Essay, March 2020

Twenty minutes into the sauna, after I’ve built up a good sweat, my dad takes a seat to my left. The sauna has a window in the front, and a digital panel, but besides that it’s a wooden box, barely big enough for the both of us. Last year I came home and it was here.

I use the sauna once a day usually, followed by a cold shower, since the shelter-in-place order. “It’s a slow burn,” my brother said to me at the beginning of the quarantine.

But I’ve grown to appreciate this place, San Ramon. Where the houses end, the hills begin, and they go as far as the eye can see. I’ve always needed hills. When we lived in Oakland I often drove to a sauna in Berkeley with my dad just to get a taste of them. The border between the cities is nestled somewhere in the eucalyptus groves. On cold nights sometimes it rained and we never acknowledged it.

It’s always strange to see him, my father, naked; there’s something ancient about it, like staring at a fire, which everyone talks about. No one seems to talk about seeing their naked father. People say I look like him, but it’s hard to tell. His face is so deep in my mind. He asks me a question.

“So what do you think about when you’re meditating?” He normally doesn’t ask about why people do things. His eyes stay closed, his posture erect.

I wait for a nonverbal clarification and receive none. I choose my words carefully: “It’s not so important what you think, it’s about letting go of identifying with your thoughts, just observing your thoughts and your body and how both appear in your consciousness together.” I think I’ve lost him.

He clears his throat, “When I meditate I try to imagine I’m in the middle of a lake.”

That’s not meditation, that’s avoidance, I think. But I keep my mouth shut. You learn to keep your mouth shut around someone like my dad. Not that he’s severe (not that he’s not), but I never forgot the times he gave me the good apple and ate the bruised one without a word. Silent love breeds silent respect.

I try to return to meditation but soon give up; I could never do things with people observing, especially him. I’ve just recently developed the ability to shoot baskets with my brother without succumbing to that tension that begins in the heart, grips the stomach, and bubbles at the tear ducts. I feel this tension now, eye it closely and suspiciously. Fear has a way of backing off when you look at it, but this one holds my gaze, like a cat.

“There must have been some Buddhists around when you were in Korea, no? You never had family with Buddhist leanings?” The verbal burst surprises me.

“There were a few, but they never made much of an impression on me.”

“Most were Christian.”

“Most were Christian.” We sit for a moment, think about this.

A few days ago, I guess because we’re all together as a nuclear family for what’s probably the last time, my parents decided to show us where we came from. After dinner we gathered around one side of the table looking at photographs of my dad’s dad.

“He really was a great man. I wish you could have met him,” my dad said, as we looked at this distantly familiar face, always grinning confidently and always the center of attention, singing at a wedding or giving a speech before a soccer game or leaning into a circle of men in suits. A long shot from my father and me in this respect.

In my 22 years these photographs had never been revealed to me. I had no idea my grandfather had fought in the Vietnam War, for one. And I’d never heard this story about my uncle’s mischief, cued by a photograph of my dad and his brother as toddlers:

Now your Uncle Hahn was always a troublemaker. You have to remind yourselves that in Korea at the time – it was a village society. Kids were free to move around, they would get into a lot of trouble. And they would be back home by dinner, or not, and everyone collectively watched out for them. Hahn was always getting into fights and one day when he was five, or six, or seven, he came home especially banged up, because an older kid was bullying his friends and he kicked him in the shins. Hahn ended up going to that kid’s house and breaking their biggest window with a rock. The bully’s dad chased Hahn all the way home, where they came face-to-face with my dad. His dad, hysterical, basically cussed my dad out. My dad stood there, nodding and smiling, then said simply, “How much?” The bully’s dad, taken aback, stated the price, my dad handed him the money without a word, and he left. Hahn was expecting a beating (remember again that this was Korea), but my dad never so much as brought it up again.

Or this one (in America):

If you remember, my dad’s philosophy had always been to teach us to drink sensibly at home before it becomes a problem. Of course those problem years come eventually, and my dad never had a curfew for me either. But every time I went out and came home drunk, no matter what time it was, he would be awake, reading, or doing paperwork. And when I walked in, he would embrace me, say goodnight, and go to sleep, waking up early for work the next day. After a few times I got the picture.

