Grandpa sporting the cool kicks with his mom and dad, 1927
When people who mattered to me died I began to feel that something was required of me. Sometimes something would be required that I could do, and I did it. Sometimes when I didn’t know what was required, I still felt the requirement. Whatever I did never felt like enough. Something I knew was large and great would have happened. I would be aware of the great world that is always nearby, ever at hand, even within you, as the good book says. It’s something you would maybe just as soon not know about, but finally you learn about it because you have to.
Wendel Berry, The Requirement
This is a post in memory of Ichiro Sasaki who was born in Oakland, California on January 14, 1924 and passed away, peacefully and surrounded by family, 83 years later, on March 19, 2007. For as long as I can remember, I called him Grandpa.
— OK, so it’s not even my idea – actually, it was Ryan’s – but I think I want to be cremated and then have my ashes put into the ground and then plant a tree there …
— Awww, that’s so beautiful – a tree begins where you end. Very poetic Boogs.
— I know, right.
We were speaking in our inimitable retard voices, me and Booger, walking through the afternoon rays of light slanting down on Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery. This was weeks ago, months probably. Long before we heard about Grandpa’s rebirth of cancer, this time pancreatic. Long before the hospice care came to deliver his electric adjustable bed. Long before I’d be staring down at my grandparents’ tired carpet, hands in pockets, while Dad put on his father’s diaper and carried him to bed.
Ichiro Sasaki was not an outwardly impassioned man. But if our passions are measured by our investments of time – life’s most precious commodity – than he was incredibly passionate about music. He first learned how to play guitar at the Topaz, Utah internment camp during WWII. Justice Earl Warren would one day call his shameful support of the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII his greatest and most unforgivable mistake. But Grandpa, true to character, made the most of the injustice, learning how to play guitar and then forming a band, “The Jivesters”, which would later come to be called “The Rhythm Kings.”
My notion of Grandpa was always that of the pragmatic, retired architect. It wasn’t until he already passed away that I first saw photographs of his younger incarnation as jazz hipster.
Grandpa’s bandmate and lifelong friend of over 50 years spoke at the service. He described their time together in Topaz and how their friendship over the following decades was cemented by their mutual love for jazz. Upon returning to the Bay Area and trying to reestablish a sense of normalcy in a country that, though their own, locked them away in paranoid distrust, they turned to music.
Though Grandpa would never contemplate the connection himself, it was fitting that he returned with a fervid love for jazz, a genre which, at the time, was unmistakably Black, subversive, and counter-cultural. He and his friends would go to Sweet’s Ballroom and even strip clubs, allegedly not for the after-hours allure, but to study the genius of the performing musicians.
Why should a man certain of immortality think of his life at all?
Joseph Conrad, Under Western Eyes
Booger and I reached the end of our ascent, the apex of the hierarchy of death, where the importance of last name and class reach even into the afterlife, or at least our representation of it. We sat on a hunk of gaudy concrete engraved with the same names as Oakland’s auditoriums, plazas, and public buildings. Down below, the San Francisco Bay glistened with winter’s late afternoon sunlight and its two famous bridges.
— I don’t think there’s a heaven. Not like in the bible and stuff. I think it’s more like how … you know how Nana talks about how energy never disappears? I think it’s like that. That’s why I want a tree planted above my ashes. Cause then that’s where my energy will go.
— And the tree will spread it’s seeds, which will make new trees, and so on forever?
— Yeah, exactly.
Grandpa’s younger sister, Emiko, also spoke at the service. As a young child she would devotedly complete her older brother’s housework for a chance to go to the movies with him. They would walk thirteen blocks, down San Pablo and then Shattuck Avenue, jumping a fence along the way. Walking down the same streets my little sister and I walk down today.
One day Grandpa Ich and Auntie Emi were walking along Berkeley’s marina when they spotted fresh mussels growing on a pier post. Grandpa Ich – then just a boy – reached down to pick a few off and fell over.
“He wasn’t able to swim then yet,” Aunti Emi said at the funeral, holding back tears. “I was so scared as he bobbed up and down in the water gasping for air. I was scared that if I put my hand out to help him up, I’d fall over too. But then I found the courage and I put my hand down and was able to help him up.
“He was soaking wet and we were worried about what our parents would say if they found out. So we spent the rest of the afternoon in the shed until he dried off. My parents never knew what happened until we were both adults.”
Grandpa playing guitar with Susan, Emi’s daughter, in 1973
In today’s New York Times Magazine, Deborah Solomon’s 10 questions go to cognitive scientist Douglas Hoftadter, celebrated for his book Godel, Escher, Bach. Soloman writes, “many people believe that our lives end not when we die but when the very last person who knew us dies.”
When I first heard of Grandpa’s passing, I thought of Berry’s Requirement; of some action with which to direct my emotions. What was to be done when there is nothing to do? Too predictably, I settled on publishing something to the internet, somehow trying to transform a life into HTML. After all, no memory is more powerful than the collective subconscious of the internet.
The irony is that I am sure that Grandpa would be indifferent to his online immortality. His world view was far too uncomplicatedly zen for such existential concerns as eternal preservation. Grandpa, at his very core, was always a 10-year-old. He leaned toward pleasure and practicality, accepted responsibility, and never bothered to hide boredom or fatigue. I always complained that I could never “read him.” But the truth is, there was nothing to read into. Grandpa was just there; and for Grandpa, that was enough.
August 12, 2006