasionally, I steal peeks at him and watch him fiddle with his chopsticks behind his back.

And yet, the others are calm. My aunt rests a hand on the edge of the table, unfazed. No one cries or sniffles or even flinches. The children’s eyes are wide with wonder. They gasp with delight as the attendant identifies the surviving parts of their mother’s body. Femur, rib, collar bone. When a molar is discovered, the dental filling intact, they look at each other and smile.

Yes, their faces say, there she is.

One by one, from foot to crown, what is left of Mayumi is picked up with care and passed between her beloveds. Pieces of her are dropped into the stone urn and land with a thud so soft they seem almost weightless.

Meanwhile, Dad and I just watch. He does not raise his hand and ask questions. He does not urge my aunt to participate. Remarkably, he does not even appear to be biting his tongue.

For the first time in my life, my father is still.


In her eulogy, a former student described my father as a hummingbird. Constantly in motion. Tireless, he had an unfathomable amount of energy. He flew from place to place, person to person, meeting to meeting. He was impossible to keep up with much less capture. He could not help but cross-pollinate. It was irrepressible, that longing to bring together students and colleagues and organizers and farmworkers and strangers and anyone who would answer back when he approached them and said, a grin stretched across his face, Say, let me ask you this.

And it was all true, of course. Dad was an extrovert by nature and a sociologist by trade. People were his sole vice, the closest thing he had to an addiction. He taught at the same northern California university decades into what was technically his retirement. His eightieth birthday marked little more than another year gone by, for he remained a member of boards and grass roots organizations, a mentor, an oft-invited guest lecturer, and the professor of a six-week study abroad course held every summer in Kyoto, Japan. He had two offices on campus and three in our house, not including the makeshift workspace in the living room comprised of a plastic picnic table, a folding metal chair, a desk lamp, and mountains of loose paper.

Do what you love, and it won’t feel like work, he would say. Sometimes gravely, an unsolicited offering of fatherly wisdom, and other times – most times – with a laugh.

But by his mid-eighties, against the will of his mind, his body began to slow. He decided to retire – this time for real. The study abroad course, and thus, our annual visits to Japan, ceased to exist. He no longer biked to campus and spent his day flitting between offices, arranging meetings and crashing others, returning home with napkin-wrapped bundles of cake. He was, we saw though refused to admit, changing. There were several falls and a nasty bike accident. A handful of hospitalizations. A few unsettling episodes of disorientation, of not knowing where he was or why.

Better not to venture out alone, he reasoned, dragging us along.

And so, my mother drove him to doctor’s appointments and called him sweetie, and my middle brother began to visit more often, and my eldest brother, who long lived with schizophrenia, began to do more yard work, and often reminded us with pride that this was his responsibility because he was, after all, the Number One Son. I opened a credit card with Jet Blue to make the miles between New York and California worth something. I took my father to the International House for a screening of a movie about the life of Van Gogh, to Hunan for their daily lunch special, to the beach. I cleaned and organized his office, the one in our house, the one he sat in less and less frequently, and played show-and-tell with found ephemera from the life he lived before I was even a glimmer of a thought.

Sure, he was aging, but this was expected. Inevitable. At least, I told myself, he was still himself.

And then the Post-It notes appeared, though no one noticed them at first. My father had always had an affinity for Post-Its, for their versatility and brightness and abundance. A favorite ice breaker, he began lectures and classes by passing a stack of sticky notes to his audience, and would ask, after the whispers died down, each person to write down various facts. The birthplace of their parents and themselves, hometowns, native languages, college majors, a single hope for the upcoming year. He would point to the tattered paper map that hung on the wall behind him, the corners covered in masking tape, and instruct each person to stick their finished Post-It note onto it. Place it where you were born, where you are from, where you live now, he would say, depending on the group and the carefully chosen map.

Look, he would say, smiling, after everyone had returned to their seats, at all the differences between you. Then, to the confusion of his audience, he would shake his head, rub his brow, and begin, suddenly, to teach. Later, beneath the glow of the desk lamp in our living room, he read every sticky note, one by one, tracing each word with his fingertip, careful not to disturb their place on the map.

The humble Post-It was often employed around our house, too. My father plastered them to cabinets and drawers, taped them onto binders and notebooks and cloudy Tupperware containers with missing lids. Even now, faded Post-It notes flutter from the shelves, falling on the ground like cheap confetti. Little love notes that read: spices, 1999, AA batteries, Tule Lake, Central Valley Partnership, family. Reminders, to-do lists, the sort of things most people use Post-It notes for, never. That would be predictable, expected, not at all like Dad.

