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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, July 20, 2003

Through tears, I see world in Dad's eyes

By Annie Nakao
Special to The Advertiser

Eichi Nakao discovered the larger world after retiring from 40 years as a carpenter and before that, a cane hauler. He is 97.

Courtesy of Nakao family

Annie Nakao, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle who was born in Honolulu, frequently comes to visit her father, who lives in Salt Lake on O'ahu.
I found my dad's old travel diary while cleaning out his room. Becoming a charwoman is the kind of thing you do when you go back home sometimes.

I cracked it open and found that it contained a detailed account of our family trip to Europe when I was about 18. At that age, you don't stop to write anything down — you just imbibe everything whole. So I relived that summer again, those brilliant Monet blooms at Luxembourg Gardens, all 287 steps up the Sir Walter Scott Memorial in Edinburgh, even the black ink marker we left open on the snow-white bedspread at the deluxe hotel in Lisbon, which ticked my mother off royally. The biggest smile came when I read his entry on the day he saw "the mighty Jungfrau," 11,333 feet up, in the Swiss Alps. "On the way it was spectacular," he wrote. "Can't say it by words."

I also feel a lump in my throat because I have just learned that my father has had a stroke, a mini-stroke of sorts, the kind that often strikes the elderly. My dad turned 97 in April. This one affected his vision, reducing his view of the world to blurry shadows.

Well, you say, it could have been worse. At least he can talk. At least he can walk. Indeed, no doctor's going to get too excited about an old guy with failing eyesight. "Well, he is 97," they would say.

But for my dad, whose visual appreciation of the physical world around him has astounded and at times confounded us through the years, it's downright crushing.

This is a man who discovered the larger world only when he retired, after 40 years of toil as a carpenter, and before that a sugar plantation worker who started hauling cane at 13.

Oh, those old eyes took in a lot back then. During World War I, he saw an effigy of the German kaiser paraded through the Big Island village of Pahoa, where he grew up. When Pearl Harbor was bombed, he saw the black smoke spiraling above Ford Island. As a young father, he looked through the lens of his new Bell and Howell movie camera to film Waikiki when it had no tall buildings. Later, he helped build a modern skyline that changed the face of Honolulu.

But it was after his retirement that he began seeing the world.

My sister, Edith, had just been hired by Pan Am, and through the family travel privileges of her job, he started jetting here and there, often in first class if there was space. Neither my late mother, with her bad feet, nor the rest of us could keep up with him.

Pop turned out to be one of those indefatigable travelers who'd hit the sidewalk as soon as he was checked in at a hotel, so as not to miss a single moment of sightseeing. "Boy, can that guy walk," noted one exhausted family friend who trailed after him up the 300 steps of the Tower of Pisa. That was his M.O., whether at Chichicastenango in Guatemala or the Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg or Yosemite.

On location, he was a tyrant with his camera, to the point where we nicknamed him Kurosawa. But his real travel mementos weren't movies. They were rocks, lots of them. Moonstones from beaches. Quartzes and obsidian from the mountains. Once, when he was flying home, I loaded his latest batch into a box for check-in. After picking it up, the porter cracked, "What have you got in here — rocks?"

I think he loved his rocks because they were physical manifestations of what he saw. Now, in his new shadowy world, it's the light switch that obsesses him. One night, he refused to go back to sleep after awakening until I guided his fingers to the black button on his bedside lamp. He can't tell now if it's on, but knowing it's there helps him sleep.

I try to take things that happen in the Buddhist way, but it doesn't always work. It breaks my heart that he can't see the world in the same way. I hope that some of his vision will return. It's not likely, but thinking that makes me feel better. So does the hope that locked somewhere in his memory is that vision of the mighty Jungfrau, still breathtaking in that crystalline sky.

This essay was reprinted with permission from the June 5 San Francisco Chronicle. Reach Annie Nakao at anakao@sfchronicle.com.