The Death of the Man Who Was an Extraordinary Island

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He dropped in on earth and stayed a while

by Gwenn Jones, CPT

September 28, 2023

The man was an island of sorts, dependent on no one. This man, true in fatherhood and friendship, was a subtle invader—unique and quietly rebellious in a world of brainless conformity. Others artlessly drifted toward him. He was never a follower.

It was 4 a.m. in a frozen, windy winter when I saw my father for the last time.

My father’s presence was a mirror of perennials. The kings of the garden that reach blooms of enrichment — guardians of protection and nutrition for others. Season after season, year after year.

A war veteran and a lifetime firefighter, he led an honorable and somewhat alluring life. A tower of patience, he held a knack for removing himself from the negative or repairing the broken and then flowing forward without complaints. Those were super talents. Friends were many and in his life forever. He was an amiable, confident, magical dude with a slightly mischievous smile that dazzled even strangers who fell under his spell.

Dads are a magical light in a daughter’s world too. We shine when they enter a room, and that room glows. And it dims a little when they leave. It’s special.

Calmness was his constant. In my life, I only saw him pushed beyond his patience twice. A drunk driver rear-ended us. The driver tried to run off, and Dad tackled him effortlessly. We three stayed in the car, glued to the entertainment, until the offender’s arrest. The second time is too wild for this narrative.

Scolding was a rarity, and I could tell he loathed it. But when a hero gave an order, you retreated and followed. Subject closed.

From nightmare to nightmare

It was 3:30 a.m. when Mom called me to come.

No, this wasn’t happening. Tall glass doors and darkness were all that greeted me in the cold. Locked. What? They’re automatic. You locked me out? I pounded on the uninviting doors of the hospital.

They’re glass so someone will see me. What are you, freakin’ closed? My father and the shining star in my life needs me. Flashes of images entered my headspace as this offhanded nightmare preceded the nightmare to come.

So many images swirled like a ribbon of beautiful days and emotional moments:

  • Trips to the zoo even when he was tired from work (two jobs). But he took my sister and me to watch the 2 p.m. lion feedings. The feeding arena was indoors; the explosive roars echoed and bounced off the metal and concrete, which was scary fun for the young and curious
  • When Sis and I crushed on a new group, he came home with the album
  • My hero taught me to swim at age 14 when childhood lessons never won over my fear of water. I was a stubborn, spineless latecomer, and there he was with perpetual patience
  • This dad instantly crafted and presented me with a cardboard award minutes after I ate my first meat sandwich when I was seven. Correction: swallowing it rather than faking, compacting, and secretly spitting it out, which I did for years. Nevermind why. It doesn’t matter
  • For work days he scheduled off for our dancing performances to manage the stage scenery—for years
  • The 37 Christmases when anything wrapped in paper launched a smile as wide as a highway

Come to the door!

Frantic, my legs were shaking. I paced both ends of the hospital’s facade and beat on the windows. My body didn’t feel the January cold, but I knew my hands were freezing because they stung from the pounding. My heart was hammering in desperation, or maybe it was anger. If I could get inside and talk to him one last time. Hurry, please hurry, there are things unsaid. The pounding grew deafening, and my voice felt lost. I felt lost. Somebody get here.

Surely it was three or four minutes, but it seemed like 30 wasted minutes that I could have spent with my dad. Finally, two security men approached, and I yelled, “My father needs me; it’s an emergency.” Without hesitation, the doors opened. Oh Lord, I’m in. Now what? I don’t want to be here. I AM here.

The silent walk of horror

The floor of the ward was long and silent just hours before the sunrise. The hallway felt like a prison, with cell doors facing both sides. I encountered no one. The brisk walk was a workout as I rushed to get to his room while wishing I wouldn’t get to his room. Mom sat poised at my dad’s bedside with a stare. Amid the silence, her head lifted to the sound of my exhale at the doorway. “He’s gone, honey.”

It was 4 a.m. when I spoke to my dad for the last time.

My touch was gentle as I stroked his smooth forehead before kissing him goodbye. I felt wordless but heard myself speak fast as if trying to capture his full attention before his spirit slid to heaven.

I thanked him for dance lessons and costumes, for coming to school basketball games, for telling me the truth even when it pinched, for trips to the zoo, for his silly stories, for being a teacher of teachers, and for being a best friend forever.

My memory was black after those precious yet impenetrable moments.

It was afternoon when I woke up on my mom’s sofa to the sounds of her gal pal, Marty, dropping off her fresh homemade enchiladas. “You need to eat,” as she hugged my mother. That night was our first complete meal in days as we listed people Mom would call.

Over the prior three months, our family oversaw Dad’s meds, sleeping journal, and nutrition. Over time, he grew quiet, screening calls, and answering only for my mom, my sister, and me. During our visits, the thoughts that roamed his head were obvious—thoughts he didn’t share. The frustration was like pulling fur off a beast. Share with me, Dad; I want to help somehow.