I think it was around the time my aunt was dying that I first noticed them. Back in 2016, after my father and I had returned from what would be our last trip together to Japan, when we visited my aunt in Sakai and combed her hair in the living room beside a black butsudan against which a framed portrait of Mayumi leaned. I was in California, a quick visit back home between shifts. My mother had rented a dumpster that sat on the street outside, waiting for me to feed it with armfuls of old newspapers and magazines and promotional flyers and rat-chewed suitcases and broken furniture my father finally agreed he probably could not find a way to use.

I had finished cleaning the room where my father slept and went to turn off the light. It was when my fingers found the sharp edges of paper instead of the light switch that I saw, for the first time, the triptych of blue Post-It notes taped to the wall. Wild, my father’s handwriting was unmistakable, and in black felt tip marker the paper squares read:


ingrown toenail

restless leg syndrome

Throughout my childhood and adolescence, decoding my father’s cryptic and often illegible notes was somewhat of an assigned chore. He left annotated newspaper articles on my bed and frequently approached me with open composition notebooks covered from margin to margin in his scrawl to ask if I could decipher a certain line, buried beneath curls of ink. But because of my father’s hearing impairment, I was often tasked with taking the notes myself. I scribbled answers to his questions, transcribed addresses and phone numbers and directions and shorthand notes during lectures I did not understand while he chirped repeatedly over my shoulder, Did you catch that? Somehow, in ways I still do not understand, I managed to answer the phone in our apartment in Japan and convey the caller’s message. I could discern his a’s from his o’s, predict which details of a colleague’s answer to his question he would care to hear, and point to the seemingly random assortment of words and numbers etched into the jacket of his notebook and know, before he could ask, that this was the password to his computer he had forgotten.

I was, basically, fluent in Dad.

And yet, this trio of notes was different. It was not just cryptic, but illogical. My father was eccentric, certainly, but his idiosyncrasies could be easily explained by anyone who truly knew him. The year he spent studying the art of telling jokes, toting around an oversized encyclopedia of comedy made for kids, was just another ploy to connect with people. He was fixated with avoiding waste, and so used empty cans of Planter’s Peanuts as pencil holders on his desk. He frowned at anything new and insisted on buying shoes at garage sales because, no matter how successful he had become, memories of knocking on doors to sell shiny aluminum Jesus trinkets to white people after the war never left.

I stood in the doorway staring, repeating the three maladies under my breath: breathe, ingrown toenail, restless leg syndrome. But I couldn’t link them, couldn’t find any plausible explanation, any reason why my father would decide to plaster these three things to the wall of the room in which he slept.

That he might, at what was unquestionably the latter part of his life, become someone I could no longer recognize, scared me. Quick, I turned off the lights. It’s just Dad, I told myself, even though it wasn’t. I pretended that I hadn’t seen the Post-It notes at all.


My father and I were sixty years apart, which meant many things, some obvious and others less so. To him, the most remarkable feature of our multigenerational age gap was that, by some turn of fate or coincidence, he and I were both born in the same Chinese zodiac year. The year(s) of the rooster: 1933 and 1993, respectively.

But to me, our age difference meant only that despite life’s many uncertainties, I could probably count on my father dying before I hit thirty. Before I was ready. Before I was me.

Both old enough to be my father and, often, when I was younger, mistaken as such, my older brothers, born out of Dad’s first marriage, received a normal amount of time to know him. By the time he was dying, their well of memories ran decades deep. There had been equal opportunity to disappoint and delight, a chance to meet grandchildren, partners, ex-partners, and several cohorts of friends. Dad had watched graduations and celebrated milestone birthdays. He was there for all the diagnoses and treatments, for every addiction and recovery. He had seen each of his sons go through multiple iterations of their sense of self.

“It’s okay, Dad,” my second brother said as he cradled our father’s hand with his own, “You can let go now.” His voice was soft and certain, his demeanor calm.

From the pleather recliner where I sat and watched, I bit my tongue to keep from shouting, No!

Although during the four months I cared for my father as he was dying, I made sure to tell him that I loved him, that I was grateful, that he had been a wonderful father – the best anyone could ask for – I never told him that it was okay to go.


