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A Fast Ball
I have a friend who says the best things in life ruin you, because they throw you off your well-worn track and challenge you to grapple with the unexpected. "Surprise is life," he says.
I remember the telephone call, on May 5, 1993, that at least temporarily ruined me.
"Hi," Guy began, friendly, immediately intimate, luring me into conversation by not identifying himself—as if I was supposed to recognize his "famous" voice.
"Hello," I replied, wondering why Guy Nakatani was acting like we dallied daily on the phone.
I had met him once, at his presentation on HIV and AIDS at my son's high school. We had talked together, his family and I, about Guy's work and about my books on grieving. They had three sons—two dead, one dying. During those few moments with them, no amount of personal experience could have kept me from feeling like a freshman who had wandered into a graduate seminar; their grief and the reasons for it defied interpretation. But still, there had been some sense of connection.
I propped the phone under my chin, about to say something, although I don't know what. How are you? Somehow, that didn't seem appropriate. But then he proposed we meet for breakfast, informed me of the time and place, and hung up. I made a note in my calendar.
On the way to our date, I replayed the scene at the school where Guy had spoken. He was introduced as a "victim of HIV"; hardly a victim I felt; "conquering hero" was much more to the point. I watched while he worked his magic, coaxing four hundred teenagers and their parents to listen to him, the kind of listening that spreads beyond the ears to involve the whole body, the wide-eyed, pin-drop, edge-of-the-seat kind of listening that preachers pray for. I saw him invade their minds and dissolve their illusions, with simple words that evoked wild laughter and quiet tears, and finally I felt their fear and their sudden, startled uncertainty. He had done it. He had awakened them.
Swept up in the emotion of it all, I moved forward to speak with him. I introduced myself. "Can I do anything?" I stammered, the timeless question offered to the afflicted and the grieving.
Guy did not reply but turned to his parents, who were standing next to him. "This is Molly," he said, nodding my way.
"I'm Alexander Nakatani." His father extended his hand. He was a handsome man, lean and compact, only a little taller than me. The lines on his face were not harsh, and although it appeared that he spent time in the sun, his skin was still smooth. Heavy waves of silver ran through his dark hair. Behind his glasses, warm brown eyes met mine.
"And this is Jane, my wife."
"Thank you for having us here tonight," said the woman beside him. When I found out much later that Jane is only five feet one, three inches shorter than me, I was surprised. From the very beginning, I held fast to the ways we were the same. Once I found a T-shirt that had on its front a drawing of two women walking on a beach, their arms around each other, one dark-haired and possibly Asian, one light-haired and probably Caucasian, their heads bent in conversation. "We're sisters," Jane laughed when I gave it to her. And when she cut her hair short, in a style that resembled mine, she remarked that now no one would be able to tell us apart.
We were both mothers; that much united us, gave us our common language, entangled our feelings. But while I could forget my troubles once in a while, her burdens would never let her go. I understood her captivity in that moment, when we met for the first time. I looked into her beautiful face and saw, still lingering there, a capacity for joy that would never be fulfilled.
Pressing, I came up with an idea of my own. "Maybe I could write something for you. I mean, if there's anything you need written ..." I could feel my voice retreating into my throat as I became aware of how silly I must have sounded. Guy was obviously articulate, as was his father. The presumption that they might need better words was insulting. Thankfully, the moment passed.
But now as I approached the cafe, I wondered if they wanted to take me up on my offer. I knew that Guy had just returned from Washington; perhaps he wanted me to write a letter to the president, demanding that he get serious about HIV. Maybe he wanted me to help him write an epitaph.
Guy was waiting for me. I surprised myself by looking him up and down. I couldn't help it, really, because Guy Nakatani was the most remarkable-looking person in the place. He was wearing a long-sleeved denim shirt, crisp and freshly ironed. His jeans were fashionable, his belt and shoes perfectly matched. A thin sweater vest of soft earth tones hung lightly over the shirt, and topping off his outfit, he wore a gray wool baseball cap, backward, tipped a bit sideways, showing off his mop of still luscious black hair. On the table next to him lay a large brown leather personal planner with a brass clasp.
He got up to greet me, and I embraced him. Beneath the vest and the shirt, I could feel an object protruding from his chest, his Hickman catheter, I later learned, the device that had been surgically installed to feed medicine directly into his heart.
"Is it okay to hug you?" I asked.
"Absolutely, just don't squeeze too tight."
Over breakfast, I expressed my admiration and gratitude for his work. Being the mother of six children, four of them teenagers, I knew that his message was not for somebody else.
"You got to roe, Guy," I admitted.
His forehead wrinkled. "I hope I got to your children."
I felt a little chill.
"There are so many kids out there searching," he said thoughtfully, "and these are the ones who won't know what's happening to them, you know?" He peered at me intently from underneath his hat. "They're vulnerable. Whatever, whoever comes along, they'll just go with it. Like, you know, what's that animal that just follows?"