His 6-foot, 185-pound frame shrank to 120. Still, I clung to the hope of his recovery as if dangling from a mountainside dauntlessly awaiting rescue — HIS rescue. I prayed often.

I knew what was coming. My prayers over the past weeks went unanswered. Why, Lord, don’t you take criminals and murderers? Not my lovable Superdad.

My faith teetered and disappeared for years after that, or maybe I postponed it. It was replaced with an anger that churned in me when alone, not knowing what to do with myself. Anger, not just for myself but for the unfairness of cutting off a man’s life at the pique of his joy. No, anger for implanting agony for three months, until death.

A life’s journey short on words

Until his daughters were teenagers, my dad worked second jobs to keep us clothed and fed. I don’t remember thanking him for working so hard for us—just part of being a kid, I guess. It seemed normal back then. He must have been in constant tired mode, but there were no complaints. In fact, he was quite an active guy.

Exercise was always immersed somewhere in Dad’s hobbies. Smart? Planned? Or, maybe just a consequence of his passions. His 30s were engrossed in surfing and deep-sea diving. His 40s were spent conquering tennis. Finally, his 50s presented an intriguing duo of retirement from the firehouse and a fever for Japanese martial arts. That was perhaps the most fascinating in both choice and landscape.

There was never a longing, “in search of” mindset. Interests seemed to just drop in and captivate him, which survived the long haul. Each embraced a new environment which came with an equal alliance of dedication and study.

Dad joined a Bay Area dojo where he took lessons in Kendo sparring (with bamboo swords) and Iaido (with real swords). In two years, it was time for deeper practice. One would think he’d find another dojo that would parallel the next step. But no, his approach, and at the peak of his vitality, our subtle rebel took off for Japan.

His first journey landed him at an esteemed school for martial arts instruction. That first trip was three weeks, which he slammed as way too short. So, immediately after arriving home, he budgeted for trip number two. It happened with such fire, like a kid’s first time on a slide, where he keeps winding back to the ladder to catch the thrill over and over. My dad didn’t bunt; he hit for distance.

Upon his second trip to Japan, his sensei took to mentoring him. Sensei owned properties and offered a tiny apartment in Kyoto to my dad. The little abode was reserved for him for all his visits. It was touching, though not surprising. People drifted toward him.

Sensei and Dad formed a beautiful friendship and shared great respect. It appeared my dad encountered a rare and grander island outside himself, gifting an abundance of trees as teachers and hills and paths as guides to new challenges. This was a haven where HE would be the one to stay for a while.

An honorable surprise and near catastrophe

After Dad’s fourth-year visit, the trust Sensei placed in him sprouted an idea. The master decided to send over his two teenage daughters for a San Francisco experience.

Can you imagine what faith was imparted with this honor?

Mom did lots of cooking, Dad engrossed the girls in sightseeing, and I escorted the girls to Cirque du Soleil, brunches, and my fitness class. Giggling was constant with three noses buried in translation books, but that never hindered the fun.

The famed Golden Gate Bridge was a site the girls were intent on visiting with a vengeance. Well, not a visit, they wanted to walk across it. Just to do it. So Dad and a buddy of his—neither thrilled with the idea—braved the adventure, not quite prepared for the coming attraction.

All the wrong people

Spring weekends were hectic on the bridge. Though windy and sometimes chilly, tourists, joggers, and walkers banked the walkways until the historic sienna-red rails were buried from sight. Visitors surge over the breathtaking views where the bridge cuts the Pacific Ocean from the San Francisco Bay, and it’s a stunner. Fun was to be had as the trek began.

Then not. 

The girls dissolved into the crowd. They were gone.

Rick and Dad were spooked. Where were they? With no phones and just feet to the pavement, the search was on, hard and fast. An hour passed, people passed, and more people passed. All the wrong people. Not two Japanese teenagers in a strange city on the other side of the globe amid a swollen sea of noise, crowds, and colorful ball caps. The men walked faster through this mile-long bad dream over the bay; their eyes scanned everywhere, and the sweat built.

That hour lasted forever, and my dad burned with panic. And Dad never panicked.

Finally, the girls approached laughing, outright tickled about their adventure. My father knew a little Japanese, but nothing close to being enlightened or remotely interested in the girls’ chatter about their journey into the abyss. He didn’t care. They were safe. (Next time, take the ferry.)

Later, the bridge scare became a hysterical tale. Storyteller, Dad, described, “How the hell do I tell sensei I lost his kids on the Golden Gate Bridge?” We all laughed until we peed.

The girls stayed for two weeks and returned safely to their parents in Osaka. Hopefully, they left out the hour of drama on the world-famous tower bridge with the curvy cables.

