The following is an excerpt of the essay “Secrets of the Sun” from Every Father’s Daughter: Twenty-four Women Writers Remember Their Fathers. It is reprinted by permission of the author, Mako Yoshikawa.
My father’s memorial service was held in December of 2010, in a Hyatt hotel on the strip mall–lined highway that connects the prettiest and most idyllic of all college towns, Princeton, to the rest of the world. Outside, where a parking lot went on almost as far as the eye could see, a cold fitful rain fell. Inside, the air was musty and stagnant, and despite valiant stabs at elegance—a red carpet, an oversized chandelier, and a mirror covering one wall—the gathering place looked all too clearly like what it was, an overcrowded multi-purpose conference room. My father, Shoichi Yoshikawa, had been an eminent physicist and an international leader in fusion energy research in America and his native Japan, and he had worked at his Princeton University lab for more than forty years before being pushed into early retirement in 2000. But he was arrogant and disagreeable, famously bad at working with others, and my sisters and I considered ourselves lucky that as many as fifty-odd mourners—neighbors, friends, and colleagues, as well as our mother, who had flown in from England for the weekend—had turned out for the event.
On the center table, alongside a few flower arrangements, we had placed two framed photos. Shoichi had died at seventy-six, and in his last decade he had been skinny in all the wrong places and bloated everywhere else. His gaze was unfocused and his hands shook; although he had inherited a fortune as well as a parking lot in Tokyo from his father in Japan, he hated to spend money, and tended to dress in clothes he had bought by the boxful from the flea markets he loved to frequent—illfitting, cheaply made shirts and slacks from a wide assortment of eras and styles. In the first photo, which was taken about a year before his death, the unhealthy color and puffiness of his face has been magically transformed into the rosy glow and plumpness of prosperity. He wears a beautiful navy suit jacket, a crisp white shirt, and a red power tie, and his white hair is glossy and full; he gazes up and to his right, serenely, a small smile on his lips.
In the second photo—unearthed by us from the chaos of his home, the same cramped, University-owned ranch house we had grown up in—he is maybe three years old. Dressed in a kimono, he stands on a chair, clutching its back for support. His hair is cut in a bowl shape; his ears stick almost straight out; his eyes are wide-set and alert.
You can see the quality of his kimono in the fineness of its design, which is abstract and swirling; the seat cushion he stands on is covered in rich brocade and would do an emperor’s posterior proud.
He had had a long-term heart condition, but his death, a month earlier, was unexpected, and I had been taken aback at the thickness of the fog I found myself in afterward—indeed, at the fact I was in a fog at all. In his younger days my father had been capable of charm and even sweetness, but even back then he had a vicious streak that could catch you out, and over the years he became increasingly violent and abusive at home. In 1982, when I was 15, my mother finally left him, moving my sisters and me out during one of his long trips to Japan, and after that I saw him rarely.
He was a manic depressive, but unhappy beyond his depressive spells. Despite some professional success, during his last three decades he had been deeply, poisonously aware that what he had done was a fraction of what he, a man of singular gifts, could have achieved. By contrast, the failures of his personal life—his turbulent first marriage to my mother; his second, marginally less dysfunctional marriage to a woman who had died; the long string of short-term girlfriends, lovers, and flings that had followed, and his all-but-nonexistent relationship with his daughters—seemed to disturb him little, if at all.
By the day of the memorial I knew that the fog I was in could not be grief. Pity, more like, along with confusion and probably guilt. My father was someone I had loved and feared as a child, hated as a teen, and foresworn as a young adult. In my early thirties, when my first novel had finally been accepted for publication and I was brimming over with good will to all, I contacted him and we reconnected, eventually falling into the schedule—cards at birthdays and Christmas, and lunch or dinner every three to four years—we maintained until his death. He was over 60 by then, with most of the arrogance and fight beaten out of him, and as we built up a small store of stilted conversations about science fiction, his latest travails with women, and the quality of the Japanese food we were eating, I began to see him as more broken than monstrous.
Now, in my mid-forties, I was close to my mother, secure in my friendships, fulfilled by my writing and teaching career and, after a number of failed relationships and many years of being single, finally happily married. I would not miss my father, I told myself at the memorial, nor would I wish him back. And I was right about that—but it was grief, even though it was months before I could recognize it, even though I reach for the subjunctive now to name its source: the man he could have been, a relationship he and I might have had.
Seven of my father’s colleagues had asked to eulogize him, and eager to fill seats, my sisters and I had said yes to all of them. At the service they stood up one by one, aging men in crumpled suits, and spoke with almost palpable nostalgia of the same heady time: the nineteen-sixties and ’seventies, when their lab, a top center for fusion research, overflowed with bright young men fired by the conviction that the discovery of a limitless, non-polluting energy source lay within their grasp. And in that company, they said, Shoichi Yoshikawa stood out—the best, most daring and dazzling thinker of them all, and the most idealistic, too. One speaker said that while they had all cared about the hope that fusion offered, my father’s commitment and passion had put them to shame. According to another, in the early sixties Shoichi had turned down a career in the budding field of computers, despite his certainty that it was the wave of the future, because he’d been equally sure he could create a clean energy source and had deemed that the more vital step for mankind.
I felt a pang—I had never thought to ask my father why he had chosen fusion or, for that matter, physics—and I wondered, too, if the speakers felt bitter as well as wistful about the years they had devoted to their cause. But sitting in the front row in a good black jacket with my hair pinned up, my mother’s mother’s locket at my throat and my own carefully crafted eulogy clenched tight in my hands, I could pay little heed to their words. I knew few specifics about my father’s work. If I had visited the lab in its heyday, I could not recall it. I did poorly in high school algebra, a failing for which he punished me with two pale blue knots along my jawline and a bump the size of a sand dollar on the back of my head; and I grew up to be a novelist with a ham-fisted grasp of numbers: when I asked about his research, he greeted my questions with impatience laced with contempt. What I did know was that my father had hungered for glory, and that the Nobel Prize was the goal around which he built his life. His colleagues were taking advantage of the eulogist’s license to exaggerate and, even, manufacture positive attributes, as I, the last speaker, was about to do.
I had been with my mother and sisters through the weekend of the memorial. Afterward we dispersed: my mother back to England, where she lives with my stepfather, and my sisters to California, where they work—one as a yoga teacher with a thriving practice, the other as a director in a high-powered internet company—and raise families. I stayed on the East Coast, where I live with my husband, a filmmaker, and teach and write.
Through the winter I could not sleep, relax, or think well. It was well into spring before I understood there might be a way out. Part of what was bothering me was that my father had never cared about my sisters and me, not in comparison to his work. But what if his colleagues had been telling the truth? If I could believe that my father’s devotion to physics and fusion had been born out of hope and idealism rather than a desire for the Nobel Prize, the memory of his indifference, I thought, might trouble me less. Surely it was one thing to be thrown over for the possibility of personal glory, and quite another to be sacrificed for the world and all its future generations.
“Secrets of the Sun” first appeared in Southern Indiana Review. It is reprinted by permission of the author (copyright (c) 2012 by Mako Yoshikawa) and McPherson & Company from the anthology Every Father’s Daughter: Twenty-four Women Writers Remember Their Fathers. Mako is the author of the novels One Hundred and One Ways and Once Removed, and is a professor of creative writing at Emerson College in Boston. She will be at Brookline Booksmith at 4pm on May 23 to read simultaneously with women writers across America whose essays appear in Every Father’s Daughter.