"Those dumb little creatures that follow the crowd over the cliff and into the sea, where they drown or get eaten by sharks."
I returned his gaze. He was quite serious about this analogy. We finished breakfast and ordered coffee. For a while, silence settled over our table.
"Why am I here?" I finally ventured. I was sure we weren't two old friends just catching up.
He asked me if I had read the recent article about him and his family in the newspaper. I had. It was a long, well-written account of the Nakatani family tragedies and Guy's commitment to informing young people about HIV and AIDS. On the front page was a color photograph of Guy sitting beneath his own portrait, as well as those of his dead brothers. Later I would see them lined up on the living room wall, windows into the past—Glen at the seashore, Greg with the dog, and Guy looking like a model from Gentlemen's Quarterly. The long article struggled to explain the mystery once again: Why would talented young men be so quickly put to death?
"That reporter got me thinking. I want a book about us."
I suspected what was coming and experienced that quickening sensation of going out to meet an interesting idea. He leaned toward me. Never in my life had I been confronted with such an earnest, engaging presence.
"I don't want our legacy to be about a family who lost three sons. There's nothing wrong with our family name." Guy reached across the table and pulled my coffee cup toward him, as if I would eagerly follow. I did, until we were literally nose to nose.
"Our family is an example of honor, dignity, and pride. We've never lost ourselves as a family."
Taken back by the vehemence of his declaration, I started to comment, but he waved me off.
"I've read your books. You understand that it's possible to survive tragedy, and let me tell you, Molly, that is what my family is about. Do you see?"
I was unable to formulate any kind of sensible response to this statement in the allotted time. This family's tragedy was tremendous, unspeakable. I had no idea what he meant by survival. One brother murdered, another already claimed by a devastating disease; none would reach the age of thirty. Despite all I had written about the transforming power of the grief process, I wasn't sure Alexander and Jane Nakatani would survive the complete destruction of their family.
But he had just flattered me with the possibility that I understood it all, so I said, stupidly, "Yes, Guy, I see."
He sat back and smiled, this time a Cheshire cat grin that failed to hide his satisfaction with our discussion. "I want my story told, and you can tell it. You should do this."
At this point I was reeling, wondering how my life had been so easily snatched from my control. Of course, I was interested; but I needed time to think about it.
Guy just kept smiling.
I look back now on that moment with great affection. But make no mistake about it: I'd been had.
Later, he was triumphant, or was it smug? "I knew you would do it," he teased.
"You did not, Guy," I insisted, not wanting to give anything away. "I didn't know I would do it."
I had gone home and had several thousand discussions about Guy's proposal with various friends and loved ones. The sides of the argument lined up in front of me: I had already begun another book, which, I decided, could be temporarily abandoned. I would have to spend a great deal of time with Guy, away from my own family, and yet my husband, Chuck, and our older children were unconditionally supportive, even excited about the project. And finally, the Nakatani story was drenched in sadness; would I eventually become too weighted down with their burdens to enjoy my own life?
I called the friend who thinks so highly of surprise.
"Molly," he said solemnly, "what do you do with a fast ball over the middle?"
Even if I hadn't been a baseball fanatic since childhood, I'd been to enough Little League games since then to know how things work at the plate.
"You gotta swing."
And so it was decided. Whatever plans I had carefully prioritized for the immediate future were tossed aside like yesterday's newspaper. I would opt for the unexpected.
However, I did not jump fearlessly into the Nakatani family abyss. And I'm sure that many others, once acquainted with their story, moved away quickly, unable or unwilling to stay. Some of that I understood. For the compassionate, there is more than enough human misery to go around. And some tragedies are so staggering, so foreboding, one is compelled to stare straight ahead and walk by. A father and a mother lose all their children—to even begin to feel their pain is a threat to my own well-being.
However, I perceived the presence of other, more subtle dangers. This father, viewed through the scratched glass of the American way of life, had done everything right. He had worked hard to provide shelter and security for his sons and every opportunity for them to succeed. He had played by the rules and then passed them on, assuming his children would be like him, behaving honorably, staying away from trouble. "I value my life," Alexander once told me, "and I figured my kids would, too. Doesn't everyone value their life? Who the hell would risk that?"
What parent among us could answer: my child? Is it my child who might be at risk, at his own hand or that of another? And the scariest thought of all: Could it be that my child is not like me?
For Alexander and Jane Nakatani, that possibility never crossed their minds. Now, sitting amid the smoldering ruins of their family, they confront all those who still have the opportunity to parent with yet another question: How can we make the world safe for gay children?
Say that Alexander and I dare them to consider our story, sex and all. Say that there isn't anything about our lives that was recognizable from the start. The deaths of all our children, of course. But their lives, too, were a surprise to us. This is our greatest regret, not to have known what terrified them. But to other parents, to anyone who has a child in their life to care about, tell them: It was one tragedy that could have been avoided.