Shut up; he’s retired

Japan trips and martial arts practice continued with vigor and anticipation for Dad. Six months of the year were spent in Japan, and six at home. Because when you’re retired, you can do that. This was my father’s avid life for six years, and he treasured every moment.

Their next-door neighbor once asked my mom, “How can you let Larry do that?” Her reply was delicious and uncommon, “I don’t LET him do anything, he does what makes him happy.” I heard that shut her up.

Both my parents were non-conformists, and I’m glad I inherited that because it’s a trait that makes you think a touch longer before making decisions, in my opinion.

Eventually, Dad ranked 3rd dan in kendo. (Dan’s are skill levels like ‘belts’ in karate.) It was my understanding that non-Japanese students often don’t rise above 2nd or 3rd dan, which is customary in the teaching. And non-Japanese instructors don’t rise above 6th or 7th dan. That considered, a student reaching 3rd dan was a BFD indeed.

Letters to us were filled with stories of Japanese friends, food, jazz, and sightseeing. Japan became his winter home, where the arts carried him. I missed him but never worried. I knew in his sanctuary he was protected, fostered, and happy.

The shortest trip

It was late August when we met for dinner before he caught his flight to Japan the next day. Sushi and saki were usually our norm on Thursday nights after teaching my class, but tonight it was Mexican. It was tasty, but he didn’t eat much. Maybe the anticipation of the long flight shook his appetite.

By mid-September, three weeks into his trip, he sought help for a continual stomach ache. Japanese doctors eventually sent him home. They could not continue to see him as a patient since he was not a Japanese citizen and the healthcare system there differed. (I’m not savvy in that realm.)

Once home, he had doctor visits and tests, and then he called. My father had stomach cancer. Thoughts whipped in and out of my head, and I tripped up epically trying to find positive words, pissed at myself because I found nothing. Shock, sorrow, and terror hit me quickly. I was clumsy and far from fast on my feet to cope with this evil assault on my father’s body and soul.

For days thoughts were like chewing on bones. My belly was in knots, and my heart hurt so terribly. There will be surgery, recovery, then back to Japan. My best girlfriend, who had three kids, just survived breast cancer and a mastectomy the month before. Dad will survive too. Yes, he’s next.

Chemo began, but it was iffy since where the disease originated was unknown. Identifying the cancer’s origin was key to chemotherapy treatments. His doctors didn’t know if this invasive storm would grow into a typhoon or dissipate with the treatment. I waited. We all waited. The typhoon was true to its meaning. It circulated, and it traveled.

The island where others flocked

I can’t say he died doing what he loved, because he didn’t. I resent that his passing wasn’t quick and painless, because it wasn’t.

For years after he passed, my wholeness felt like I was more of what I lost than what I achieved. It was an atmospheric blend of questions without answers, and sadness lacking a fade. I still don’t understand it, as I was a grown woman who crumbled under the damage and resentment like a child being overly punished. A child grieving a loss… left bitter.

The sense of loss can last for decades. For example, years after a parent dies, the bereaved may be reminded of the parent’s absence at an event they would have been expected to attend. This can bring back strong emotions, and require mourning yet another part of the loss. (Explained from Cancer.org; American Cancer Society)

Sensei and his family had to be told. The letter he sent back to me was from a broken-hearted man. He, a sanctuary himself in Dad’s second world, was now suffering his own hurricane.

My Dad was the island to which others flocked to experience elation and adventure. As they returned home, he stayed.

Dad’s lessons were taught to his family and friends without words but with his truth in example. To be in his life, one appreciated that detours and nonconformities were completely natural. They were refreshing occurrences by osmosis if you were a true partner. That’s what our family was—unwavering partners at every turn.

It was 4 a.m. when I kissed my dad for the last time. The spell was broken.

Sushi and saki nights are gone, and a mountain of unsettled grief is still inside me. I find comfort in teaching, which circles me around the sadness, where I become a normal human holding it all together for others. Is this a strength or a weakness? I’m not sure.

My dad lived his dream for six years before he left Earth that January. This exceptional soul is at peace, for which I’m grateful. He gave his whole heart to his family. But one loving slice of it hovers over a brother island, Japan.

Aren’t they lucky?

Stuffed teddy bear given to my dad after an injured leg
Image by author. A teddy bear with a bandaged leg after my dad repelled down a building (too quickly) and injured himself. Mom said I gave it to him. I don’t remember.
Gwenn Jones, wellness content writer, certified personal trainer (California)
Article by:

Gwenn Jones, CPT — Content writer in Wellness-Lifestyle-Fitness, Gwenn is a 25-year ACE-certified personal fitness trainer, yoga studio owner, instructor and fitness consultant. Grateful to be a native Californian where happily home-based.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team, “Grief and Bereavement.”  Cancer.org, May 10, 2019, https://www.cancer.org/cancer/end-of-life-care/grief-and-loss/grieving-process.html 

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