If you ask my mother, she might say that I was an anxious child, nervous and shy. When I was a preteen, she regularly confronted me about what she thought were concerning levels of stress. As I grew older, I became more skilled at hiding it, at dressing these worries up and disguising them as studying or a simple bloodlust for overachievement. Despite racking up an alarming number of absences from class, especially math, I was saved from truancy because I insisted that my time was better spent in the public library, where I spent hours studying for the SAT and researching colleges, rather than sitting in a portable classroom watching the film adaptation of The Scarlet Letter while the substitute teacher slept at her desk. My mother called the school on a weekly basis and excused my absences. I made straight A’s. I made plans.

Hindsight, of course, being crystalline and clear, now I can see how preoccupied my younger self was with that little slice of future that could be controlled. I was in a rush, impatient. I wanted to become this successful, smart, financially independent person in time for my father to meet her. Sometimes, I toyed with the idea of making art. I shoved glossy pamphlets for liberal arts colleges in between the pages of borrowed library books and secretly envied a friend who planned to study poetry. And yet, whenever I tried to picture it, this other, more uncertain future, the details were hazy and dark. Art was the shape of my middle brother’s life. His ceramic sculptures and microphones blanketed with dust were littered around our house, reminders of the risk. More important, I decided, was certainty. More than anything, I wanted to guarantee that I would never need to ask my parents for money when I came home to visit, that my father would not waver when someone asked how I was doing, that he would be able to say, with conviction and pride, exactly the kind of person his daughter was.

So, I became a nurse. A profession that promised job security and respect. A future that could be easily understood with a single word.

The best thing about it, I would say as I sat across from the table from Dad, is that I’ll never have to worry. I can take time off if I want, to do other things like travel or write, and if I need to go back, I’ll always be able to find a job.

He would shake his head, as if in disbelief, and smile. That’s great, Sumi, he would mutter, almost to himself, that’s great.

Years passed. Whole swaths of time spent memorizing reference ranges and symptoms and anatomical landmarks. Years of watching the sun rise over the East River from the eighth floor of a hospital. Years of choosing textbooks over novels because graduate school meant holding another diploma and reading for pleasure meant nothing anyone could see.

It was a secret, how lonely I was, how desperately unhappy, a secret that I kept even from myself. Instead, I told myself that it was important, this work, that it was a privilege to bear witness to such vulnerable moments, that I should be thankful. There was, after all, much to be grateful for, so much worry wiped off my plate. I reminded myself that I liked my job, and that this was made better by the fact that I would never be concerned about not having one. I never had to explain to my father how I intended to pay the rent with a degree in creative writing or history or literature. If the desire to write never struck again, there was no need to do any writing at all.

No risks had to be taken, nothing of myself exposed and left for others to judge.

I was safe. Respected. The whole of me could be easily understood with a single word. And even though when he began dying, my father thought that the year was 2051, didn’t recognize me when I walked into his hospital room, and was holding a handful of blanket up to his good ear as a phone, I continued to tell myself that the path I had chosen was right, even if I wasn’t happy in the life to which it had led me. Because there he was, my little old dad, shouting into a corner of rumpled fabric, I’m calling my daughter in New York. Her name is Esumi. She’s a nurse.

At the time of my father’s death, I was technically a nurse-midwife. But this title was brief, a part of my life that passed quick, like the turn of a page, for I would abandon midwifery shortly thereafter. After, when my father was dead. When I could no longer blame him for the fear, when I was finally forced to admit that the life I wanted looked different, that the families I cared for deserved someone who loved the work so much it didn’t feel much like work at all.


Except I don’t regret the detour. Because if I know one thing about myself, it’s that I like to know where I’m going. And death, as it turns out, mimics birth. Waiting on it feels the same.

Familiar, the feeling of that fickle beginning, when the excitement of its happening settles and the others sit and stare, ignorant of the time it takes for such a transformation, tapping their feet impatiently against the floor as frustration grows. There are tears, arguments, laughter, utter exhaustion. It seems, for a moment, that the end is an impossibility. A mirage.

Our fear tells us, No. Our fear says, We can’t. We close our eyes and hope that everything that led us to this moment will unspool itself, threads of time unraveling into a heap at our feet. We want to turn around and take it back. Not yet, we say, Please, not yet.

But Birth and Death aren’t keen on listening. Birth and Death are one-way rides, twin staircases to opposite destinations. To appease you, they’ll let you slow, sometimes long enough to catch your breath. Breaks of lucidity, of joy, when they’re feeling nice, gifts that we mistake as signs that there might be another way.