I must admit that once immersed in their lives, there arose within me one other pesky, irrational fear. Could their misfortune spread, as surely as the plague? Jane would speak of it periodically, when my car broke down, or when my mother had a heart attack: I had gotten too close and somehow been infected. And dread, sharp and insistent, would hover over me for a moment, until we waved away the Nakatani bad luck with their secret weapon: clear, decisive laughter.
Undoubtedly, anyone who avoided all this unpleasantness also missed the fun. Laughter, a surprisingly common event amid tragedy—some special human quirk, I suppose. Often, when I was with them, we would find ourselves laughing, not just nervous giggles, but belly laughs, gleeful tears streaming down our cheeks. And inevitably, someone would remark, "If anyone saw us now, they wouldn't believe it." It was a nightmare, yes; but it was also something of a fairy tale.
There was the day the man walking his dog on the road to the middle of the island asked, "How are you this morning?" And Jane replied darkly, "You don't want to know," and we found secret merriment in his short glance, the stricken look that crossed his face. Soon, all of Jane's children will be dead. Of course he didn't want to know. Later, we laughed out loud, not in mockery, by any means, but in triumph. A remnant of control had been seized; a small, irreverent pleasure claimed; death ignored once more.
It's just that even with this story's sad opening lines, things weren't as they seemed. Death was only a single player in a colorful cast of many more interesting characters. I came to expect so much more than sadness, and in the end I ran to them. I held dear my own small part. Their victory washed over me and cleansed me of my secret fears—of death, and of life. Their unexpected laughter gave me hope. Ultimately, nothing could have kept me away. Nothing.
Two days later, I found myself driving to the Nakatani home for the first of many interviews with Guy and his circle of family and friends. As I parked my car in front of the house, I was desperate to calm down. This was not as I had expected. Instead of being overwhelmed by the sadness of it all, I was excited, seduced by a sense of the remarkable.
Their house on Copeland Place was at the end of the street. The split-level resembled others on the block; they had been built during the sixties, when the city of San Jose had burst and spilled its residents into the morass of suburbs which now covered the perfect soil of the Santa Clara valley. I looked up at the house from the end of the driveway. Under the roofline, two long windows with half-drawn shades canopied the garage door, creating a curious effect. It was as though the house was smiling.
Along the pathway that led to the house, the grass still flourished, green and freshly cut. I walked up the steps that led to a comfortable porch and confronted the front door. As I reached for the bell, my eyes came to rest on a wooden plaque of a man swinging a golf club. It read, "Welcome to our Clubhouse: The Nakatanis." Beneath the golfer a black metal mailbox with gold trim screamed of normalcy. Two letters, stamped and addressed with a perfect hand, awaited the day's pickup. On the mailbox, a strip of plastic identified the inhabitants of this house in neat letters: "The Nakatani Family: Al, Jane, Glen, Greg, and Guy." I pondered these words—how could it be that they had not simply, mercifully, faded away?
Just in time, I remembered that Guy had told me to come in without ringing. Two steps inside the door, a voice greeted me from somewhere down a stairway to the left.
"Hel-lo-o," the voice sang, as Guy's style of greeting was established.
"Hi, Guy," I responded, aware of the rhyme.
"Did you take your shoes off?" he called. I looked down and saw a neat line of shoes, slippers, and sandals next to the door. The voice below explained. "We take our shoes off in the house, just in case you weren't aware of the Japanese tradition. We don't want to bring bad luck in on the bottom of our shoes."
As quickly as the irony grabbed me, the voice below continued, laughing. "Of course for us it didn't work!" And I laughed too, not because of the satire on life played out in a single comment, but because it was funny. I added my shoes to the end of the row.
There was no sign of Alexander or Jane. Later, I wondered if Guy had ordered them out, so that the arrangement between the two of us would be understood as Guy's thing. His father and mother had important supporting roles, but there could be only one leading man: Guy's story, Guy's legacy, produced and directed by Guy, with a little help from me.
Shoeless, I took a few steps. To the right of the large entryway was the living room, and across the room on the far wall, the three portraits. Artwork that reflected their Japanese-Hawaiian heritage clung to other walls: a Wyland painting of a family of whales, an Otsuka serigraph of a Japanese bride in her flowering headdress. To the left were shelves containing a music system, a few books, and some framed photographs. Everything was in order; no dust, none of the debris of life that cluttered my own living room.
Excerpted from HONOR THY CHILDREN by Molly Fumia. Copyright © 1997 Molly Fumia. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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A Fast Ball
Japanese Born In Hawaii
The American Way
The Things We Demand Of A Man
Weddings And Grandchildren
Measure of Success
The Oyster Club
Just Be Yourself
The Changing Season
In First Person
This Is My Son
Outsmarting The Angel
Call Me Tosh
Honor Thy Children