We spent a few hours looking at these photos, getting progressively drunker. In the end it was just my dad and me. There was a large colored photograph of my grandfather, older now, surrounded by his immediate and distant relatives, probably 40 of them, in a mix of Korean dress and Western suits. None of them were smiling.

“Do you understand why I’m the way I am now?”

A bit on the nose, but I nodded. I kept my eyes on the photograph, got lost in the faces.

He wipes sweat from his forehead.

“Yup, Christianity seems to be the religion of the masses.” He’s indirectly referring to my mom. “It comforts people to know they’re taken care of.”

“Mhm, I know, they want to think that they’re an eternal soul that moves forward into a blissful eternity. And it just takes a few minutes of sitting with your eyes closed to realize that the self is an illusion.”

He meets the show of arrogance with silence. I can’t tell whether or not to continue.

“You sound skeptical.”

“No, no, no,” he says with a conciliatory rise in tone. “It’s just hard to get there for me, lately. With this fucking lawsuit and everything. That fucking Lisa bitch.” Lisa is Uncle Hahn’s ex-wife.

He settles down. “Actually my dad had some Buddhist inclinations. But mostly intellectual,” he circles back.

What does my dad like? He likes poker, drinking, cigars, the things he’s supposed to like. He likes tasks in the backyard. He likes movies like The Godfather and Gladiator and Ben-Hur. He likes reading thrillers and keeping up with business-relevant news. He likes talking business – he only talks business. He likes scoffing and saying the word “stupid” as a sentence. He likes spending time with the four of us.

He spends a lot time with me, the second. (He’s also a second son. His dad was the first son of a first son of a first son, I think to the 10th degree or something. Michael Corleone is a third, and Genghis Khan was a second.) We hike or drive to the sauna. I go to get closer to the world; he goes to deliver himself from it – the same reason that he drinks, and reads “mindless” (his words) thrillers, and thinks about the middles of lakes. We can usually agree on silence, though.

I watched The Godfather Part II a few months ago, alone in my room across the country from my dad – he loves that movie the way he only loves John Grisham novels and westerns. I recognized the particular romance at once, the romance of the man who does what he has to do, does it effectively, at whatever cost. The romance of gravitas, competence, and brutal charisma. “Life is business, business is war,” my dad always says. Still, it offended me to see Michael Corleone’s family fall apart, to see him knock his wife Kay onto the couch before excommunicating her, to see him standing at the window while his soldier puts a bullet in his brother Fredo’s head, in the middle of a lake.

I didn’t think about it again until Easter, when my mom put on a sermon called “The Prodigal Sons.” Against my better judgement I found it captivating. It never occurred to me that a father running to embrace his son and kissing him would have seemed so unusual and effeminate to Jesus’s followers. Or that the main takeaway from the story was not the celebration of the prodigal son but the resentment of the obedient son, as his father calls for the slaughtering of a fattened calf on behalf of his detestable brother.

“You can almost hear the listeners gasp as the story ends. The lover of prostitutes enters the kingdom of God, and the moral man does not.” And later: “You must repent not only for your bad deeds but for the reasons behind your good deeds.”

And here, the thought of The Godfather popped into my mind, in the form of a question: Michael Corleone, is he the delinquent or the moral man? He never wanted to be a part of the family business – but he knows where he came from. And more important, he feels it. It wells up as a calm, murderous rage, and it is home.

The final shot of him reclining in the very image of an Italian mobster, with slicked back hair and a superciliously detached gaze, in the image of his father Vito Corleone… it was unavoidable from the start. Who he is depends on who his father is.

So, my father, to my left, is he the prodigal son or the obedient son? And what of his father? And what of me? The parable ends abruptly at the condemnation; we never see what happens to their children.

I look at my father’s face, silent, eyes closed, and it’s difficult to make the simple judgment that we all look for: is he good or is he bad?

Is it wrong for me to hope, either way, that he dances in the kingdom of God?

As I ruminate, he stands up and leaves without a word.