There isn’t, of course, another way. Soon, there are fewer moments of lucidity and sometimes, there is no more joy, and defeat begins to loom overhead, casting a shadow of dread on those below.

And just then, a shift happens. To those who have never seen it, heard it, smelled it, the shift is so subtle that it may be missed; the End catches those people by surprise. But for those who have witnessed it before, it is obvious. Unmistakable and impossible to ignore.

So we hold our breath and listen closer, wanting to be sure, fearful of being tricked. We keep silent and just watch. We stay like that until we know, nodding our heads without speaking, that it’s happening. That it’s inevitable. That it’s here.

When it comes, the End is never what you imagined. It is fast and furious when you dreamt of slow and graceful; it is oddly neat when you prepared for mess.

And in those first few seconds after it’s finally done, it is quiet. Just for a moment.

Until the next part begins.


We take a taxi to the train station and rest our heads against the lace-covered seats, listening to the click of the turn signal, the driver’s gloved hands slipping down the steering wheel. Dusk arrives and drenches Sakai in shadow.

I am about to close my eyes when I hear Dad inhale sharply and let a long sigh out. His head is cocked to the left and he is staring at his feet. With his right hand, he rubs his chin.

“Well,” he says.

I brace for the debrief, waiting for his uplifting soliloquy, for him to spin the last few days into something positive, a folktale about serendipity bringing people together in times of crisis, an Aesop fable about family.

But then, he says, “I wasn’t expecting that.” He chuckles until our eyes meet, and when I smile, his chuckle blooms into a full belly laugh.

“That was a lot,” Dad says, after it’s passed.

I agree that it was.

He folds his arms across his chest in a thinking way. Taps his foot in a beat against the carpeted floor of the cab. He stares at the back of the driver’s seat, unblinking.

At last, he returns his finger to his chin and grazes the uneven stubble, still black with hints of gray. Tiny inhale, miniature sigh.

Without looking at me, my father says, “I’ll have to think about it some more.”


Later, I think about it. As I walk down the tree-lined streets of my hometown, admiring the new leaves, I think of everything that came before, the signs that the seasons of my father’s life were changing long before anyone took notice. I think of when I finally asked him about those bizarre Post-It notes taped to his bedroom wall and remember his hesitation before he confessed. They were reminders of the ailments that woke him up, the names of which he kept forgetting but was too embarrassed to ask.

“And breathe?” I asked.

“For getting back to sleep,” he said, demonstrating his best deep breath. A way to calm down when the forgetting kept him up.

I think about everything my father forgot later.

I think about it when I am alone in the living room of my childhood home, after we rearranged the furniture and disassembled the hospital bed, when the skylight spreads sunlight onto stained hardwood floors instead of my father’s legs. Those skinny things, atrophied and weak, bicyclist’s calves lost to illness and age.

I think about it when the memory of the guys from Smith’s Funeral Home lifting my father’s body onto the stretcher comes to visit at night. How Dad’s favorite pink beanie tumbled from his head to the floor, how they pretended not to notice, how they didn’t care to ask if we wanted to put it back on. I think about how they covered my father’s body in silence and without warning, without pausing for final goodbyes or asking if we were ready or looking us in the eye before they did it or saying a single word or acknowledging anything at all.

But America is like that, I think, with death.

No matter. We followed the three of them through the front door, uninvited. We stood on the sidewalk and watched as they pushed him into the van, as they closed the doors, as they drove away.


It took over a week for my father’s ashes to be returned to us. Longer than I thought. His remains were portioned into a large, sealed urn and three miniatures, pieces of him for my two brothers and me. On the bottom of each urn was a tiny white sticky note that read, Contains human remains of Isao Fujimoto, as if this was proof enough.

And yet, I wonder.

I wonder exactly how long it took for his body to burn. I wonder what the machine looked like, the cremulator, the one that ground his bones and teeth into dust. I wonder what the employees at the crematorium wore, what their voices sounded like, what they talked about while they worked. Their children, maybe, or their weekend plans, or what they were going to eat for lunch.

But mainly, I wonder who the last person was to touch my father, or whatever of him remained. I wonder who had the honor of pouring his ashes into four stone urns and closing the lids so no one else had to look.

(He was only eighty-eight.)


Esumi Fujimoto